October 2012

The (absolutely) Best App of all time

By Dave Kester

Editors’ note: In January the Society of Actuaries launched an Apps for Actuaries website. Please visit appsforactuaries.org

Let’s see if we not only can find a good app, not even just a great app—how about finding the best app of all time? That’s the goal of this article. In order to achieve such a lofty goal, it is good to have some perspective. Bear with me for a moment as I take a small detour.

I’m not sure what your perspective is when you visit with your grandparents (mine are no longer living). I know when I was younger, I usually considered it as “old people’s out of touch perspective.” I was quite confident that they didn’t know what they were talking about. Of course, as I have gotten older, and hopefully wiser, I have noticed how many things they had mentioned were filled with nuggets of value. I finally came to the conclusion that there is a lot of wisdom that has survived the test of time. Also, I determined I would be better off if I paid attention to the old and rusty and not just the shiny and new. What is old in the app world? A month, or a week, maybe a day!

If we are going to choose the best app of all time, it would be good to make sure we know what is an app? This was an issue we started our discussion with at the 2011 SOA Annual meeting in Chicago. When I say we, it was primarily Eddie Smith, chairperson of the Technology Section. He had a good discussion on what is an app. There is no one definition. So, instead of defining an app, I will give some properties of an app. These are just my thoughts so you can take them for what they are worth. An app must have these properties:

Mobile—if it can’t travel, it’s not an app in my book;
Traditional input/processing/output functionality;
High tech—of course;
Reliable—OK, there are many unreliable Apps out there, but this is a property of a good app; and
An optional property is that it is simple and elegant.

Before I give you my choice for the best app—I will give you one that made the “honorable mention.” I think this app is pretty successful in meeting the first four criteria but fails miserably at #5. The honorable mention app is … paper. Yes, you read correctly—paper. In fact, some of you may be using that app right now. Think about it. How reliable is paper? Pretty darn good. Mobile—absolutely. High tech—well, I know paper comes from trees but I think that there is pretty good technology in order to create the paper. Also, if you are going to print to paper, there is a lot of technology to print to paper. Of course, paper fails miserably on the elegant factor. A colleague of mine told me once that if paper was just invented today, it would be the hottest selling and coolest technology out there. Anything that has been around hundreds of years likely won’t be elegant. However, compare paper to some of the apps that are out there and don’t be so quick to dismiss it as a great tool to use. That seems strange coming from me who is trying to become paperless. But I’m still amazed how useful paper is. However, because it is so common, we forget how amazing it can be. Even if paper was cool, it wouldn’t be the best app of all time—but I thought it should be on an honorable mention category that you may not have considered.

So what would I vote for as the best app of all time? In my opinion, the best app of all time is the human body. You are probably wondering if we are an app. That, of course, is debatable. But, think about it for a moment. We are mobile. This meets the first criterion. How about the second criterion? What is the input/processing/output of the human body?

Input would be accomplished primarily by listening. Most of us have reasonable capacity to listen. If you lose your hearing capacity, you will be reminded quickly how amazing and profitable the human ear is. Do we take listening for granted? It isn’t the coolest thing around, but how many errors would have been avoided if we had listened better? How many bad decisions were made because of lack of listening? I’m sure you can create your own list of times when listening was not optimal. If you are a poor listener, I would remind you of the old saying—garbage in, garbage out.

Yes, the human brain is still the smartest tool out there. In fact, the brain is so amazing, we probably haven’t even scratched the surface in understanding its capacity. What does that have to do with actuaries? The human brain will still be our smartest processor. The actuarial profession values professional judgment. Can we make mistakes—yes. Not as fast as computers can. Hopefully, and this is key, we learn from our mistakes. I know that there are artificial intelligent machines out there. Nothing compares to the human brain to be able to think on the fly and make judgment decisions based upon experience. How long has it been since you have updated your brain? Apps get updated all the time. Are you still learning? Does your mind feel sharp? Treat it with the respect it deserves and continue to stretch it and exercise it. Never stop asking why. Always look for new ideas. Create, clarify, calculate, estimate. Take a moment and appreciate the processor that you have. As actuaries, our brains have been conditioned to perform tasks without conscious thought that most people can’t perform with full concentration. We can perform simple algebra problems likely without even giving much thought. Most of the rest of the world considers algebra a foreign language. When you go to the store, you will estimate what your total bill will be. Most shoppers don’t have that capacity. And, of course, when we take out a mortgage, we will calculate the interest to the 5th decimal place! Now, that is where we get our geekiness!

The final component to a normal system is output. Humanly speaking, that would primarily be our voice. We could add written and typed communication as well. I have performed quite a bit of work assisting clients with complying with Sarbanes-Oxley. One of the challenges was to train actuaries to document their work during the valuation process. A lot of computation and analysis would be performed in their head, but it rarely was communicated in written or oral form. Thus, there was no evidence, or output, of the analysis. The black box days certainly are gone, and we need to continue to work on outputting our work so that it will be clear to our customers. Because so much comes natural to us as actuaries, we often underestimate what needs to be communicated, especially to non-actuaries. You have a great app in your head, but it will be of limited value if it doesn’t get communicated to others.

Are our bodies, high tech? We may not think of it in that term, but the human body has to be the most amazing and advanced tool that is available. Of course, our bodies are a reliable tool as long as we practice good habits and are blessed with good health.

Maybe to encourage human development, I can’t resist recommending an app. For those who are itching to hear about a new app in the traditional sense of the word, there is a useful app to facilitate listening to Podcasts. You can check out Stitcher.com for more details. However, don’t forget the wonderful gift you have with all of the speaking, listening and processing capabilities you have been blessed with. Good, old fashion listening, thinking and speaking are still the recipes for solving problems. Continue to improve those important skills and, at least for today, try not to take them for granted quite as much! Oh—give an elder person a special hug today. You may even be able to learn from their experiences!

Dave Kester, FSA, MAAA, is the co-founder and president of SALT Solutions, an actuarial consulting company from Des Moines, Iowa. David’s focus is converting actuarial beasts into beauties by using technology as a friend. He can be contacted at dave@saltsolutions.com.