LadybirdOriginally uploaded by Vigdis T
Sometimes the power of the long tail amazes me. The picture on the side is of a ladybird. It is coming from the group “Tiny animals on fingers”. Oh yeah, I suppose this is not a picture of a ladybird but a picture of a ladybird on a finger.
Of this group there are 448 members. Amazing.

Smart and Stupid

LemmingsThe crowd can be smart  and the crowd can be stupid. Part of the discussion on Brittanica deals with what the advantage is of social software and iCrowds. And when results are stupid or irrelevant. IS there for example a thing like a citizen scientist?
Open source seems to work great: Linux, Samba, Apache are all examples where the software has reached tremendous stability because it is open. Everybody in the world can test it, can comment on features and can look at the code to try to make it better. I think most will agree that in these cases no group of “professional specialists” would have done any better.
On the other hand we have Wikipedia that sort of combines the best and worst of information. And it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad. Parroting each other through blogs and fora’s creates information that looks like the truth because it is amplified a thousand times (you can Google it and a hundred links say the same “truth” but in reality it may be just one person who is the source and who might be wrong. A thousand consistent lies remains a lie. One of the reasons we think information that is found many-fold is true is because in the old days much of this information was from different sources. Due to the Internet and the free copy and distribution, information is replicated with the speed of lightning.  This speed of replication leads to a loss in diversity of sources since it is much more convenient to copy based on what Google delivers. This process is of course self propelling. 
One of the reasons for this difference is the ease how we can distinguish right or wrong. When using the Apache server I know when it crashes or is vulnerable for attacks. And I know when it is fixed (when it does not crash or does like advertised). also, each person looking at the application or code does this on it’s own. With information in Wikipedia this is not so easy to determine without thorough research based on “peer reviewed” sources.
As for the citizen scientist: there may certainly be a place in science for the pro-am model. A much mentioned example is the use of amateur astronomists that see a lot a things that the professionals missed because you can’t look at the whole sky. But collection of data is only a part of science. Building theories and designing experiments is something altogether different. On a photograph it is easy to see if it was a supernova. Building and proving a theorie is much less clear and needs the input and critical review of many experts.
Combining diversity is the key to iCrowds, not replication of the same.


Yesterday I was at a seminar organised by the Rabobank and Veldhoen and Company. Theme of the seminar was the new way of working made possible by new and flexible office environments, new tools and new working environments. Henny van Egmond, with whom we cooperate in our research project “The future workspace” made an interesting remark about the stimulation of new ways of working.
A big problem in our society is the automobile. On the one hand it has liberated us by making it possible to move freely but most of the time it now forces us to stand in lines kilometres long. This is costing us all far too much time. When we look at the new  government program (beleidsprogramma, sorry, only in Dutch) the only focus around this subject is how to deal with all the cars on the road (more road, more clever use of roads etc). But what they almost completely overlook is how to decrease the number of people who are trying to use that road. The ministry of transportation, responsible for our roads, has created a budget for 2007 of € 135.000.000 to decrease the transportation jams. In total 29 different types of measures they propose. All relating to how better make use of roads and none focused on how to learn people to commute less (well maybe one item where it says that the department should be an example. So they subsidize their own tools to work from their own home).
I think it is time to have a chat with the department.

Individual interests and Innovation

If you have invented something very interesting, you want to get a share of the action. I would. But fact is that our copyright laws and patents create a monopoly. And in general monopolies are bad for us.
In this interesting article I read the case is made that Watt and the steam engine that he invented has been the greatest bottleneck for further innovation. Simply put, the steam engine and the industrial revolution only took of after the patent expired. Innovation builds upon the shoulders of previous innovators.
In the discussion on Brittanica Andrew Keen is making the case that the movement of free information will lead us to a “counter-revolution”:

As Gorman so ably argues, we now have a whole generation of digital idealists who believe that information should be free, that it’s liberating, and that computers are emancipating our intellects, unbottling our creativity.

If I look around the Internet I would say: free information is liberating and that I see a lot of creativity unlocked. If we look at the potential for social software you can see we are only beginning. But one of the key problems we have is the fact that copyright laws make innovative use of information impossible. It simply is not possible to advance our society without the (re)use of all kinds of information that is copyrighted. This is the classic example of the balance between Individual interest and the Common good.
Watt, due to good political relations of his partner, was able to extent his patents. The same is happening at the moment with information. Fact is, companies like Brittanica should realize that their old business model simply do not work anymore. In a society where information is able to flow completely free it is impossible to rely on business models of the past, where the publishing and distribution of information was expensive. This led to fairly small production sizes (per item used by many, e.g. in a library) and so high costs per sold item to produce the content.
Now the unit is measured in views, not in books. Publishing and distribution costs zilch. Of course it still costs a lot of money to produce the content of the Brittanica. And society would be worse of if the business of creating quality content would become impossible because others “reuse” your results of hard work. But fact is that the context has changed so much that a) the old business models simply do not work anymore and b) society is harmed by enforcement of these antiquated models. Maybe the future is in hybrid models where professionals and amateurs work side by side. I do not know.
If nature changes than farmers have to adapt to the new reality. There is no need to complain against mother nature. Just like the content producing industry must adapt to the fact that information will flow freely.
The free flow of information has become the fuel for the advancement of our society. It has become too important for the common good to be left to monopolies that have no interest but their own.

