Saturday, March 13, 2010

Leftover Links

Joe, Tim, and Riley are in Austin now. Andrea arrives this evening, and I arrive tomorrow... We're excited for our panel. Remember: Monday, March 15, at 11 am. In 10AB. Join us!


Foldit — a massively multiplayer game/competition designed to reveal the shortcuts nature uses to weave a tangle of amino acids into a protein. Players use the cursor to grab, bend, pull, and wiggle the chain of amino acids anywhere along its length, folding the protein into its optimum shape. The only rules are based on physics — opposite charges attract, atomic bonds have limited angles of rotation, and the parts of the molecule that stick to water tend to point outward. The closer your model's properties adhere to those rules, the more points you get. Competing against the world's best biochemists in 2008's Community-Wide Experiment on the Critical Assessment of Techniques for Protein Structure Prediction (CASP), a band of gamer nonscientists who'd used Foldit won. [from Wired]

SETI@home — the screensaver that taps spare home computer cycles to sort through radio signals from space

Rosetta@home — farms out computation to volunteered PCs.

Star Wars Uncut — Star Wars A New Hope recreated by 450+ people.

Newgrounds — the large Flash games and animation site that spawned Alien Hominid, has been accepting user-produced submissions since 1999. Amy Bruckman and Kurt Luther are studying groups who make animations collaboratively on Newgrounds. They've found that the social organization of a collaborative project like this depends on the narrative structure of the animation. Making a more traditional story with a script written in advance has different constraints than a 'collection' where lots of pieces are assembled that can later be assembled in many orders by the project leader (for example, the animation 'When Farm Animals Attack'). Another mode is a 'continuation,' where each person adds to the end, and then passes it on to the next animator. These projects can be worked on by small to medium-sized groups (up to ~50 people). Star Wars Uncut is unusual in including nearly 500 people. Bruckman notes: "Part of what makes this kind of creative production different from an open source or wiki model is that an animation generally has *one release*. You don't show it publicly til you're done. Open source benefits from the 'release early, release often' model that lets more and more people contribute over time. Like open source software, these projects tend to have a central leader. There's a tremendous burden on that leader, and projects succeed or fail generally depending on how well the leader does his/her job, and how much time he/she can devote to the project."

Nick Carr says: "It's telling that, when we discuss this phenomenon, we still almost always trot out the same two examples that we would have trotted out five years ago: Wikipedia and open-source software. I think what we're discovering is that big online groups are very good at performing time-consuming, fairly routinized tasks that can be broken up into many discrete units of work and hence sped up by having lots of people with diverse talents and perspectives working on them in parallel without much coordination. Ferreting out bugs in a complex computer program and finding and paraphrasing information on discrete encyclopedia topics both, not surprisingly, fall into this category of work. But if you're looking for the new, the creative, the moment of blazing insight, you're still going to have to look not to a crowd but to an individual human mind."

Richard Hackman, social psychologist at Harvard who studies teams, notes in Leading Teams, that there are almost no forms of writing that benefit from collaboration (reference works, of course, being the notable exception.)

Nick Carr: "I think one of the reasons we're having trouble discussing the way brilliant new ideas emerge from "networked 'mass' groups" is because that phenomenon doesn't happen. The ideas for Wikipedia and Linux, to take, once again, the obvious examples, came from individuals, not from the groups that subsequently formed to bring the ideas to fruition. As Eric Raymond, the author of "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," once wrote in an email to me, "The individual wizard is where successful bazaar projects generally start." The Net can provide a powerful means of discovering the wizards (such as we saw in the competition for the Netflix Prize), and it can provide an effective means of coordinating and assembling the contributions of a "'mass' group," but the hope that great original concepts would naturally "emerge" from the interactions of a vast Net-connected group hasn't really panned out. I would argue that Internet crowds aren't all that interesting as a means of production (though, because they're often used as giant pools of free labor, they can certainly be economically disruptive in that role). What makes Internet crowds interesting is their social dynamics and the social forms that arise from those dynamics."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is it Bullshit?

Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do?, has a passionate post up on his blog BuzzMachine where he discusses the need to move to a more collaborative learning experience. He's also pushing for less standardized tests in the educational system and more evaluation based on independent thinking.

He was a speaker at TEDxNYed, an independently organized TED event focused on "the role of new media and technology in shaping the future of education." He used that opportunity to rail against the one-sidedness of educators talking at students, rather than with them.

"There’s another model for an alternative to the lecture and it’s Dave Winer’s view of the unconference. At the first Bloggercon, Dave had me running a panel on politics and when I said something about “my panel,” he jumped down my throat, as only Dave can. “There is no panel,” he decreed. “The room is the panel.” Ding. It was in the moment that I learned to moderate events, including those in my classroom, by drawing out the conversation and knowledge of the wise crowd in the room."

