HANNOVER, Germany—Actively seeking out real innovators, especially at a massive trade show such as CeBIT 2014, can leave one feeling a little like Diogenes seeking an honest man. But perhaps it’s better to remember Diogenes as the cynic that he was. When I encounter companies claiming to be real innovators, I too want to find the honest man.
Fortunately, when I came upon the Code_n exhibit at CeBIT, much of my work had been already done. Code_n is a global competition that looked for the best proposals for 50 innovative companies to feature at the show. The Code_n organizers had sifted through hundreds of applications to find the 50 best and bring them to CeBIT, where the top innovator would be chosen. As I walked among the displays in Halle 16, I reminded myself that these companies had already been vetted.
In previous years at CeBIT, some of the reputed innovators displaying their wares looked liked kids whose high school science fair project didn’t make it to the finals. Not this year. I was finding actual innovation and, even better, some that looked useful.
Take Big Data Scoring, for example. This is a company that has figured out how to come up with credit scores for people and cultures where traditional credit scores are hard to come by or non-existent.
According to CEO Erki Kert, there are places where no unique identifier for a person exists, let alone a credit agency. Unlike in the United States, where everyone has a Social Security number and a file with the credit-reporting agencies, those numbers and agencies don’t exist everywhere, especially in developing countries. So the engineers had to find some agency that had the capability of having a unique identifier and some means of determining how responsible a person might be.
The source for that information turned out to be Facebook. Every Facebook user name is unique, and everything in a Facebook profile applies to that person only. The software looks at things as diverse as when you look at Facebook, what kind of items you post, who your friends are and what they’re like.
This means if you are employed, but your friends are not, then a lender might worry that you might adopt their habits. Likewise, the software looks at your profile, the kind of posts you put on Facebook, how many likes you have and how many likes you have on other people’s pages. Big Data Scoring was able to correlate the Facebook scores with data from the world’s major credit reporting bureaus to confirm its findings.
CeBIT Code_n Exhibit Shows Why Useful Innovation Is the Best Kind
If all of this sounds like the things your parents used to look at when you were in high school, you’d be right. But if you look at the penetration of Facebook, you can see that it covers areas of the world without a strong credit economy.
This means people in such areas could actually get some kind of credit score. It can also mean that people in the United States who don’t have a credit history have a chance of getting a score. This product has the potential of changing the lives of people now, and it may change whole economies in the not-so-distant future.
At CartoDB, innovation comes from a different direction. It’s a company that plumbs the depths of public big data to find ways to correlate events and geospatial data. You can, for example, watch a tweet spread globally across the world or you can look at the accumulated knowledge about a favorite restaurant using FourSquare. You can design your own map-based reports using a variety of public data sources, and you can adjust the resulting maps so they can be printed, used in publications or inserted into presentations.
What’s nice about CartoDB is that you get to control what data you use, how the presentation should look and how it should be presented. What CartoDB does is make all of that data accessible in a way that’s eminently usable. CartoDB is so useful, in fact, that it counts some real heavy-hitters in its customer base. You’ll find it’s being used by National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal and even NASA and the Federal Communications Commission.
How easy is this product to use? Marketing director Sergio Álvarez showed me how to use CartoDB to track tweets about Justin Bieber in a few keystrokes. Developers can also use CartoDB to embed mapping into other applications.
There were other standouts besides these. Graphmasters says it can use archived traffic data along with real-time data to route traffic around highway congestion. The company claims that it can cut traffic congestion in half in major cities, such as Washington, D.C., where traffic is usually at a standstill. Deltasight says it can determine trends in innovation before they happen by analyzing public corporate and research data.
This is not to suggest that the other 46 companies in the Code_n event this year were duds, because they weren’t. In fact, the participants had done work that seemed impressive. Some were in markets that are more limited, but no less important, and some were simply not far enough along in development. But the good news is that innovation is alive and well at CeBIT. Unlike some searches for innovation that have left me feeling discouraged, this year I found excitement, and that’s good.