Thursday, June 24, 2010

Flocks

In this post I will discuss ways to streamline information management in crowded yet occassionally connected environments.

Introduction

Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming an important tool to use in disaster response as I described in my previous post. In that post I described how impromptu volunteer groups gathered to provide various forms of assistance to the people of Haiti. An interesting observation to that effort is that as CrisisCamps were held around the world, people inside each camp would divide themselves up into groups focusing on a particular project or task. At the same time people in camps in another city would be doing the same.


In order for the various groups in multiple camps to be able to coordinate their efforts, wikis, phone conferences, Skype chats and various other solutions were used to bring everyone together. In some cases solutions such as mechanical turks were used to divide the tasks at hand between those working on that particular project. In most cases volunteer project leaders were appointed who were made responsible for defining the process to be used and handing out the tasks.

Birds of a feather

“Birds of a feather flock together” is an old saying used to describe the fact that likeminded people will group themselves together. In social media today there are a number of ways in which people can group themselves together. Within Twitter users make use of hashtags to mark their message to be about a particular topic. Users interested in that topic can then create a search that shows all messages that contain that particular hashtag. Within FaceBook users have the ability to create groups and users can either self-subscribe to these groups or membership can be on an invitational basis only.

Twitter search lists and FaceBook groups however do not scale well. A group focusing on the rescue efforts in Hotel Montana in Haiti was receiving 100-200 messages per hour and to each message there were multiple responses, totally often in over 1000 messages to be sent during an hour.

In the same way Twitter search lists looking at a particular hashtag quickly become saturated, especially due to the high number of re-tweets. During the first few hours and days of the Chile earthquake there were easily over 1000 tweets per hour and it became very hard for a human to keep track of new information coming in.

Curators

An often used approach to dealing with this problem is the concept of curators. These are people who monitor a large number of sources and then post relevant information to their feed. People then create lists of the most active curators letting others know they are a good source of information. On a couple of occasions I have ended up on such lists. The problem with the curator approach is that it does not scale well. When I go to sleep or stop ignoring my family I stop posting. If you are lucky then you have a few good curators on a particular topic that span the globe in such a way that 24/7 information flow can be guaranteed.

The concept of Flocks

So how can we build upon those approaches that currently are being applied (curators, search lists, Facebook groups) to get better information sharing? What we need is a simple mechanism for expressing interest in a particular topic and the ability to share information about that topic to all of those interested. To mirror the saying used above those who are interested in a particular topic would join a flock. Once you join the flock you would have the ability to see the information already shared between the members of the flock. Once you have become a member of the flock you can start communicating with other members of the flock, either directly or to the entire flock. Information posted by those that are the most active (the curators) should be given priority over other information. It should also be possible to organize the information shared within the flock. As a member of a flock connects to it, they should be able to see what information has been provided since last time they were connected.

A solution like this could easily be built upon social media technologies that already exist. Twitter could be used to send and receive messages to/from a flock. A Twitter list could be used to coordinate the membership of the flock. A simple cloud based web site could be used to allow information management and visualization of that information.

Instead of constantly re-tweeting important/key information then one could envision a system through which users could tag important information as key information. This information would thereby get priority over other information.

The flocks could either be open or closed spaces where information would get collected. Their lifetime could be minutes/hours/days/months/years, all depending on what they were focusing on. By adding a bit of intelligence to the information being posted to a flock, automatic geo-tagging could be used to make the information visualized on a map. Automated translation tools might also help dealing with language issues.

Dealing with occasionally connected environments

But how would this kind of concept work for those operating in occasionally connected environments such as those experienced by disaster response workers? By applying social media technologies such as Twitter as the transportation mechanism, then you can go back to technologies such as text messages (SMS) as the delivery channel. They are one of the first communication mechanisms to get up and running. Synchronization technologies such as FeedSync are designed to operate in these environments. The blocks of information are usually small being transmitted and conflict resolution is not very complex for this kind of information sharing. A small off-line or mobile client could easily be developed that would provide similar functionality for those in the occasionally connected environment as the cloud based web site provides for those in the Big World.

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