It's worth a read. I happen to think that many TED talks have a lot more going on than people telling me facts, but rather telling me stories, explaining how their brand of thinking is beneficial to their given field because they have thought outside of the norm. I do agree with some of his points on education, but see a distinction between institutional learning and TED talks. At the very least, this is some food for thought as we here at Indirect Collaboration make our final preparations for our SXSW panel next week.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Q&A with Cecilia Weckstrom of The LEGO Group

Cecilia Weckstrom is an innovation and consumer experience specialist at The LEGO Group. She heads up the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation team there. Indirect Collaboration's Tim Lillis interviewed Cecilia about incorporating customer insight into the product design process.

So, you're in charge of the Consumer Insight & Experience Innovation function at the LEGO Group. What does that mean?

I oversee all the work on gathering insights from our 1:1 connections with consumers all over the world and based on this insight and on co-creation with consumers we improve existing LEGO experiences and define new ones of what LEGO could be in the future. We want to be driven by those who love LEGO for what LEGO is and thus, knowing what is important to all these people is important and the only way we can remain sustainably successful as a company.

Lillis: What are some of the successful and unsuccessful ideas generated by this group?

Weckstrom: Mostly in my experience it is not a matter of unsuccessful or not – more about timing. We have a few examples where we were far ahead of the market (LEGO Studios for instance) where the idea was great, but ahead of its time so wasn’t as successful as it could have been had we launched it a little later. Timing is not just in terms of timing in the market-place, it is also about the rest of the company. The successful ideas are ones that become platforms for value creation, and ultimately not just within the company but including the community too.

Lillis: Is the Design By Me program related?


Lillis: Are the kits generated as part of Design By Me available to customers besides the one who designed them?

Weckstrom: Yes, but at the discretion of the designer. E.g. you have to choose that option when you upload your design.

Lillis: There is such a robust worldwide community of LEGO builders, has this community unofficially steered product design at the LEGO Group? That is, not through your official programs, but through the company's observations of LEGO culture.

Weckstrom: Absolutely – LEGO is a movement driven by the passion, urgency and creativity of an ever-expanding community. We are part of this ecosystem and are just as influenced by it as the community is by what we do.

Lillis: What are some of the most surprising uses of LEGO bricks that you've come across?

There’s more every day. Latest one is this Lego Cubestormer robot that solves Rubik's Cube in sub-12 second. Robots born with the sole purpose of solving the Rubik's Cube are nothing new, but we're pretty sure we haven't seen one crack the code.

So much of what people do with LEGO Bricks is determined by the imagination of the end user. Is there a balance to be struck between designing pieces with very specific (or branded) functions versus pieces that can be used more universally?

Weckstrom: We prefer designing universal elements ahead of specific elements. In fact, when you as a LEGO designer (I was one when I first started out working for the company) come up with a new piece, you have to ‘justify’ it’s existence to the element committee, a group of LEGO ‘Yodas’ as I like to call them (no they are not small and green with big ears, but very wise and care deeply about the LEGO System) – their combined LEGO experience is more than a 100 years and they are guardians of the system. The more uses that can be found for a LEGO element you have designed, the more likely it will pass the scrutiny of these experts. After all, the LEGO idea is one of a platform for endless ideas.

Lillis: This may be out of your department, but can you speak a bit to the process and challenges inherent in using a licensed property as the basis for a LEGO kit?

Weckstrom: This really is the expertise of our licensing department and some of our designers. Broadly speaking we will carefully assess whether an IP has a close fit with our company values and work very closely with the IP owner to ensure that we live up to the demands of the license owner and vice versa – that the product will embody the inspiration to build many more ideas than what simply comes in the box.

Lillis: Typically in the product design process, there are models and prototypes, testing, evaluation and design iterations. How does this mesh with your customer co-creation programs?

Weckstrom: There are different ways of doing co-creation – one is simply coming up with ideas and defining what would make a difference to people. That is more about identifying unmet needs and understanding which ideas resonate with people. Going all the way to co-creating a specific product is something we do with some of our Adult Fans of LEGO, who are experts in their domains, for instance Mindstorms - we work in-depth with them and they are part of every step of the design process.

Lillis: In what ways have you used technology in new ways to include the customer in the design process?

We use online panels and forums, but they are really the infrastructure to a much more important thing: meeting face-to-face. In our experience no technology can replace the value of human interaction and for co-creation to really work, you have to start by building relationships and trust with people. That makes communication easier and also makes people feel part of the project team in a completely different way. We all crave the human touch after all.

Lillis: Have you seen evidence that customer-created kits fill a void in your product line? Or do many remain niche products?