Innovators or Free riders

This is a comment on the articles by Gorman and Shirky on the Brittanica blog and Many2Many. Major issue to me on this discussion is the consequences of the change we are making from the traditional publishing of information, including the accompanying business model, to the electronic publishing with the “free business model”. In this discussion a comparison is made with the Luddites, 19th century weavers and knitters who fought against the use of textile machines because it threatened their business.
But isn’t there a big difference with he Luddites. The Luddites complained that new technology was making them unemployed, which true but happened in a fair market. Machine fabricated and hand woven competed and the first won.
I think at this moment the case is different. Look at the way everybody is quoting the Luddites. Reading the articles it is my well educated guess that most people are retrieving what they know about the Luddites from … Wikipedia (King Ludd ..). Interesting.
But where do we think that the original knowledge of Luddites is coming from. Again my educated guess would be that sometime somewhere someone copied (rephrased) an encyclopedia.
The new competition for the Luddites did not use work from the Luddites to compete. They had their own full business model. Wikipedia can only be free since most of the original research was done by people that make a business by doing research and whose business model rely on getting paid for it. Who will do our future (original) research. My guess is not the current people filling wikipedia.
Also, at this moment we are all quoting from Wikipedia about Ludd and his companions. I am afraid if it would turn out that the Wikipedia page would be wrong we would all be parotting each other like it would be the truth. That in itself would even make it seem more truthful. Scary when you think of it.

The oldest book

Imagine: the oldest book in the world (I think?) being digitized through crowdsourcing.
in 1637 in the Netherlands 22 man have translated the bible from the original texts to normal Dutch (they took 20 years for this). This was quite remarkable at the time since it was not normal to translate religious texts into a language that people could understand. This translation was so important and famous that it has influenced the dutch (written) language significantly.
This original translation has been changed during the centuries and some researchers would like to be able to compare the copies. But at this moment the original is only available in scanned pictures. The idea now is that many volunteers will type over text from the scanned pages. This work is organized by Nicoline van der Sijs. 1418 pages are easy to do when you can activate the many people that are interested in this work (not just from a religious perspective but definitely also from a language perspective).
Anybody willing to participate:

Office without the office

What happens when you remove the office from the office? What happens when people have a dozen offices to chose from? What happens when we take away the coffee corner?
Together with Buro Blink we have held the kick-off of the Future Workspace project with Royal Haskoning, Rabobank, IBM and Telematica Instituut. During the kick-off one of the items was a brainstorm using SIT. The idea is that you take a situation and you either remove something, multiply it, add something, whatever. Remove yourself from the current situation and based on that think what would happen and how you would deal with. For example, use a kind of dating service in companies to connect people that ought to work together when you have flexible workplaces (no more office) and working hours.
In this project we will be researching the workplace of the future. Social software in all kinds of appearances, including the ones we do not know yet, will be part of this research. One of the areas of research is into 3D worlds as an interface for cooperation. University of Delft, Leiden (CETIM) and Amsterdam are part of this project.


The Brittanica is doing something very daring: they are starting a discussion about web 2.0 (like what is the relation between Wikipedia and the Brittanica) on a web 2.0 platform (blogs). Sun Tzu whom is no doubt also in the Brittanica, would have taught never to fight on the enemy terrain. Like I said: daring.
The opening piece is from Michael Gorman where he more of less attacks the collective intelligence and defends the traditional way of finding and selecting information. The reactions by the blogging crowds are as you can expect.
However, I think there is one point overlooked by the people reacting (like Clay Shirky) to what Gorman says. Of course is unlimited information flow good. People can express themselves and lots of different opinions are available. However, filtering and rating information is important, in science as well as in everyday news. We have to know how far we can trust the information and the source. In the “old days” our filter were based in the production side. Production was costly through printing and distribution. To make these decisions we employed professionals hired by firms that printed the books and magazines. We as users could select with our feet by buying the magazine or not. Maybe not the best model overall but the best of all the inadequate models available at us at that time. The nice thing of this model is that the information that is presented to us by trusted sources is usually fairly good. We know that Nature (almost always) uses a rigorous process before publishing.
Comes the Internet and Web 2.0. With Web 2.0 our filters from the production side have been removed. It has been said often: unlimited copies, free distribution. So now we are flooded with information where it is hard to distinguish in objective quality. One of the scientific risks is that this leads to the use of information that fits a priori with your thinking, without the check on the validity of conclusion. A bit of web surfing always leads to articles that support you suspicion. For example, I very much like the writings of Clay Shirky. But most of the information I find is from his blogs. He is eloquent, he is convincing but also in many cases totally insubstantiated. Maybe it is based on facts but I have no way of knowing.
Science does need a thorough process of checks to determine quality. The work I do builds upon the works of others. If I can not trust my sources, how can I trust my results. And again, peer review is the best of all the inadequate models we have for this. I agree with Gorman that, in the end, science needs facts, not hearsay. I wonder how much of the facts in Wikipedia are based on (checked) information people found in one of those bulky paper encyclopedia’s.
We have to understand why and how our quality mechanisms work in the physical production and distribution in order to make the translation to how we deal with it in the digital world. The goals remain the same (quality and trustworthy information) but the mechanisms will be fundamentally different because the new possibilities web 2.0 gives us. Exciting new possibilities and maybe even better ones than we had in the physical domain. There is the possibility for more transparency in the peer review process. The use of scientific papers is seriously hampered by the fact that commercial organisations are running the publications. It would be better if this peer review process would be an open one (open science?) and that the scientific community is responsible for this process.
However, I think that also in that case we will need all kinds of governance structures. More open, more democratic and more transparent. It will not be “like the mind of god” nor will it be like the Hyves mind. Just work but a bit less inadequate than it is now. Small steps.
That’s how progress works.

