Crowdsourcing And The Oil Spill Mess

May 30, 2010

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is seemingly continuing unabated, there’s a timely piece at Blogging Innovation on how crowdsourcing (of one type or another) might provide a breakthrough. The infographic above gives a comprehensive and vivid overview of the situation.

The pros of the approach are offered as:

  • Diversity of ideas increases the odds of finding something that will be useful
  • While no one idea may solve it, visibility (as opposed to private phone calls) increases the odds of finding parts of ideas that lead to viable solutions
  • The brain power of enthusiastic participants across the globe is a good match to BP’s in-house experts
  • Potentially a good PR move, as the company demonstrates that it’s leaving no stone unturned to solve the leak

and the cons discussed are

  1. Little previous experience with crowdsourcing
  2. Deep technical domain experience is required
  3. Site becomes a place for public criticism

Obviously BP has extensive academic and industry networks to tap into, both formal and informal. The question is whether a wider group of suggestions, including those from innovative small businesses, would be helpful in a crisis and time-critical situation. Helpful can mean technically and PR wise (the latter being notoriously fickle of course).

After the situation is under control, a wide-ranging ‘lessons identified and learnt’ activity will certainly take place (as well as the more vicious blame game). There are many posts on this blog on the challenge of actually learning lessons and benefiting from mistakes (just do a search). It’s certainly not easy!

However one interesting output might be that innovative means for developing fast and relevant responses to tricky problems from the widest set of communities is investigated and trialled, say with a mock crisis. This might then lay the foundations for an effective crowdsourcing type of approach in the future.

In parallel with this, there’s another post on crowdsourcing the oil spill here. This focuses on providing information and practical ways that people in the area can help.

There is useful information from BP on the oil spill issue here.

Let’s hope it’s sorted soon.

Picture credit: here.

Politics: Physics And Chemistry

May 12, 2010

On the current haggling over the form of the next UK Government (now resolved):

One senior Conservative says a deal remains a very real possibility. “It’s as much about chemistry as it is about physics. The physics would lead you to believe that it’s not possible to reach an agreement that satisfies the deeply held principles of both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems on constitutional reform. But the chemistry of the individuals matters too. With David Cameron and Nick Clegg this could be a moment when chemistry triumphs over physics.”

More Crises In The Future?

May 11, 2010

Without meaning to promote depression and unease, this caught my eye from Der Spiegel (interview with Nouriel Rouhini):

SPIEGEL: Today, it’s a debt crisis. Before that it was a banking crisis. And before that a real estate crisis. Must we get used to constantly being hit by new crises?
Roubini: I am afraid so. In my new book I show that crises are part of capitalism’s DNA. They are not the exception but rather the rule. Many elements vital to capitalism, like innovation and risk taking, also trigger frequent collapse. And what we just went through could get much worse in the future.

SPIEGEL: You make it sound as though crises were inevitable.
Roubini: They are not inevitable. But if you look at history, you will see patterns repeated — such as excessively loose monetary policy, leveraged vulnerabilities and weak regulation. And we will see them again. Probably we will have even more crises in the future.

SPIEGEL: Is there a script for crises?
Roubini: No crisis is identical but many of them are similar. There is a stage of boom and bubble before the bust and the crash. People will see the value of certain assets like homes or equity go up, then they will use these assets as a collateral for borrowing too much and therefore you have a build-up of leverage in the financial system. And then, once the bubble goes bust, the value of the assets falls and people are stuck with all this debt they can’t repay.

SPIEGEL: But how do you recognize a bubble?
Roubini: It’s difficult. I get suspicious when people say, this time it’s different and this innovation is going to radically change the way we live and work and it is going to lead to long-term massive increase in actual wealth. During the tech bubble there were people writing books with titles like “Dow at 36,000.”

This all sounds very familiar of course but in the light of previous posts on handling global complexity and better using a scientific approach in decision making, maybe this is the time to take such approaches far more seriously rather than just hope that things will get better with a bit of well-meant tweaking?


Nouriel Roubini is considered the prophet of the financial crisis. Four years ago, he was one of the first to warn that banks and national economies could be in for trouble. Roubini, 52, was born in Istanbul to a Jewish-Iranian family before growing up in Iran, Israel and Italy. Since 1995, he has been an economics professor at New York University. In addition, he operates a consulting firm of 80 employees, which provides financial analysis to clients in the finance industry.

Complex Or Complicated?

