Archive for March 22, 2016

Applied Machine Learning: Optimizing Patient Care in Hospitals, Profitably

Why are so many industries exploring Machine Learning as a means of delivering innovation and value?  In my view, the technology speaks to a primitive urge – machine learning is like having a crystal ball, telling you what will happen next.  For a business, it can convey information about a customer before they introduce themselves.  On a personal level, when I consider what I would like to have information about in advance, the first thing that springs to mind is obvious: my health.  Am I about to get sick?  How can I improve my wellness and overall health?  If you are wearing a Fit-Bit right now, then you probably agree with me.

In my last blog, I shared some real-world examples for how the Hospitality Industry applies Machine Learning.  What about Health Care and Hospitals?  While hospitals have similar challenges, in that they accommodate guests who stay overnight, the objectives in health care are quite different, and changing rapidly.   The Affordable Care Act is driving new business models, incentivizing outcome based reimbursement as opposed to volume based reimbursement.  Unlike hotels, today’s hospitals are interested in ensuring their guests do not have to return, at least not in the short term.   They also need to manage costs in a way they have not been incentivized to do in the past.  Hospitals across the country are considering how predictive analytics can have a  meaningful impact on operations, leading to improved patient health and improving the bottom line.

The cost savings opportunity for health care providers is startling. Here are just three examples:

Reducing Hospital Readmissions – in 2014, Medicare fined 2,610 hospitals $428 million for having high hospital readmission rates. Leaving actual fines aside, industry analysts estimate that the overall cost of preventable readmissions approaches $25 Billion annually. As a result, hospital systems all over the nation are mobilizing to intervene, using ML to identify risk factors which are highly predictive of readmission. Carolinas Healthcare System, partnering with Microsoft, did just that. Using data from 200,000 patient-discharge records, they created a predictive model deliver customized discharge planning, saving the hospital system hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. Read the article in Healthcare IT News.

Clinical Variation Management – Mercy Hospital is partnering with Ayasdi to find the optimal care path for common surgical procedures. Using knee replacement as an example, the Clinical Variation Management software helps hospital administrators find clusters of patient outcomes, then enables the exploration of those clusters in order to correlate a metric (i.e. Length of Stay) with a certain regiment or activity. Watch this video to learn how Mercy Hospital saved $50 million by applying Machine Learning to an extremely common procedure.

Improving Population Health – Dartmouth Hitchcock, a healthcare network affiliated with Dartmouth University, is piloting a remote monitoring system for patients requiring chronic care. 6,000+ patients are permitting the hospital to collect biometric data (i.e. blood pressure, temperature, etc.) in order that nurses and health coaches can monitor their vital signs, and machines can predict good days and bad days. Quite the opposite of hospitality: Dartmouth Hitchcock is trying to keep the guests from needing to checking in! Read more about the Case Study from Microsoft.

Are machines taking over for physicians? No. The Patient – Physician relationship remains (and I think will always remain) central to the delivery of personal health care. However, it seems clear that ACA is providing significant rewards to health care providers who manage population risk better. Machines can help here: through data, machine learning can find risk “hiding in the data”.

Contact Blum Shapiro Consulting to learn more about how Azure Machine Learning can curtail hospital readmissions, identify variations in common clinical procedures and improve patient population health.

The Importance of Microsoft’s Purchase of Xamarin

Dashboard on a TabletThe Xamarin purchase by Microsoft is important for developers, entrepreneurs, startups and companies of all sizes. In the last 5 to 10 years, the industry has drastically changed, starting with the introduction of mobile devices and continuing with the rise of “Internet of Things” (IOT). Xamarin addresses these industry trends by being a versatile tool that builds software on any OS and can be distributed to any platform. With this purchase, Microsoft gives the industry a clear signal: mobile is here to stay. The future of software development will be done on any OS using the .Net Framework and distributed to any platform or device.

What’s in it for Developers?
Microsoft mobile developers could not be happier to hear that the years of invested knowledge and study will continue to have marketable value in the industry. But, Microsoft must choose its next step wisely. Current prices for Xamarin Tools are out of touch with the expectations of home grown developers, who would rather build on tools like Cordova or on the specific OS platform, rather than pay an annual fee. Of course, the discussion on pricing is much more complex than simply pleasing developers expectations. Xamarin accomplished the impossible, but they also have to make money in-order to continue delivering a great set of Mobile Development tools. It is up to Microsoft to clear the path forward. If they do, mobile developers will be waiting (and chanting).