Free our culture

Books by lawyers are usually very boring. I must admit, I am not objective because I am not a big fan of lawyers. It is not that I think they are not useful, but … well you got the point.
But to my surprise I am reading one that is very interesting and well written at the same time. The book is called Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity from Lawrence Lessig.Central theme of the book is the fact that, due to copyright laws, our culture is becoming more and more blocked. Advancement in many fields like science and arts is based upon the works of others. Quantum mechanics could not have been created without Einstein, even while he objected it (Gott würfelt nicht). People like van Gogh used many of the new techniques and settings that he saw popping up around him. This is the reason why, during periods of transition, people flock together. Te learn by sharing and by taking from each other.
Many of the, now large, organisations like Disney used the culture around them freely to make their art. Disney would have been nowhere without the works of the brothers Grimm. And yet organisations like Disney are the driving force behind laws that stretch Intellectual property rights to 70 years after the death of the author. Of course, every person creating works of art has the right to get paid when it is used by others. People invest time and money into the creation process and due payment is fair. The free in “Free culture” is free like in free speech, not like in free beer or free ride.
An interesting analogy is between this kind of property rights and patents. A patent is valid for 20 years. A pharmaceutical company, once it establishes a patent, is usually still developing and testing for 10 years before they enter the market. Their payback time is therefore 10 years. After that it is a free market and prices go towards the variable production costs. That is 10 years of payback for R&D investments instead of 100 years for copyrights on creative works. Works that sometimes have been created in an afternoon (sometimes with a stroke of genius …). Recently somebody gave me an example where an amateur choir had to pay license fee’s to sing popular songs. In the book an example is given about a TV show set in a radio station that can not be shown anymore because it is impossible to clear all the music rights.
The law should always balance the private and public interests. To me it feels logical that authors do not have an eternal right to their work. Maybe you can even see it as the “coming of age” of the work. Parents have no authority over children that have come of age (normally 18). Maybe the authors should not have any rights once their work has reached the age of 18. After all this time, part of the success of the work is not just the doing of the author but also of all kinds of accidental processes in society. Our processes in our society.
Intellectual property rights should be in the interest of the commons. For this the rights of the creator must be protected to make it worthwhile to create. Not to put a ban on the further development of culture.

Skeeler 2.0

Delegation of work and responsibility should be done to the people with the greatest stake in the result and who are best equipped to handle the task. This is true in organisation theory as well in the cooperation between companies and their customers.
In interesting development in this area is TomTom Map Share. Here it is possible to add changes to the card and share these improvements with others (and TomTom). It is a logical division of labor: I can change the map when something is wrong and it bothers me and TomTom can use it to improve the map. There are of course some dangers like somebody who changes the map because they do not like the traffic through their street. But if enough people use this service it will be possible to use the wisdom of crowds.
In the past I used an application called Wayfinder which used real time map data on the mobile phone over a GPRS link. Here I could suggest changes and some days later my phone used the improved map data. In a world where “content is king” these methods to improve the data by using the large groups of user is promising. 
Another example is “skeeler 2.0” at Telematica Insituut. In this research project we focus on Skeelers. For Skeelers it is important to have a general idea on the quality of the road, the amount of traffic, the view on the scenery and others. And who is better equipped to collect and tag the data needed to improve the normal maps for Skeeler use than the Skeelers themselves. One of the focal points in this project is how best to collect the data: is it possible to ask questions afterwards, is it possible to measure the quality of the road by using a sensor? Maybe it is even important to take the profile of users in consideration. A route that A likes very much may be boring or not challenging enough for another.
Finding ways to incorporate implicit and explicit reactions from users will be an important factor in improving quality. We have the means to collect. Now we must learn how to make good use of all that data.