Archive for December, 2010

[2b2k] Citizen scientists

Alex Wright has an excellent article in the New York Times today about the great work being done by citizen scientists. (Alex follows up in his blog with some more worthy citizen science efforts.)

Alex, who I met a few years ago at a conference because we had written books on similar topics — his excellent Glut and my Everything Is Miscellaneous — quotes me a couple of times in the article. The first time, I say that the people who are gathering data and classifying images “are not doing the work of scientists.” Some in the comments have understandably taken issue with that characterization. It’s something I deal with at some length in Too Big to Know. Because of the curtness of the comment, it could easily be taken as dismissive, which was not my intent; these volunteers are making a real contribution, as Alex’s article documents. But, in many of the projects Alex discusses (and that I discuss in my manuscript), the volunteers are doing work for which they need no scientific training. They are doing the work of science — gathering data certainly counts — but not the work of scientists. But that’s what makes it such an exciting time: You don’t need a degree or even training beyond the instructions on a Web page, and you can be part of a collective effort that advances science. (Commenter kc I think makes a good argument against my position on this.)

FWIW, the origins of my participation in the article were a discussion with Alex about why in this age of the amateur it’s so hard to find the sort of serious leap in scientific thinking coming from amateurs. Amateurs drove science more in the 19th century than now. Of course, that’s not an apple to apples comparison because of the professionalization of science in the 20th century. Also, so much of basic science now requires access to equipment far too expensive for amateurs. (Although that’s scarily not the case for gene sequencers.)

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[2b2k] Understanding as the deepest driver

I’m working on a talk that asks why our greatest institutions have trembled, if not shattered, before the tiny silver hammer of the hyperlink. One tap and, boom, down come newspapers, the recording industry, traditional encyclopedias… Why?

I recognize there are many ways of explaining any complex event. When it comes to understanding the rise of the Net, I tend to pay insufficient attention to economic explanations and to historic explanations based around large players. I’m at doing the opposite of justifying that inattention; I’m copping to it. I tend instead to look first at the Net as a communications medium, and see the changes in light of how what moves onto the Net takes on the properties of the Internet’s sort of network: loose, huge, center-less, without shape, etc.

But, then you have to ask why we flocked to that sort of medium. Why did it seem so inviting? Again, there are multiple explanations, and we need them all. But, perhaps because of some undiagnosable quirk, I tend to understand this in terms of our mental model of who we are and how we live together. My explanatory model hits rock bottom (possibly in both senses) when I see the new network model as more closely fitting what (I believe) we’ve known all along: we are more social than the old model thought, the world is more interesting than the old model thought, we are more fallible and confused than the old model wanted us to believe.

(Now that I think of it, that’s pretty much what my book Small Pieces Loosely Joined was about. So, eight years later, to my surprise, I still basically agree with myself!)

My preference for understanding-based explanations undoubtedly reflects my own personality and unexplored beliefs. I don’t believe there is one bedrock that is bedrockier than all the others.

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[2b2k] ExpertNet for OpenGov

From the ExpertNet site:

The United States General Services Administration (GSA) and the White House Open Government Initiative are soliciting your feedback on a concept for next generation citizen consultation, namely a government-wide software tool and process to elicit expert public participation (working title “ExpertNet”). ExpertNet could:

Enable government officials to circulate notice of opportunities to participate in public consultations to members of the public with expertise on a topic.

Provide those volunteer experts with a mechanism to provide useful, relevant, and manageable feedback back to government officials.
The proposed concept is intended to be complementary to two of the ways the Federal government currently obtains expertise to inform decision-making, namely by convening Federal Advisory Committees and announcing public comment opportunities in the Federal Register.

Take a look at the example in the editable part of the wiki. (And, yes, I did say that parts of the wiki are editable. Thank you for trusting us, my government!)

The only thing I object to in this brilliant idea is that it comes too late for inclusion as an example in my book. Why, those dirty government dogs!

(via Craig Newmark)

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[2b2k] Too Many Leaks to Know

Jeremy Wagstaff has a terrific post looking at the leaked cables not as a security problem but as an information problem. Too much data, not enough metadata, not enough sharing, not enough ability to sort and make sense of them all.

I hesitate to excerpt some key paragraphs from it for fear of distracting you from the post in its entirety. Nevertheless:

..,the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—a state department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with this—the tag list is updated regularly (that last one seems to be in January 2008). You can filter a search by, say, a combination of countries, a subject tag and then what’s called a program tag, which always begins with K, such as KPAO for Public Affairs Office.

This is all very well, but it’s very dark ages. The trouble is, as my buff friend in the Kabul garden points out, there’s not much out there that’s better. A CIA or State Department analyst may use a computer to sift through the tags and other metadata, but that seems to be the only real difference between him and his Mum or Dad 50 years before.

Read the whole thing here.

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