What’s in it for Startups?
Mobile App startups rely on LEAN and RAPID tools for developing their products. Tools need to be highly customizable, flexible and cannot limit creativity. One bad technology choice can mean the difference between success and failure. Xamarin is attractive to startups because it provides cross platform capabilities, which their competitors lack. Xamarin has a proven record of accomplishment, they have shown commitment, they are innovators and have demonstrated strong community engagement.

Conversely, Startups are attractive to Microsoft. Microsoft can leverage the Xamarin community to market their other services such as Cloud, since Startups are not just Mobile first they are also Cloud first. Having said that, it is important for Microsoft to note that startups do not waste time, once they determine the tool and platform that meets their needs, they don’t look back. Therefore, Microsoft needs to get this purchase and integration right from the beginning.

Why does Microsoft care about Entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs will always gravitate to the best tool, as long as the tool is of high quality, affordable and is on the bleeding edge of technology. This is why Xamarin is important for Entrepreneurs: over the last few years the Xamarin Tools have provided the latest version of each mobile OS right from beta to GA. Entrepreneurs need to stay on top of the technology without having to learn 5 different types of platforms, dev tools or programming languages. Xamarin’s level of commitment makes it the perfect tool for entrepreneurs. If you are a mobile app entrepreneur, you are most likely independent-minded, always working to build your empire, and looking for opportunities to change the world. Entrepreneurs are also the best salesmen: they work day and night to build the next generation of tools, products or companies and will continue to look at Xamarin’s commitment and expect Microsoft to honor it.

How about Companies?
The importance of this acquisition will vary greatly, depending upon a company’s current mobile strategy. First, there are the companies that already use Xamarin Tools and own MSDN Subscriptions. No doubt they are thrilled. Their investment is strengthened by this purchase, and they look forward to improved licensing and integration with Visual Studio. On the other hand, if you are a company that has stayed away from mobile, this would be the right time to revisit your mobile strategy. If your company does not have a strategy on how it would compete in future markets like Mobile and IoT devices, then you need to develop one. Not all mobile applications are for consumers. The largest majority are in-house apps that improve their day-to-day operations. These types of apps can make a huge difference on how your company responds to market changes and remains competitive. Just take a look at small mom and pop stores and notice that they are mostly using iPads to track customer purchases. Those iPad Apps help improve customer engagement by tracking traffic, personalizing orders, gathering feedback, sending receipts via email and lots more.

Microsoft’s future is now Xamarin’s future. Microsoft clearly means business, and it is time to adopt a Mobile strategy and immediately set your eye on the next wave of technologies such as IoT, Big Data, and Machine Learning. All of which are part of Microsoft’s platform and will now be implemented via the Xamarin Tools.

SharePoint 2016 Branding Revisit

With SharePoint 2016 looming in the horizon, it’s time to revisit some of the branding concepts in SharePoint. I describe SharePoint branding as the composite creation of an identity that expects an emotional reaction from its consumer. But wait, in SharePoint circle’s the word branding has been flagged as a dirty word, so therefore going forward I will be calling it “UI Style”. In my experience with SharePoint UI Style solutions, they are mostly composed of custom master pages, custom page layouts, tons of JavaScript, CSS and other UI assets. These UI Style solutions can bring state of the art site designs into SharePoint. However, they are custom and will require upkeep with each new version of SharePoint and in some cases completely re-built. So if custom UI Solutions are not future proof, what can you do about it? We will discuss this and other UI Style topics below.
SharePoint UI Style Evolution
First let’s take a look at the evolution of SharePoint UI Style from 2010 to 2016.
Starting in SharePoint 2010, we can see the UI Style evolution with the introduction of the Ribbon menu, in 2014 we were introduced to the Seattle theme which was focused on removing chrome from the UI and now in 2016 we see the introduction of the “App Launcher” aka the “Waffle”. At this point the industry has a fairly good understanding of SharePoint UI Style designs and solutions. Here are the basics, the SharePoint UI Style is built on top of master pages, which include the outer layer composed of the header and footer. This is where you put your company logo, banner images and where the navigation control is displayed in your site. The center or what I call the “White Space” is where page layouts are loaded. Page Layouts are your home page, news articles, blog post and others. Note: that the concept of master pages and page layouts has been around since Asp.Net 2.0 and is stable. All other elements are called Web Parts, which gives you functionality like viewing documents, calendar, news feed, photo gallery and much more. While the out-of-the-box UI Style provides basic look and feel, if you want to change it you can either extend it or customize it, so let’s take a look at what a SharePoint Custom UI Style solution is.
Custom UI Style Solutions
Custom UI style solutions are normally built using this designer tools like Dreamweaver, Visual Studio and SharePoint Designer. Normally a designer would generate all of the images, CSS and HTML pages and then a SharePoint developer will take them and incorporate them into a SharePoint Visual Studio Project. Developers would then build a Visual Studio Custom UI Style solution that generates a file with the extension of WSP or Windows SharePoint. This file contains a CAB file with all of the DLLs, XML, CSS, XLT, JavaScript, Aspx and HTML files. Below is a very simple SharePoint Visual Studio project that contains master pages, page layout, CSS and JavaScript files. It is important to note, that you can build a custom UI solution without Visual Studio, you can perform the same action from SharePoint designer and Dreamweaver. Having said that, for large and complex UI Style Solutions you will benefit from the Visual Studio version control, and intellisense.

