Technology / 01.22.19
Change, the Only Constant: Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning and Blockchain
Who’d have ever thought that when you got into ticketing, you’d need to know about such things as natural language processing, machine learning and blockchain. Many things are changing in our industry — and these emerging technologies are just the latest on a growing list that will help make our jobs easier and the customer experience better.
As President of JCA, a non-profit technology consulting firm, Matt Cooper came to INTIX 2018 in Baltimore with one main goal — to ensure ticketing professionals are ready for the next big thing.
“We are on the advent of new technologies that will fundamentally change market dynamics,” says Cooper. “But we are not coming with a specific or ready solution. Our object is to inform. We want to talk about technologies that are on the way. And we want to give you words to be able to use to understand them.”
Cooper and his JCA colleague Tim Fitzgerald, as well as Ric Waldman from The Bushnell Performing Arts Center, were eager to explain these technologies to conference attendees, and more specifically what impact they could have on our industry in the future.
What is natural language processing?
“The goal of natural language processing is for machines to have, or at least seem to have, some understanding based on communications using natural language or speech, just like we would do between two friends or two colleagues,” explains Cooper. “We use this natural language in order to send information that would be easily understandable by us.”
Sounds reasonable, but why is it necessary?
“It’s really about the ability to get a correct answer when searching for something on the Internet,” explains Cooper. “As the amount of information on the web continues to grow, traditional key search words become less and less effective because they are applied to more and more things.”
So, how does “natural language processing” help?
“The goal is to make it possible for bots and code to understand the meaning of phrases rather than just looking for specific words or key words in text,” says Cooper. “This allows Google or other search engines to satisfy search content with greater accuracy with the goal of providing the specific answer we are looking for. It removes the ambiguity to make things clear.”
What does all this mean for the ticketing industry?
Beyond the obvious uses in Internet searches and things like language translation, Cooper notes one use that is particularly pertinent to our industry.
“Imagine,” says Cooper, “being able to look through your Facebook wall and read the comments and understand whether people are feeling good or not feeling good about something and be able to make changes to your services and provide them based on that kind of feedback.”
Cooper notes that consumer apps like Alexa, Siri and Skype Translator are all working with this technology, and he gives a specific example of how it is already being used in ticketing operations.
“On the one hand, both the Royal Opera House and San Francisco Opera allow you to ask Alexa what is playing at any given time and retrieve information in real time about what is on, then tell you something about the program content. At this point, they don't talk to the ticketing system, and it sounds like it would be complicated picking a seat and managing payment. It is, however, already happening in a bit of a different world. For those of you who are movie fans, beyond getting information, you can ask the Fandango app on Alexa to buy you tickets for tonight's movie.”
According to Cooper, natural language processing is going to open new doors for customers to interact with venues and artists. As with other kinds of technology, he emphasizes that our competition is not really just the other venues in town or just the other folks who produce the content we do.
“It is all of the other consumer experiences out there, whether interacting with Amazon to do grocery shopping or listening to music or whatever. So those are the things you have to be aware of that are driving consumers, and it’s important to be aware as these things come forward,” Cooper says.
Cooper then turned the floor over to Ric Waldman, VP of Programming and Marketing for The Bushnell. He spoke about challenges they are facing as an organization, particularly maintaining relationships with patrons, many of whom are purchasing tickets on secondary markets.
“Tickets.com initially approached us at their user conference in June (2017) with a third-party service called ThreatMetrix, which is using machine learning to identify IP addresses that are known scalpers, block them outright and only let them through if [they are] put on a white list,” says Waldman. “We have done a few small experiments and it does automatically block sales where you know the seller, where you have identified them and allows you to make additions to the blocked list.”
Waldman said The Bushnell is also looking at the potential of regional control groups, which would allow the organization to only sell tickets to a specific show to a specific region.
“We are in Hartford, Connecticut…[yet] we always get hit with a lot of sales from Texas. There must be a couple of big brokers in Texas who like buying tickets from our site and putting them on the secondary market,” says Waldman. “By blocking Texas and saying if you are grandparents and in Texas and want to buy tickets in Hartford, call the box office. We will block the IP address from the entire state of Texas.”
And with that, the focus shifted to blockchain — technology that remains a mystery to many even as it gains popularity.
“We will wait and see [when it comes to blockchain],” says Waldman. “Certainly, the goal for us is being able to establish a transaction between us, the seller and an individual buyer who must identify themselves when they turn in the ticket. They have to be the other side of that blockchain identity. This would be of great interest to us.”
