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Text: Rutger Vahl
Picture: Tilburg University
JADS: Looking for the underlying question
Algorithms – mathematical instructions which enable computers to perform some useful function – are playing an increasingly important part in our everyday lives. They are used to determine what information or advertisements we see when we browse the internet. But it doesn’t stop here. Using statistical data on reoffending rates, algorithms can also be used to decide whether certain prisoners should qualify for parole.
Insight in algorithms
In association with telecoms provider KPN, which has a huge volume of anonymized data about its customers, JADS is researching the mechanisms behind the algorithms. “Algorithms are now practically everywhere but we do not yet fully understand how they work or the influence of the human factor: the programmers who write the code,” says Arjan van den Born, director of JADS. “Using KPN’s data, our students can conduct in-depth research.”
The digital news kiosk
Van den Born sees this project as a good example of what JADS hopes to achieve through collaboration with the private sector. “It is fundamental research with no immediate practical application. Nevertheless, the knowledge we gain today will undoubtedly prove its worth in time, purely because algorithms are of such immense importance. Every new insight will help us make progress.” The KPN project also demonstrates that most of the companies which opt to work with JADS do not expect immediate results. That said, KPN does have a clear interest in the research. “KPN is already a knowledge leader in the field of algorithms and it wishes to maintain that position. It also wants to meet talented students who will be looking for a challenging career in the not-too-distant future,” says van den Born.
Another research project involves the digital ‘news kiosk’ Blendle. Blendle wants to be able to suggest articles that readers are likely to find interesting. “Algorithms are particularly good at predicting what is likely to appeal to the individual user. If you mostly read articles in liberal publications such as Vrij Nederland, the suggestions will focus on articles by liberal or left-wing journalists. This is known as the ‘filter bubble’. The trick is to ensure that the algorithms also offer something that is new to you: perhaps an Elsevier article about a topic outside your regular sphere of interest but one which you may nevertheless find worthwhile.”
The level of cooperation to which JADS aspires is noteworthy. In the past, it was chiefly the technology programs which sought contact with the private sector, and usually for student internships. Today, the social and economic disciplines are also discovering the added value of collaboration. “The challenge is to offer students the opportunity to conduct research of appropriate depth,” Van den Born continues. “Some companies contact us with basic consultancy questions such as ‘how can we increase turnover?’ or ‘how do we open up new markets?’ That is not the sort of research that our students want or need. Once we meet with these companies, however, we often find that there are deeper, underlying questions to be answered. For example, a company may have amassed a large quantity of data without knowing how it can use that information to support innovation.”
“The trick is to ensure that the algorithms also offer something that is new to you.”Arjan van den Born, director of JADS
Book about Game Changers
Van den Born is co-author of the book Game Changers. “It examines Dutch companies which have single-handedly changed the traditional rules of their respective sectors. In many cases, startups are the real game changers. The large, established organizations have become used to doing things in a particular way and are unable or unwilling to change. ProcessGold and Celnis are both examples of startups which have devised new ways of optimizing processes through automation. They have ‘changed the game’ of the traditional consultancy companies. We have found that startups like to collaborate with educational institutes such as JADS, not only to attract new talent but also to find answers to more fundamental questions for which they do not have the time or resources.”