SharePoint UI <a href=SharePoint UI Style Custom Solution

Master Pages
When deciding on building a custom UI Style solution it is important to understand the impact specially when design custom Master pages. So let’s take a look at the master pages from 2010 to 2016, notice that the master page is are referencing specific versions of SharePoint libraries. When a new version of SharePoint arrives, these references will need to be updated. Which means that it requires you to re-deploy your solution and retest your site. For a smaller SharePoint implementation this should be no issue, however for larger and complex UI Style solutions this can be an expensive endeavor. So think and plan carefully when developing custom UI Style solutions.

Master Page References to SharePoint Version
On the bright Side
If you determine that you must have a custom UI Style Solution, then I encourage you to contact us or search the MS Partner Network and select a Partner nearest you for assistance. Also you can purchase a prebuilt UI Style solutions online from sites like,, and many others. If you like do it yourself, then I suggest you start at it contains a simple to understand UI Style solution for SharePoint utilizing the latest bootstrap3 framework. I will warn you, these and most commercial pre-built UI Style Solution focus on Publishing Site and not Team Site.
Future Proof UI Style Solution
That’s right there is an alternative, a more future proof UI Style solution for SharePoint. It is nothing new, it has been recommended by Microsoft since SharePoint 2010 and with introduction off SharePoint 2016, it is even more important to a brace it. Let’s start with SharePoint as a service and not a platform. Choosing between the two can determine how future proof your solution is, if you decide to use SharePoint a service then you have full control of the UI Style design and implementation. Your site can be build using any Web technology including Asp.Net MVC, while SharePoint would provide all the services need to run by the site. When SharePoint is the platform, then you have less options for your UI Style solution. Having said that, recently Microsoft Pattern and Practices have release new tools to improve how you modify/extend the out of the box SharePoint UI Style. You can find more information on the tools at Below we will go over two examples how you can customize your SharePoint UI Style with no custom master pages or Visual Studio.
First let’s start with themes. Themes have been around SharePoint since 2010, they allow you to style elements without modifying master pages or page layouts. They get overlook by many developers but with patience and good CCS skills, you can create a theme that will operate in SharePoint with no custom development. Microsoft provides a SharePoint Color Palette Tool which allows you to set the background image, the font color, navigation background color, header footer and others elements. The tool is easy to use, and after you create your new theme you simply upload it into SharePoint and set your site to the new Theme as shown below. For more information on how to apply a new theme feel free to contact us.
SharePoint UI Style Theme
Modern Responsive UI
Modern web sites are now expected to support a variety of screen resolutions. Your SharePoint site is no different, it must have some level of support and one way is via Office PnP SharePoint UI Responsive solution. Recently Microsoft Pattern and Practice release a SP Responsive UI using a pure JavaScript Solution via there Pattern and Practice group. This SharePoint UI Responsive solution does not include any custom Master Pages or modified Page Layouts. It is simple JavaScript and CSS solution to Responsive UI solution prevents you from having conflicts when migrating to new version of SharePoint since it does not edit the Master Page. Another positive to this approach is that it works on Team Site while most Responsive solution focus on Publishing Sites.
You would enable the SharePoint UI Responsive solution into your Team Site using PowerShell and not Visual Studio as shown below.

The result is a Team Site which response to the screen resolution just as customers expect.

TeamSite SiteContent Responsive TeamSite Responsive
Team Site Responsive Site Content Responsive

This SharePoint UI Responsive solution is a great start for your development of a UI Style solution that does not have any dependency on the SharePoint infrastructure. With that and some create CSS design you can build any UI Style that means your need. Next step you would need to pick the right UI Style.

