Easyrec: a recommendation engine worth looking at

I love recommendation engines.  These are the software that Amazon has everywhere showing “users who bought this also bought” recommendations.

I love them because they are an easy way to leverage the wisdom of the crowd to help users.  They also get better the more data you feed into them, so once you set one up, it just makes your site better and better.

For a while, I’ve wanted to explore mahout as a recommendation engine solution, but felt intimidated by how much work integration would be.  Luckily, I did a bit of searching and turned up this stackoverflow question about java recommendation engines.

Looking at some of the alternatives, I dug up easyrec, an open source recommendation engine.  Rather than solving a couple of different machine learning problems like mahout does, easyrec focuses on recommendations.

It also has a javascript API (for both sending information and displaying recommendations) and a demo installation you can use on your site, so it is trivial to integrate into a website to see if it works for you.  I did run into an issue with the demo server, but a post to the forums got it resolved in a few days.

Easyrec has support for generating recommendations for more than one kind of item (so if you want to display different recommendations within specific categories of an ecommerce site, that is possible) and is self hostable in any java container (which is recommended if you are going to use it in any commercial capacity).  You can also build the recommendations off of the following actions: views, rating, or purchase.

You can also customize easyrec with java plugins, though mahout definitely offers far more options for configuruation.

I haven’t noticed any speed changes to my site with the javascript installed, though I’m sure adding some more remote javascript code didn’t speed up page rendering.  I noticed an uptick in time on site after I installed it (small, on the order of 5%).

If you have a set of items that are viewed together, using easyrec can leverage the wisdom of the crowds with not much effort on your part.  It’s not as powerful or configurable as alternatives, but it drop dead simple to get started with.  It’s worth a look.

My ODesk experience

A few months ago, I had a friend who mentioned that he was investigating ODesk to find help for his software project.  I’d heard of ODesk before and was immediately interested.  I have a directory of Colorado farm shares which requires a lot of data entry in the early months of each year, as I get updated information from farmers.  So, I thought I’d try ODesk and see if someone could help with this task.

Because this was my first time, I was cautious.  I worked with only one contractor, and only used about 17 hours of her time.  We worked off and on for about 3 months.  She was based in the Philippines, so everything was asynchronous.  We communicated only through the ODesk interface (which was not very good for a messaging system).

I chose her based on her hourly rate (pretty cheap), skillset (data entry) and reviews (very good).  I made the mistake of contacting her to apply for the job, but letting others apply as well, and in the space of 3 days had over 90 applicants for the position.

After selecting her, and her accepting my offer, I created a data entry account, and described what I wanted.  This was actually good for me, as it forced me to spell out in detail how to add, update or remove an entry, which is the start of the operations manual for my site.

After that, I managed each task I’d assigned to her through a separate email thread.  I did light review of her work after she told me she was done updating, and did go back and forth a couple of times over some of the tasks.  In general, she was very good at following instructions, and OK at taking some initiative (updating fields beyond what I specified, for example).  There were some bugs in my webapp that caused her some grief, and some updates I just did myself, as it was quicker to do them than to describe how to do them.

The variety of work you can get done via ODesk is crazy, and the overall ODesk process was very easy.  You just need to have a valid credit card.  If you are looking to start on a project right away, be aware that some lead time is required (they charge your card $10 to validate your account, and that takes some time to process).

Even though it didn’t save me a ton of time, it was a useful experiment and I’ll do it again next year.  For simple tasks that can be easily documented and outsourced, it’s a worthwhile option to explore.  Though be careful you don’t outsource too much!

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