Susan kindly shared with us an article she wrote with input from her participating colleagues from ILRI during day 1 of the workshop.
Whither Research Communications?
Should they be about
building ‘knowledge management systems’
or holding more and better ‘conversations’?
Susan MacMillan, Liz Ogutu, Boni Moyo and Richard Fulss.
Steve Song, of Shuttleworth Foundation (formerly of Canada’s International Develop-ment Research Centre, where he led the ICT programs for Africa), was the first workshop presenter. He described two changes in communications. First, Carl Rogers helped change the notion of information as a static thing to produce or ‘get’ to a ‘moving’ phenomenon to participate in. Second, science is no longer perceived as a ‘union with truth’ but rather as a social enterprise.
But by far the biggest change, Song said, is our new connectedness. If you are connected in an interactive network, more isn’t just ‘more’. ‘More’ in this case is different.
Song described ‘The Birthday Paradox’ to illustrate this point. Most of us think that among 35 people, the chance of two people sharing the same birthday is little. That is not true. Among 5 people, the number of connections is 10, not 5. Among 10 people, you have 45 opportunities for connections. And among 35 people, there exist literally hundreds of connections.
Being ‘density connected’ through mobile networks and the internet offers brand new opportunities. We need to build two different kinds of capital to go to scale with our research innovations: ‘bonding capital’ and ‘bridging capital’. The unprecedented density of today’s networks allows us to do this.
Over the last 5 years, people have started 180 million blogs. In the last 2 years, the Twitter website has become an important new form of micro-blogging—rather like sms-ing for the web—that limits communications to 160 characters. This has become a profoundly using tool for bridging capital. People are subscribing to Twitter feeds from others. In just 2 years it has grown exponentially, with 3 million ‘tweets’ now produced every day. Several of the media analysis pieces focus on how Twitter is being used more frequently than blogs to share information. That makes sense, given the fast-moving nature of the events. Twitter’s a strong tool for real-time reporting, especially given the ease of posting from mobile platforms – we saw friends like Juliana Rotich reach for Twitter when reporting on violence in the Rift Valley of Kenya earlier this year.
Here is Steve Song on his blog about Twitter:
‘There are more obvious ICT-related examples of constraint leading to innovation such as the 160 character constraint of SMS messages leading to an entirely new form of expression. This innovation has helped accelerate the growth of similarly-constrained microblogging services like Twitter. In fact, the discipline enforced by Twitter and text messaging has proven so popular that we see proposals like five.sentenc.es which propose to constrain email to a more distilled format.’
For me this can also be seen as an incremental edging up of the quality and clarity threshold for communication on the Internet. As we are overwhelmed with increasingly amounts of information, our tolerance for poorly crafted, excessively wordy communication decreases.
The average user of the web is not your average user. A few people provide massive contributions while most remain consumers doing a few interesting things. That is completely normal communications behaviour.
‘Conversation’ may be a better term than ‘knowledge management’ for what we want to do. Cory Doctorow, an open source guru, says: ‘Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.’ Seth Godin says, ‘It’s not about whether you blog or not but whether you are part of the conversations of others.’ John Seely-Brown transforms the Cartesian notion of ‘I think, therefore I am’ into ‘We participate, therefore we are’.
Here is Ethan Zuckerman on his famous blog, My Heart’s in Accra, on knowledge management systems vs short videos:
Inside [the Spanish telecommunications giant] Telefonica, Domingo’s hoping to unlock information and increase communication between members of his team by aggressively embracing social media. Rather than trying to dig ideas out of a giant document repository, the knowledge management system that so many large companies have embraced, he’s instituted an internal video sharing service. Researchers working on projects get two minutes to explain their work to their colleagues – some break the rules and run long, but most as well-behaved, and it’s possible to get the gist of most projects with just a few seconds of video, making it far easier to surf through than a huge document repository. (I assume they’re heavily tagged and annotated to make them highly searchable.) Using Yammer, 350 members of his team share ideas on a Twitter-like network that’s closed to the company, and encourages employees to share what they’re working on and what problems they could use help with.
And here is Ethan Zuckerman on necessity being the mother of invention:
Innovation comes from constraint. And most of us aren’t smart enough to know what to do with a blank canvas.
My argument was that innovation often comes from unusual and difficult circumstances—constraints—and that it’s often wiser to look for innovation in places where people are trying to solve difficult, concrete problems rather than where smart people are sketching ideas on blank canvases.
