In this episode of ‘In Conversation With,’ Ravi Srivatsav (CPO and CBDO at NTT i3) joins Professor Stuart Evans at the 2017 Emirates Travel Hackathon in Silicon Valley. The topic: the changing relationship between technology companies, city government, and citizens

(“In Conversation With” is a video series where NTT i3 executives engage in conversation with some of our most visionary partners at NTT’s Operating Companies and global enterprise customers, futurists, and leading Silicon Valley technologists, entrepreneurs, and researchers. The explorations may be around current and near future developments in IoT, big data analytics, machine learning, AI, network virtualization, and security. At times, we also investigate the human impact of technology and the role our values and culture have on how we decide to use what we are inventing.)



Professor Stuart Evans, it’s always a pleasure to sped time with you. We are at an amazing facility – the RobotXSpace – for an Emriates hackathon focused on travel. At NTT i3 we’ve been participating in quite a few hackathons both in the US and across the globe, and we’ve won a few in the areas of mobility, machine learning, and healthcare.  Today, it’s an incredible honor for us to be here at this hackathon.

I want to understand a little bit more about the partnership between Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and Emirates Airlines.  This weekend is the 5th hackathon in an ongoing series.  We’re excited to be part of it.



Ravi, thank you for being here and for NTT i3 being a sponsor of the event. You’re right, this is the 5th hackathon that we’ve done. The first was held Microsoft’s Research Lab was the first one. Then we also held hackathons in Dubai, Singapore, and at Runway in SF.  Today we have participation from Facebook, CMU design students from Pittsburgh, Salesforce’s Einstein, and Intel’s Nirvana platform.

In the past, we’ve had the teams focus on coming up with a startup idea  – and you know that really takes more than 2 days to do that.  So we took a different approach today. With our focus on machine learning, we actually gave the data out ahead of time. Emirates gave us data on 250k passengers and JetBlue on 1M passengers.

We’re late in the afternoon and I can already see the difference in the level of intellectual engagement.  The noise level is not the cacophony of just talking about ideas, but sitting and working with the data.



So Professor Evans, I’m personally very excited about this space of applying machine learning and AI in solving some of the challenges in the airline or other industries.

And I personally believe that machine learning needs to become second nature for every developer in the next 5 years. In fact, I was talking with a colleague of mine a few days ago about just this topic, What was mobile 5 years ago? It was an afterthought. Now it’s a primary requisite. And I think going forward into the next 3-5 years, components of machine learning will be built into our programming models.

At a hackathon, you cam start to take a data set, apply certain models, see what intelligence you can gather out of it, and then apply certain creative models to actually solve a problem. But what happens for the enterprise after the hackathon? At the hackathon you may come up with the brilliant idea, but an enterprise typically has a half-life period associated with those ideas, because you have business as usual to carry forth. And that’s a challenge.

Startups and products don’t get built in a couple of days, but the seed exists. So from your perspective working with Emirates – what are the challenges that you are trying to solve today and how does this impact the business?



A number of things you said resonate with me.  We’re working on 3 different problems today..

  1. The first challenge is around frequent flyers. We have 70M of them – but some of them have moved, so we don’t know where their home city is anymore. From the Emirates and JetBlue datasets we want to be able to infer information about their home city and destinations – so instead of just feeding them things from back home, we can provide them relevant information in real time as to where they are going.
  2. The second challenge has to do with pricing and demand forecasting. Event driven activity does have an impact and seasonality is actually quite strong in the airline business. And then we see that spontaneous events do impact the way people think about traveling. It’s important to look at how to effectively price in a non-standardized way based on insights from the data is a real problem that revenue folks want to have insights into.
  3. The third problem was about attribution. We want to look at the question of: What were the influences on the passengers that caused them to buy a ticket?

All three of these are very real problems for revenue generation.



NTT i3 has participated in several hackathons over the years. And the time at a hackathon is like an intense baptism. You come in, you have some really amazing ideas, you solve a problem. But then when you take it back to the enterprise, it can die if you don’t prepare the organization for it. Organizational change is an important part of the innovation equation.

Hackathons are not just for startups, but also but for the enterprise. The enterprise has to adopt a new culture within – where it is as much about people, organizational structure, and culture as it is about the technology you carry.



The big problem is how to make the organization receptive to new ideas so that you are not ‘planting them in sand’ – that even if watered by the senior executives – there’s no way the ideas are going to grow.



So Professor Evans, we are beyond startup pitch decks here at this hackathon. This is where the rubber meets the road with real code and real models. I do feel the level of intensity here. The energy and awareness of machine learning are high. The conversation levels seem to have changed from previous hackathons that we have been a part of.



It is a different energy hereI think the energy level is exponentially more focused on iterating as opposed to trying to sell a pitch deck and an idea that you’ve had 24 hours to develop. It’s so excitingI honestly think we are on precipice of a whole new world that’s going to be brought about by machine learning.



That is true. It’s been an incredible honor to speak with you. Thanks again to CMU and Emirates for allowing NTT i3 to be a sponsor of this hackathon.



Thank you. Lovely to have this conversation and I look forward to the next one. I wish you happy hacking. Cheers.

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