UI Style Conclusion
So far we talked about the evolution of SharePoint UI Style, how they are build and alternative future proof solutions. Now it is important to pick the right UI Style. Let’s first start by understanding what SharePoint means to you and your organization, what are the business use cases, and what is the organization strategy for the next 5 to 10 years. That’s right your organization vision and goals should drive the SharePoint UI Style and not the other way around. If your organization is an insurance company and you want to provide better care for your patience or if you are a none for profit organization and your SharePoint is focus on, bring awareness and driving donations. Each vision will result in a completely different UI Style with different implication for SharePoint. Perhaps one implementation displays the patient schedule, shows alerts, news announcements or videos. Or Perhaps the site, simply shares information on the latest donation events, and how visitors can make pledges. The bottom line is the right UI Style will help improve sales by keeping visitor engage when it clearing reflects your organization culture, vision and strategy. So how do you get there, start by reaching out to us and we will get you started on the right path.

Applied Machine Learning – Hospitality and Hotel Management

Machine Learning, or Predictive Analytics, is in common use in the travel and hospitality industry.  Online travel sites such as Expedia, Priceline and Trip Advisor have been putting data to use for over a decade, and they are very good at selling us stuff with Machine Learning.  They start by figuring out what someone will pay (relative to other customers) for a travel service, classifying preferences for all of the travel services they have available to sell, and recommending the next thing a website visitor need.  Flying to Vegas you say?  It’s very likely a hotel or car rental is in your future.  But which hotel offers will keep you on their site, buying from Expedia and not Expedia’s competitors?  Do you expect a premium hotel experience?  Do you need a Fiat or a GMC Acadia?  Are you a fan of Blue Man Group, Celine Dion or Penn and Teller?

And they usually get it right! They are using what is called a Recommendation Engine in order to guide customers through a series of buying decisions, based upon patterns and preferences which are similar to other customers.  Underneath, it’s just math, but the impact is undeniable.  It enables companies to predict what their customers want, and then (this is the critical piece) anticipate and deliver a response to that want, at a time when a customer truly needs it and is willing to pay for it.  Right thing, right place, right time.

Recommender is one of four core Machine Learning problems.  These four problems represent what ML can solve.  Now let’s apply Machine Learning to another business model within the Hospitality vertical: Hotel Management.  Is machine learning relevant to hotels?   If an algorithm can anticipate a guest’s need, what can hotel staff do with that information? The answer is: create a customer for life.

One common misconception about Machine Learning is that, in order to produce any useful insights, you need tons and tons of data (or, Big Data).  Property Management Systems (PMS) used by hotels and hotel groups are proving this wrong: they are using ML on a small scale to manage revenues, improve profitability and delight their customers.  Here are three examples of how hotel and property management groups are using Machine Learning to manage revenue today.

Market Segmentation – Customer segmentation is not a new thing.    We understand the difference between family vacationers and business travelers – those are big segments. But Machine Learning goes further, helping companies discover segments they may not realize existed. Which customers want to be near the pool, and which ones need three morning papers before they can even get dressed in the morning? Armed with this knowledge, hotels understand what matters to guests, at the individual level, enabling them to anticipate their needs immediately. Even more, hotels can understand key characteristics of their most profitable customers, and recognize the next one when they login to the online reservation site.

Demand Forecasting – what kinds of services will be in demand throughout the year? Can a hotel optimize room offerings to suit changing demand patterns, and perform renovations or scheduled maintenance in a way that has no net impact on profitability? While hotels may have limited ability to grow or shrink their inventory of rooms, management can optimize resource needs in order to respond to predicted demand levels.

Price Optimization – airlines understand very well that different customers are happy to pay different prices for the same airplane seat.  The same is true for hotel rooms.  Often, profitable customers are ones who are least price sensitive, but some are quite price sensitive – choosing to spend their money on other hotel services offered.

Machine Learning may seem intimidating, especially if you are assuming you’ll need Big Data and massive computing power in order to yield an investment.  Actually, the key ingredient is knowledge of your industry, and what you, as a services provider, can offer customers.  Most hotels and hotel groups have enough core guest information to begin deriving valuable insights and begin competing for customers in the new world of data.

Contact Blum Shapiro Consulting to learn more about how Azure Machine Learning can deliver these kind of predictive capabilities to your business, leading to sustained customer loyalty and profitable business outcomes.