Summer, Spartans, Spark and Sprightly – Weekend Reading: June 10 edition

 |   Susanna Ray

“S” is for summer – and for Spartans, Spark and Sprightly, three super subjects this week that you won’t want to have missed. (See what we did there?) But first, let’s talk about the terrific trickle-down effect that’s in full swing in the field of data visualization.

Seattle broadcaster KING 5 made Puget Sound voters the first in the nation to get a real-time, in-depth look at their local civic process by harnessing the computing power of new, off-the-shelf technology that’s now available to anyone in the world. Thanks to Microsoft’s Power BI data visualization tool and Surface Hub 64-inch touch screen, the station was able to drill down into the results of Washington state’s May 24 presidential primary and share insights county by county, even as votes were being tallied.

That kind of capability is a prime example of gains made in the accessibility of data and the technology to analyze and share it, and it heralds a new era in political reporting for local broadcasters.

“This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but it’s never been possible before at the local level, only for the networks, who’ve spent gobs of money on custom software packages that are well beyond local TV capabilities,” says Peter O’Connell, executive producer for special projects at KING 5. He’s been covering elections since 1976, when there were no electronic graphics and TV stations just put numbers on boards and filmed them.

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Spartans to the rescue! The supersoldiers of the popular Halo video game franchise will swoop in and brave unpredictable dangers as they do whatever it takes to complete their assignments – much like the elite engineering team they’re named after (or is it the other way around? Hmm…), the Special Projects and Resources Team.

These Spartans are always ready to go where they’re needed and dive into building a brand-new technology, solving a problem or otherwise using their varied expertise to help get an important job done. The 14-member squad will expand to about 20 in the coming weeks to tackle different areas across Microsoft’s Information Platform Group.

“It doesn’t matter what category it is,” says Shaiwal Singh, a principal group engineering manager who was tapped to start the Spartans a few years ago and has led them ever since. “As long as it is critical and aligned to the success strategy of our division’s mission and vision, we are on top of it.”

Phew!

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Turning from supersoldiers to superscouters: Microsoft researchers say web search data could help diagnose serious illness earlier, including diseases such as particularly deadly pancreatic cancer, for which early diagnosis is key to survival.

In a paper published Tuesday in the Journal of Oncology PracticeEric Horvitz and Ryen White, along with former Microsoft intern and Columbia University doctoral candidate John Paparrizos, detailed how they were able to identify 5 percent to 15 percent of cases by scouting for signals about patterns of queries in search logs, using anonymized data.

This type of sleuthing shows the feasibility of a new form of screening that could ultimately allow patients and their physicians to diagnose pancreatic cancer and begin treatment weeks or months earlier than they otherwise would have.

“We are excited about applying this analytical pipeline to other devastating and hard-to-detect diseases,” Horvitz said.

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And from superscouters to superstylers: Sprightly, a Microsoft Garage app, now can help small- and medium-sized businesses quickly design and create professional-quality digital content on their own — without the need to hire designers. It was introduced on Android in February and is now available on iOS in a much-requested development that delivers a mobile-only way to make fliers, catalogs, multiple price lists, e-cards and discount coupons.

Another Garage app that’s now available on iOS is Kaizala, the hub for small- and medium-sized businesses in India to track activities such as managing bills and assigning jobs, and to chat with teams, partners and customers, keeping the conversations in one place. The app will be rolled out to other countries soon.

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And lastly, from superstylers to supersummiters! Thousands of people gathered in San Francisco this week for Spark Summit to explore and understand how they leverage Apache Spark to get the most out of big data. Microsoft announced an extensive commitment for Spark to power the big data and analytics offerings including Cortana Intelligence SuitePower BI and Microsoft R Server.

In apps this week, Bank of America expands mobile bank offerings on Windows 10 mobile devices, tablets and PCs, allowing customers to use voice commands in Cortana to look up account balances, get to the screens to pay bills or transfer money, find the nearest banking locations and contact customer service.

Play a wide range of free games from your phone with Microsoft BizSpark member’s Last 2 Left app, which dubs itself the world’s simplest fantasy format game for sports, reality TV and more.

And crack a case with Judy Hopps, the first rabbit to join the police force in “Zootopia,” an all-animal metropolis – even if it means teaming up with Nick Wilde, a smooth-talking scam artist fox. You can enjoy this animated comedy adventure across all your devices via the Disney Movies Anywhere app.

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This week on the Microsoft Facebook and Twitter channels, we learned how educators can get early access to Minecraft: Education Edition.

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It’s like Minecraft for “Sesame Street,” which reminds us again of the letter “S,” which stands for summer – so enjoy your summery weekend now and come see us again next week for more.

Posted by Susanna Ray
Microsoft News Center Staff

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