Born in Tehran, Sepandar (Sep) Kamvar has an impressive resume. Having founded Kaltix, a search engine that was acquired by Google in 2003, he knows a thing or two about data management and a more practical application of information in the real world. Sep is not only a Consulting Professor of Computational Mathematics at Stanford University but he also works at Google as a technical lead of personalization. The softer side of him is into art and emotions, with projects like wefeelfine.org, and Distilled, a clothing line and artist collective based out of San Francisco. In his off time, Sep likes to surf.
We had a chance to ask him some very tough questions:
Shabnam Rezaei: Tell us a little about yourself.
Sep Kamvar: I was born in Tehran, and I moved to Los Angeles when I was young, and grew up in LA and New Jersey. I studied chemistry in college; I had wanted to go into medical research. For my senior thesis, I worked on computer model for muscle contraction, and saw the power of computer science in biological research. I decided to go to graduate school in math and computer science, and finish learning the biology later.
SR: Tell us about your project wefeelfine.org.
SK: We Feel Fine is an exploration of human emotion. I had been reading a lot of blogs and was struck by how personal and honest people were on their blogs. So I wrote a quick script that took the blogs that were published in the last 5 minutes, and took the sentences that have 'I feel' or 'I am feeling' in them and started scrolling them across the screen. It was very striking, so I called my friend Jonathan Harris and we spent the next few months building out several different visualizations of feelings on the web, with the intent of building an interactive web-based art piece that is a mosaic of human nature. We Feel Fine is the product of that.
SR: What have you discovered so far and what are you able to conclude?
SK: I think one of the most striking things is that people are more similar than one would think. If you look at people from San Francisco or London or Beijing or Tehran, the emotions expressed are very similar. As a result the piece often makes people feel not alone in the world, or as if they are looking in a mirror.
Another thing that I found striking was how personal and honest people are on their blogs. And in terms of statistics, there are a bunch. Some samples: China is the loneliest country, women are more heartbroken than men, and in Sydney, people feel very sick.
SR: What's it like working at Google?
SK: It's fun :). I am surrounded by lots of smart people and lots of toys. More importantly, I feel like I am working on something that is important to people and has impact on the day-to-day lives of lots of people all over the world.
SR: What is 'personalization' on the internet and what is Google trying to achieve in the long term with projects like this?
SK: At Google, personalization refers to 3 things:
- Searching over your own stuff. For example, Google Desktop Search allows you to search over the documents on your Desktop. Or Web History allows you to search over the web pages you have previously seen.
- Personalized search. Here, we refer to reranking search results based on the person doing the searches. For example, if you live in San Francisco and like music and search for 'The Independent', it should give you the concert venue of that name in San Francisco, rather than the U.K. newspaper.
- Push search. We'd also like to give the user relevant information without even requiring the user to do a query. iGoogle is one way to do that; you set up your homepage once and then you get the information and content you want each time you go to Google. Another way is Google recommendations, which will give you pages, queries, videos, and news items that you may be interested in, without you typing in a query.
SR: Do you ever feel like you are big brother or that you are infringing upon personal territory? Do you feel the data may be skewed because those with more private personalities would never be public about their feelings?
SK: It's really important to me in all my work to be very respectful of personal territory. With We Feel Fine, the piece explores only public data that people have posted on their blogs. The population is the population of bloggers, so yes, it is skewed toward a mostly younger and tech-savvy set of people. But since we've found that people are more similar than we think, the feelings that are expressed in the piece generally resonate with a universal audience.
With personalized search at Google, all of our personalization products are optional and respect for the user is first and foremost in the design of all of our products, particularly our personalization products.
SR: Desert Island. Three things. What will you take?
SK: A beach towel, sunscreen, and my surfboard.
Full Name: Sepandar Kamvar
Favorite Color: Blue
Favorite City: San Francisco
Favorite Dish: Ghorme Sabzi
Favorite Drink: Anything but doogh
Languages: English, French, Farsi
Currently Reading: The Stranger, Albert Camus
For more on Sepandar Kamvar, go to www.stanford.edu/~sdkamvar