Cognitive capabilities make event mobile apps more engaging

By Theodore Conroy, on


Recommendations and personalization have permeated the world of entertainment and shopping. From the Netflix model, which tracks the titles you watch, to e-commerce sites, which can surface recommended items for you, there has been a strong focus on content personalization. As such, industry professionals find themselves turning the lens toward the cognitive capabilities that can be brought to the event world through mobile apps and hybrid web experiences.

Cognitive capabilities at IBM events

As Exhibitor explains, IBM has consolidated its conferences into large, multifaceted events that transcend a single topic. The largeness of an event such as IBM InterConnect, which has around 20,000 attendees, prevents silos and encourages collaborative thinking, but it also creates problems regarding content selection for an attendee. How can a professional in a specific role in a certain industry find the right sessions? Are there cognitive capabilities that can enhance the experience of those onsite?

Over the past year, IBM has focused heavily on these questions and created a new mobile app, IBM Events, for iOS, Android and Windows that really helps solve this problem at events. Though it isn’t quite as popular as “Pokemon Go,” it has seen download rates among attendees cross the 80 percent threshold, smashing the industry standards and expectations outlined by Crowd Compass.

The following are a few of the great features offered by the IBM Events app:

  • Beacon-based notifications
    The app can serve users alerts based on their location. For example, it could say something along the lines of: “Welcome to the general session! See who else is here.”
  • Attendee recommendations
    Based on registration data, attendees are suggested to each other as connections if they have common industries, roles or products.
  • Maps with wayfinding
    Using event beacons, the app can create an interactive map that lets users find waypoints and get directions to a location, all without using any cell data or relying on a network signal.

The app also allows simple filtering that lets users see a content category, such as cloud or business analytics. However, what if the content they are looking for crosses these artificial walls the app puts up?

Taking personalization to the next level

When IBM reamed through the thousands of responses to its conference evaluations, this theme of personalization and recommendations further came into focus. One business partner hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Perhaps Watson could look at my profile and suggest sessions.”

IBM had been thinking about recommendations for a while, so this wasn’t quite an “Aha!” moment. However, that validation of a need by the people using the app got the gears turning on how to integrate machine learning into the scheduling app. At InterConnect, IBM was able to get the ball rolling on possibilities for enhanced networking and connections. For the World of Watson conference this fall, IBM is bringing recommendations to the session content itself, using the Watson Conversation service to create a dialogue with attendees. This new service is learning about how users might ask for sessions according to their industry, role and more while thinking about how to best answer questions that might arise at an event. This allows it to predict the types of outputs the service will need to have and think about the best ways to serve them up.

Try to think about it this way: When you go to a clothing store, you don’t say to the associate, “Show me pants that are size 32, dark wash, skinny type.” Instead, you’d probably say something like, “I have an event coming up. It’s business casual, but it’s at a loft in Williamsburg, so there’s a definite hipster vibe. I need something casual enough to fit in, but nice enough to get away with.” IBM is going for the same result here, using Watson Conversation by thinking more about business challenges than content archetypes.

Getting down to the nitty gritty

So, how does this new service do it? It starts with a question up front: Tell us about your business challenge. Then, by connecting Watson Conversation to other Alchemy and Watson services, it can surface relevant topics based on these inputs and correlate them to a list of sessions ranked by how they match up. As users add sessions to their agenda, a crowdsourcing effect enhances the rankings and outputs, delivering even better experiences for individuals.

The possibilities are endless, not just with respect to events. Imagine if the retail sales associate could live in the palm of your hand. The opportunity to engage with a person rather than a set of categories is one of the big differentiators between man and machine. This has the possibility of enhancing and expanding the role of technology in online and brick-and-mortar stores.

Overall, this project is churning along well. There is a new web application being built in conjunction with IBM Digital and IBM Research that helps users build their agendas using the cognitive capabilities created in-house using Bluemix and Watson services.

However, accomplishing this for native mobile brings its own set of challenges. Because IBM stores event data locally on user devices, it needs to be careful with making real-time API calls, especially when onsite at an event. Though Mandalay Bay is a fantastic venue, it was not built with mobile in mind — it’s a dense network environment, and IBM deploys a large indoor Wi-Fi network that finds itself under tremendous strain. We want to make sure users can actually get their recommendations on mobile in real time.

Solving for this is one of the biggest challenges yet, and IBM is looking at a couple of implementations. One is delayed, timed calls to the service that allow the app to return a ranked list of sessions for users in the background. The other is a mobile web app view that would be interactive from within an embedded browser.

When you’re building a new product, these are the types of answers you don’t have in the middle of development. However, I’d welcome you to follow IBM’s story as it makes mobile and cognitive happen at World of Watson.

IBM is looking to expand this discussion at SXSW 2017 with a dual panel on the topic of cognitive event apps. Visit this page to vote for the session until Sept. 2.

About The Author

Theodore Conroy

Digital Transformation Manager at IBM

Ted Conroy leads mobile strategy and execution for IBM global conferences. He has deployed mobile apps for Big Blue's largest events, including IBM InterConnect, IBM Amplify, and IBM World of Watson (formerly IBM Insight.) An avid triathlete and fitness enthusiast, Conroy found the intersection of mobile and human experience using the popular app Strava to train for events.

Articles by Theodore Conroy
See All Posts