I offered seven rules that appear to help explain how (some) developing world innovation proceeds:
• Innovation (often) comes from constraint (If you’ve got very few resources, you’re forced to be very creative in using and reusing them.)
• Don’t fight culture (If people cook by stirring their stews, they’re not going to use a solar oven, no matter what you do to market it. Make them a better stove instead.)
• Embrace market mechanisms (Giving stuff away rarely works as well as selling it.)
• Innovate on existing platforms (We’ve got bicycles and mobile phones in Africa, plus lots of metal to weld. Innovate using that stuff, rather than bringing in completely new tech.)
• Problems are not always obvious from afar (You really have to live for a while in a society where no one has currency larger than a $1 bill to understand the importance of money via mobile phones.)
• What you have matters more than what you lack (If you’ve got a bicycle, consider what you can build based on that, rather than worrying about not having a car, a truck, a metal shop.)
• Infrastructure can beget infrastructure (By building mobile phone infrastructure, we may be building power infrastructure for Africa – see my writings on incremental infrastructure.)
Participating in web conversations allows people to transcend time and space. Social networking tools and their related meritocracy processes allow people to find people key to solving their problems. The reality as well as the assumption is that somebody else out there has the key to unlocking your puzzle. And if you do not use these web tools, others will, and they will get there (to solutions) before you. That’s the new reality.
Here is David Tait on his blog on innovation in Africa:
Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution, rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.
The mathematics of connectedness mean that mobile networks are enablers. In the next web generation, for example, information and people will find you as often as you will find information and people. There is an explosion of sms-ing in developing countries, with new tools now bridging the internet and mobile phones. In 5 years you won’t know the difference between these tools. Twitter is used on internet and web. There is a merger of these platforms.
You have to leave traces of yourself on the internet so people can find you. Leave breadcrumbs online and develop an online personality. We have to develop the skills to ‘drive’ in this new world, so we are using the wealth of roads and road signs rather than being overwhelmed by them.
Those who are well connected have access to a ‘meritocracy of ideas’ that hugely facilitates learning. For example, ‘The Giant Pool of Money, an episode of ‘This American Life’ broadcast on National Public Radio, was a cogent explanation of the global credit crunch, a highly lucid way of explaining this that was recycled broadly on the web.
Other cool stuff mentioned
Technorati is a kind of blog-ometer of the internet; it measures the success of blogs, providing a kind of meritocracy of blogging.
Digg also allows the most useful sites to rise to the top of the pile. People discover and share content from anywhere on the web by submitting links and stories, and voting and commenting on submitted links and stories. Voting stories up and down is the site’s cornerstone function. Many stories get submitted every day, but only the most Dugg stories appear on the front page.
Facebook, the internet’s largest social network, gives people the power to share and makes the world more open and connected. Millions of people use Facebook everyday to keep up with friends, upload an unlimited number of photos, share links and videos, and learn more about the people they meet. Most of Facebook’s features depend on the idea that there are people in your life that you like to stay in touch with, keep up with, and generally connect with. On Facebook, whether these people are best friends, family, coworkers, or acquaintances, once you connect to them, they are considered Facebook friends.
Quake-Catcher Network: http://qcn.stanford.edu/
Quake-Catcher Network is like a seismograph that can measure lateral motion. It is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers.
With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes and give early warning to schools and emergency response systems.
Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/
Creative Commons is a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works available for others to build upon legally and to share. The organization has released several copyright licenses known as Creative Commons Licenses, which allow creators to communicate which rights they reserve, and which rights they waive for the benefit of other creators. You can use CC to change your copyright terms from ‘All Rights Reserved’ to ‘Some Rights Reserved’.
OpenROSA is an initiative for data capture that will work on a variety of networks. The OpenROSA consortium reduces duplication of effort among the many groups working on mobile data collection systems by fostering open-source, standards-based tools for mobile data collection, aggregation, analysis, and reporting.
MXit is a free instant messaging program for your mobile phone and PCs. You can use it chat to other MXit users on their mobiles and PCs, anywhere in the world, for free. It enables you to send and receive text messages to and from mobile phones and PCs via the Internet using GPRS or 3G, rather than by using standard SMS technology. So each time you chat you are allowed up to 1000 characters at a fraction of the cost of an SMS.