May 7, 2010

Interesting, physics-oriented post, on Backreaction on the issues of better dealing with global political, economic and environmental problems. These are often popularly described as complex (as opposed to complicated):

The difference between complex and complicated is that a complex system has new, emergent features that you would not have seen coming from studying its constituents alone…The complex problem, it can’t be decomposed. It can’t be reduced. It’s global, interrelated, it’s on many timescales, and it doesn’t respect professional boundaries either. Worse, you don’t know were it begins and ends. It’s full of “unknown unknowns.” It’s not only their problem, it’s our problem too.

Then there’s the issue of handling such problems!

It is however not true that we don’t know what to do with a complex problem. We just don’t do it. In contrast to our political systems, humans are good at solving complex problems. It’s the complicated ones that you better leave to a computer. Look at the quote from Avril Lavigne that is title for this post. She’s talking about relationships. Navigating in a human society is multi-layered task on many time-scales with unexpected emergent features. It’s full of unknown unknowns. That’s not a complicated problem – it’s a complex one. We have the skills to deal with that… The reason why we can’t use our abilities to deal with economic or political problems is simply lack of input and lack of method. These are solvable problems. And they are neither complex nor complicated.

There’s also the very interesting suggestion that Google may have a role to play in providing some of the required input:

It is not too far fetched to think that Google will play a role in that with creating “real-time natural crisis tracking system,” “real-world issue reporting system” or “collecting and organize the world’s urban data” (see: Project 10 to the 100). The next step is to find a good way to extract meaning from all this data to be able to react in a timely manner to changes.

Quite fascinating ideas!

I’ve written previously on complexity here and here.

World IP Day

May 5, 2010

I was surprised to find out recently that April 26 is World IP Day:

Most people are aware of intellectual property (IP) – of copyright, patents, industrial designs and trademarks. But many still view these as business or legal concepts with little relevance to their own lives. To address this gap, WIPO’s Member States decided in 2000 to designate an annual World Intellectual Property Day. They chose 26 April 2010, the date on which the Convention establishing WIPO originally entered into force in 1970.

So what is this day meant to do?

The aims of World IP Day are:

  • to raise awareness of how patents, copyright, trademarks and designs impact on daily life;
  • to increase understanding of how protecting IP rights helps promote creativity and innovation;
  • to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe;
  • to encourage respect for the IP rights of others.

And how is this meant to happen?

This year the IPO is planning to celebrate World IP Day with a shared event in conjunction with ITMA, CIPA, IPAN and the British Library Business & IP Centre to be held at the British Library, London and will be celebrating the creativity of children with A World of Cracking Ideas.

Not exactly riveting but the last topic did sound interesting and then after going to the website I realised that I had actually seen the exhibition when I visited The Science Museum last year! It’s now at the Glasgow Science Centre until November 2010. It obviously didn’t make a huge impact on me at the time but then that’s an adult’s comment, I guess it’s what children think that matters!

On the topic of World Days, here’s a listing – watch out for World Hypnotism Day (January 4)!

Lawrence Of Arabia

May 2, 2010

It’s (Early) May Bank Holiday and to fit in with the occasion there’s a ‘classic’ on TV today, David Lean’s ‘Lawrence Of Arabia‘. Apart from enjoying the film, there’s also a vague personal connection which always makes watching more involving.

Whilst working for AEA Technology, I lived in Wareham for 6 years, quite a beautiful Dorset town. A few houses up the road from me was St Martin’s Church which has a famous life-sized effigy of Lawrence in it.

The film itself opens in a powerful manner with his tragic death due to a motorcycle accident near to his cottage, Clouds Hill, which is close to Wareham.

As an interesting aside (wikipedia):

The circumstances of Lawrence’s death had far-reaching consequences. One of the doctors attending him was the neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns. He was profoundly affected by the incident and consequently began a long study of what he saw as the unnecessary loss of life by motorcycle dispatch riders through head injuries and his research led to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists. As a consequence of treating Lawrence, Sir Hugh Cairns would ultimately save the lives of many motorcyclists

Picture credit: poster.

Teaching Quote

May 1, 2010

“I teach the way that I wish I was taught”, Sal Khan

Spotted here.

From the Khan Academy:

A lot of my own educational experience was spent frustrated with how information was conveyed in textbooks and lectures. There would be connections in the subject matter that standard curricula would ignore despite the fact that they make the content easier to understand, enjoy, and RETAIN. I felt like fascinating and INTUITIVE concepts were almost intentionally being butchered into pages and pages of sleep-inducing text and monotonic, scripted lectures. I saw otherwise intelligent peers memorizing steps and formulas for the next exam without any sense of the intuition or big picture, only to forget everything within a matter of weeks. These videos are my expression of how the concepts should have been expressed in the first place, all while not compromising rigor or comprehensiveness.