Tim Fitzgerald, a member of JCA’s network team, began by acknowledging the impact technological advancements have already had on ticketing, which is quickly becoming paperless. Although that has made the business more efficient and convenient, he notes that it has also created problems.
“There is nothing to stop anyone from transferring, copying or duplicating QR codes,” says Fitzgerald. “A certain amount of fraud is inevitable.”
What is blockchain technology?
While Fitzgerald gave a very detailed description of blockchain in his presentation, we’ve simplified it here:
Originally developed for the digital currency Bitcoin, blockchain technology is a vast public decentralized ledger — or massive database — that records and stores peer-to-peer transactions in a robust, secure and transparent manner.
The blockchain cannot be controlled by a single entity and data cannot be edited or erased. It can be programmed to record virtually everything of value from banking transactions to stock trades and supply chain management to contracts, thus its tremendous promise. With Bitcoin, for example, all confirmed transactions are included as so-called “blocks.” As each block enters the system, it is broadcast to the peer-to-peer computer network of users for validation.
What problem can blockchain technology solve?
“The question really is how do we apply this to tickets,” notes Fitzgerald. “First off, what do people need? People buying tickets want access. They want their tickets to work. They want to get into the event they bought a ticket for. They would also like to be able to give tickets to friends. They would like to be able to sell a ticket if they cannot make a show. They would like to be able to recover the value that they paid for that ticket. If they do have to buy a ticket second hand on the secondary market from someone else, they would like to be able to tell that it is real before they buy it. Venues want to make sure that their customers are not defrauded when there is a photocopied QR code or something of the sort and having to decide how to deal with that tricky customer service situation.”
So, how can blockchain technology help?
Fitzgerald says that is still being determined. But he described one possible scenario:
“The way that it can essentially work is someone who wants to sell a ticket would set up a smart contract on the network. They would set up this contract that says, ‘I can issue tickets and when someone gets the tickets, here are the rules for how they can use them.’ They can redeem them to get into the event. They can transfer them. How many times can they transfer them? If you are doing it — if are you actually selling with cryptocurrency and using it to buy the tickets — you can set an amount required to be exchanged for resale. All of these things, again, are not changeable. Once they are set, they are set in stone. Every transaction is verified by every computer, so even if you talk one computer on the network into doing something differently, all of the computers would say that is not the result I got when I did the math, so it wouldn't happen.”
And what’s the benefit?
“The benefit of this is that a ticketholder can know the tickets are real. When they get to the venue, they would have a private key on their phone. They would say ‘here is my key — my phone is now going to do a transaction with your computer that proves that this is real.’ Then it will be recorded on the blockchain that the ticket has been redeemed. This allows for re-entry but prevents anyone else from redeeming the ticket a second time because it's been recorded that it has already been used.”
There are other benefits beyond security. One goal of any venue is to create a relationship, not only with the purchaser, but also with the actual person who uses the ticket. Blockchain technology allows for this, says Fitzgerald.
“With a smart contract, you can have the option of integrating some other process into the redemption. Let's say I buy four tickets with a smart contract. I want to give three to my friends. I send them to their addresses on the blockchain. When they show up at the event, they may not have ever interacted with the venue before. You can now ask them to input whatever information you want in order to get to know them better, whatever you can think of from a marketing and customer relations perspective to get a relationship rolling with that person. You have a chance to do that as part of the requirement for doing the redemption because it's in the smart contract.”
As with any technology, Fitzgerald warns there are limitations. For example, an attendee would definitely need to have a smart phone to participate in a blockchain transaction. While phone adoption is high, it is still not ubiquitous. Until it is, Fitzgerald says venues will likely require a dual ticketing system.
Smart contract transactions are also not instantaneous, which could lead to delays. At the moment, the only way around this is to assume risk, as banks do when they accept electronic transactions.
There is also a financial cost for each network transaction of approximately one dollar, which will either have to be absorbed by the venue or passed on to the consumer.
Finally, until everyone is using cryptocurrency, Fitzgerald says blockchain will have to be integrated with legacy payment systems. That means it will be difficult to set a maximum resale price for tickets because there is nothing to stop an individual from giving a ticket to someone on the blockchain and making a side transaction for whatever price they want.
Like all technological advances, however, solutions to problems are found through further technological developments. As we all know, change is constant in the ticketing industry — and today’s challenges are followed by tomorrow’s solutions.
Tags: Blockchain , INTIX 2018