Weckstrom: LEGO Architecture is a great example of how a fan-created enterprise on the LEGO platform has come in to completely revolutionalise the souvenir industry and also to become a great product appealing to a different audience that we would normally do. Adam Reed Tucker has designed all the sets, and we are now his supply chain – producing the bricks for him that he then distributes all over the place. A very exciting joint venture.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Open-Source Authenticity

Today's New York Times "Ideas and Trends" feature is pegged to the flap over German novelist Helene Hegemann's Axolotl Roadkill, which was published last month, and which plagiarizes remixes passages from various other books. Hegemann is unapologetic: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity,” she insists.

This leads the Times' Randy Kennedy to lead us in a thought exercise. Kennedy writes:
Think of almost any kind of cultural endeavor and then use the word “we” to describe its creation. The communal pronoun trips easily off the tongue when talking about the world of contemporary arts and entertainment, where things are often the product of teams, workshops, studios or institutions, where collaboration and idea-swapping are the norm. But now try applying it to creative writing, especially to fiction and poetry, and it can sound absurd: “We worked for years on the character development and the voice, and when we finally nailed the subtle epiphany, we cracked open a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.”

Not that there isn’t the occasional team-written novel. But the popular conception of the creative writer is still by and large one of the individual trying to wrestle language, maybe even the meaning of life, from his soul, the kind of lone battle Jonathan Franzen described himself waging in writing The Corrections, which he sometimes did in the dark, wearing earplugs and earmuffs, trying to hold his mind “free of clich├ęs.”
Kennedy's story isn't actually about crowdsourced or open-source art; it's not about team-writing. It's about pastiche, cut-up, remixing. But his thought exercise — well, I'm tempted to steal upcycle it for my opening remarks at SXSW!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Crowdsourcing and interactions...

What happens when you allow the members of the crowd to interact? On this blog we've looked at examples in which each member of the crowd is unaware of the other members participating in the same task, and yet collectively their efforts are aggregated in interesting ways.

Given my previous work with collective viewing patterns on YouTube, which investigated word-of-mouth interactions amongst the consumers of video content, I was excited when I came across a great example of interactions between producers of video content in this great video.

What's great about this video is that much of it could have been produced in a completely crowdsourced way by specifying rules that each participant could follow without ever interacting with the other players (cover camera for 3 seconds, rotate in chair for 10 seconds, look up for 1 second, etc). However at some point there is an actual interaction between members of the crowd when they start showing up in eachother's videos.

Makes me wonder how large something like this could be scaled up without allowing actual interactions?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Crowdsourcing within Interactive Art

Over at HiLobrow (one of my other blogs) today, our artist-in-residence Edrie (of Army of Toys) explains that Sleep No More, the American Repertory Theatre/Punchdrunk's Macbeth, a version set in an abandoned school building and described as "part installation art, part interactive, self-guided theater" — didn't sound interactive enough.

So while she was waiting on line to enter the show. Edrie handed out nearly 30 red feathers to other theatergoers, with the following instructions:
  • You can keep this in your pocket as a souvenir for your time in line
  • You can hold it out to other people you meet and see what happens
  • You can use the feather to interact with the set without disturbing the integrity of the play

To one participant she gave a blue feather, with these instructions:

  • Give this to a person with a red feather and quietly let them know they must not keep it but pass it on to another person with a red feather

Read on to find out what happened.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Q&A With Shawn Allen of Stamen Design

Shawn Allen is a partner at Stamen Design, a small San Francisco-based firm with big ideas. Stamen does lots of work with maps, data visualization, information trends, and collective think-tankery. Indirect Collaboration's Tim Lillis interviewed Shawn about Stamen's process and philosophy in February 2010.

Lillis: Stamen Design seems to occupy a space somewhere between a design firm and a think tank. Are your research projects driven by your commercial work, vice-versa, or other?

Allen: Probably more vice-versa. I think of most of our work as "research" in the sense that we often don't really know what we're building when we start. Through the process of investigating the data and visualizing it for ourselves, we come up with something that our clients can either (in the case of more commercial projects) provide to their users or (in the case of our more think-tanky work) use to learn something interesting about their own information. The really good projects provide us with an opportunity to play with some new technology or investigate an idea that's been rattling around in our heads for a while. If we don't find that opportunity in our commercial work, though, we usually end up just building it for ourselves—this is how Crimespotting came to be.

Lillis: Crimespotting was a big hit for you guys. Can you tell me more about its inception?

Allen: Oakland Crimespotting was originally a research project of Mike Migurski's. He was laid up in bed with a bad back and wanted to figure out a way that he could get useful information out of his city's official crime map. This thing is awful. You have to click through at least five forms until it even shows you a map, and when it does the data is often filtered down to too small of a subset to be useful. So he set about building an application that would basically submit every permutation of the application's forms, grab the images generated by each submission, find crime icons on them then put the locations and other metadata into his own database. In the process of creating interactive maps to look at the data he was collecting, he also built the first version of Modest Maps, a open source map interaction library which we now use for pretty much every single one of our map-related commercial projects.

