The first panel of the day was on how various organizations use social media and internet-enabled data to create real-time awareness. The panel was moderated by Dr. Linton Wells (National Defense University) and included panelists Robert Bectel (Department of Energy), Robert Kirkpatrick (UN Global Pulse), Ahmed Al Omran (NPR), and Clark Freifeld (HealthMap.org). Each discussed what real-time awareness meant in their own organizations.
DISCLAIMER: this is a fraction of what was covered, for other takeaways, check out the #techatstate hash-tag on Twitter.
Bechtel believes the job of government is to give people access to data and information. He says his job is to develop smart leads and then turn them loose so the public can see them and take action. To do this, it’s important to make information available, like providing access to research and science in easy to access formats. For instance, if you have a smart grid with 89 billion data points, what are you going to do with all this data? It doesn’t matter how many Ph.D.’s are in your organization, you can lease it to the public and asking them to do something with it.
One problem in international development is that traditional tools (surveys, studies) can’t keep up with the new, dynamic reality of what’s happening on the ground. Now that we’re swimming in an ocean of data, there is huge potential. For instance, how can we look for patterns that people leave behind in data when they lose jobs, get sick, or decide to pull children out of schools to make ends meet? Kirkpatrick’s organization seeks to understand the data, tools, and partnerships needed to have real-time indicators of human welfare. One use of real-time awareness I found particularly interesting was the idea of a world without pilots. What if we could skip the pilot stage and implement solutions, monitor data constantly, and adjust in real-time.
Al Omran discussed his background as a blogger whose family disapproved of his blogging, thinking he’d get in trouble. This proved true when his blogger friends were detained and his family was intimidated by the government. Yet, he felt part of a larger community of bloggers and activists who were seeking to make change. He explained this same type of network existed in Egypt well before Arab Spring came about. Those networks of bloggers and activists were likely in place for up to ten years before the main event.
He discussed the use of social media during Arab Spring and discussed the difficulty of classifying the journalism that took place on social media. Was it Journalism? Aggregation? Filtering? Cultivation? His definition of what took place: real-time news gathering operations happening in an open source newsroom. In this environment, followers aren’t just an audience. Instead, they are sources and fact checkers; verification happens in real time. He notes that the audience will likely always be more knowledgeable than the news source. To conclude, Al Omran pointed out that the ability to take advantage of the information is still not quite there. Better software is still needed to filter and better presentation methods are important for a general audience.
The traditional public health model is a linear flow of information from public, to local public health officials, national health officials, and finally pan-national officials (e.g. WHO). Today, in parallel to this process is an informal information exchange that connects all practitioners at once, allowing for quick action. But the problem exists in the new, real-time model enabled by social media: how do you increase the signal to noise ratio?
HealthMap.Org is a free, interactive dashboard that allows users to monitor disease outbreaks around the world. It relies on an automated system that accesses tens of thousands of websites in 10 languages each hour. The filtering system uses machine learning to continue to improve accuracy, which now stands at around 91%. Finally, humans remain in the loop, too. Multi-lingual analysts review and refine classifications and help train the system to assist with filtering.
Freifeld also addressed concerns about the relevance and quality of individual reports from the public. In addition to specific ways you can try to verify individual reports, you can aggregate the rate of submissions. During the H1N1 outbreak, the crowd-sourced results tracked quite closely with CDC metrics.
Way too much info for me to keep up with here, but thought I’d note one of the interesting questions that came up. There was some concern about Twitter’s recent announcement on censorship policies. Omran argues that while it’s still censorship, Twitter went about making the policy in a transparent fashion. Some activists think it’s not a worst case scenario, because if Twitter censors a tweet, based on a government’s request, it only does so in that country, not everywhere. Plus, he pointed out, you can always just change your location on Twitter…
What’s the enduring impact?
How do you carry the momentum forward, to help reconstruct disaster-stricken areas, or move forward in Arab Spring countries?
Al Omran: The best thing about technology is not the technology itself, but how people use it. There are already examples of how people are using technology for other purposes. In Egypt, citizen-journalist co-ops have sprung up. It’s up to the people to take advantage of these tools and use them creatively. People will always use tools in ways their creators never imagined.
Kirkpatrick: Once you bring real-time analytics and social media into play, you have many to many relationship and collective awareness, which enables collective action. The implication is that these tools have the potential to create new kinds of identity and, thus, a new awareness of issues.
Bectel: Break tools. Find new ways to use them. The way we’ll get smart by using Twitter and Facebook is by going to them and saying “we want to do this very different thing.” Don’t get stuck using them the same way. Be ready to move forward.