Lillis: What are some of the public conversations that have opened up as a result of Crimespotting?

A lot of people see Crimespotting as a shining example of open data, and a way for citizens to inform themselves about their community. During the site's first year we got some great feedback from Oakland residents who were bringing spreadsheets generated by Crimespotting to their regular meetings with local police officers and asking them what they were doing about, for instance, the recent rash of auto thefts in their neighborhood. Crimespotting armed these citizens with information that they used to have to rely on the police to get.

It's been a while since we've heard any more of those stories, though. Most mentions of Crimespotting that we read on the internet these days simply marvel at the number of dots on the map. Crimespotting does much more than just show you points on a map, though. You can get RSS feeds for crimes in your beat. We've applied for a grant to invest some serious time in Crimespotting and turn it into a site that engages journalists and (hopefully) fosters more direct civic engagement.

Lillis: Many of your projects depend on information coming from somewhere else. What has your experience been with government sources vs. citizen, or crowdsourced data?

Allen: My experience has been that just getting the data in the first place is the most difficult part of the process, regardless of the source. Crimespotting's original Oakland manifestation was an exercise in freeing a source of data that had never before been made publicly available, whereas the San Francisco version was built in less than a week after some very nice municipal employees who'd been tasked with opening the city's data provided us with a KML feed. The devil is in the details, though, and we often spend the entire duration of a project working out the specifics of data formats, timeliness, and completeness with our clients. We still don't have homicides in our San Francisco crime feed, for instance.

Lillis: In your In The News project, it seems that at some point you had to shut it down because you had too much information. Did you think about adding filters to create a unique experience for each user? Are there other ways you considered dealing with this surplus?

Allen: I actually just started working with Mike and Eric after they'd finished In the News, so I'm not qualified to answer that first question. But generally speaking, yes: while our first inclination—and our preference, I think—is to show everything, there are indeed data sets simply too large or complex to be visualized usefully in their entirety. One of the things that I think we do best is create interfaces that allow the user to filter data down into subsets that are manageable. It's important to build tools that can be played with and manipulated easily and in realtime. Those interactions are what help people discover new and exciting things at their own pace.

Lillis: I think we all have assumptions that we make about what "the crowd" is doing or thinking. Were you surprised by some of the patterns you saw emerging through your projects?

Allen: Absolutely. When I was working on the Digg Labs pieces I was constantly surprised at all of the weird stuff that people were submitting and digging. The dog pile effect of particularly big stories—which, in the world of tech, means events like the iPhone announcement and the AACS encryption key controversy—was pretty shocking, and a lot of fun to watch. Some stories broke on Digg before they broke on major news outlets, and it was fascinating to watch the conversation around them develop in this totally organic environment. It felt especially voyeuristic before the tools launched, too, because nobody knew that they were being watched like that. For a brief period we toyed with the idea of building versions of the visualizations that would help Digg find bots and track other abuses. But the public visualizations ended up being much more interesting and buzz-worthy.

Lillis: In the projects where you're collecting live data, have you witnessed people "playing to the room," where they seem to have changed their behavior because they know they're being monitored?

Allen: No doubt. Some Digg users dugg so many stories that their dots on Swarm turned into giant yellow orbs bigger than the stories themselves. A couple of people even posted videos on YouTube of their activity making the visualizations do weird stuff. Some stories blew up so quickly that they took over the screen, as was also the case during the MTV VMAs last September, when Kanye  West stormed the stage and interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech. At the height of that controversy there were thousands of mentions of Kanye on Twitter every minute, and a significant portion of them also happened to use the word "asshole":

Lillis: In some instances you're pulling in multiple data sets, have you had occasion to combine these to create or offer something you weren't expecting?

Allen: We've done some pretty cool stuff with a group called MySociety in the UK that cross references multiple data sets. Tom Carden created the first of our interactive travel time maps, which overlaid the shape representing how far you can get via public transit within a given time period with the cost of homes in the same area. The thresholds for each variable were adjustable individually and in realtime, and the map showed you areas where the data overlapped—that is, where you could buy a house for less than £500k *and* get to work from in less than an hour. We later developed this into a slippy map which you could pan and zoom, and introduced a third variable: "scenicness" scores culled from a site that MySociety set up to crowdsource Flickr photo ratings that could help you filter out less visually appealing regions.

Lillis: On your site, you refer to your clients as collaborators, how important is this distinction in your work?

Allen: I would say that it's paramount. The tighter our connection with the client, the faster things happen. We appreciate that some clients are going to defer to us on every design-related decision, but the smart ones who can call us out and involve themselves in the process are typically more fun to work with. We thrive on fast-paced projects, rapid iteration, and constructive feedback. If we haven't spoken to our client in a week something's broken.