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Oyster Heartbeats at the World Bank

Yesterday an international audience of development, media, business, NGO, and technology experts attending a session of the 2015 Meetings of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund listened to an oyster’s heart beating.  It was a surprising session in many ways, and relevant to this blog’s focus.

Illustration:  Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pen and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

The session was “Big Data for a More Resilient World,” (video coverage here) where one of the keynote speakers, Ros Harvey, Chief Strategy Advisor of the Knowledge Economy Institute, described how the “Internet of Things” enables oyster farmers in Tasmania to integrate data about the heartbeats and other biorhythms of oysters to weather and water temperature data. Harvey’s presentation, as well as those of other speakers–from Intel, Google, the World Economic Forum, Caribou Digital as well as the author of Resilience-Why Things Bounce Back, Andrew Zolli–all emphasized the need for those grappling with so-called “big data” to find ways to put that data to use by the people generating it.

One take-away, definitely, was a sense of the embryonic nature of this topic for people, even specialists (if there are any yet) in “big data,” in all industries. A strong dose of humility about mankind’s collective readiness for this world–surprisingly (and certainly refreshingly)–was evident throughout the session, in this attendee’s view. Presentations and comments toggled frequently between the opportunities and dangers involved.  All speakers emphasized the need to move beyond “data” to focusing on “information,” complex systems and business models, thus tying the subject to the topic of resilience, a topic explored earlier on this blog.  Hence, the post about this event, with regard to some of the most thought-provoking insights from the event’s speakers.

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Image credit: Photo of Andrew Zolli’s presentation given at the World Bank on Big Data and The Future of Resilience, 15 April 2015

The organizers noted that Big Data is one of the most important topics in the development world today but more than half of development experts think their sector is not prepared to use these possibilities.  Zolli presented a slide showing the “grand synthesis” of the elements of Big Data (a photo of which taken at the event is provided here).

Zolli, the author who has recently joined Planet Labs (where, he noted, one of the first employees of the companies was an “artist-in-residence”), noted that “we live in this world of super wicked problems, entangled, complicated..”  How people can persist, recover, and thrive in this world is “our collective resilience challenge.”  The challenge is that change is happening all around us and we can’t see it, he said.  Zolli demonstrated our inability to see this change with a short visual game he played with the audience.

In a world “dominated by the giant hairball” (of complexity), data has a role to play in helping us to be resilient. But what’s important, he says, is that we want to move from the “realm of big data” to the “realm of big indicators.” The Elements of Resilience–each of which is interconnected with the others–presented by Zolli include:

Building Regenerative Capacity

Sensing Emerging Risks

Responding to Disruption

Learning and Transformation

To move to the “realm of big indicators,” Zolli emphasized that “entirely new social architectures” need to be built and that we “need to reengineer relationships as much as we have to reengineer our institutions.” Some of the examples he cited of this at work, in addition to Planet Labs, were other geospatial providers, such as Digital Global and Zooniverse, which he described as “sophisticated crowdsourcing platforms”.  These are using citizen science for disaster response, such as Planet Labs’ work before and after the Tacloban disaster in the Philippines.

Wicked problems, said Zolli, “resist mere cleverness.”  Big Data is not simply “push-the-button.” It is necessary to drag unconventional players into the effort, into “adhocracies.”  Only in this way, might wicked problems “yield to mass cleverness.”

Illustration:  Pencil and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Illustration: Pencil and ink by Black Elephant Blog author

Harvey was next up, with a short video of the oyster farmers at work in Tasmania. She said:  that big data is not only about connecting people, processes, and things but also animals.   Being able to measure the oysters’ heart rates and integrate that data with weather and water conditions, for instance, epitomized the potential of the “Internet of Things,” she said. The challenge is “how do we ‘architect’ technology so the benefits accrue to the many?”  How can we create public good with private effort?  According to Harvey, “It is the new business models that will drive the disruption from the technology.”   Working together from a common data source creates new value, but there is a need to design systems based on 3 principles, known in shorthand as “SOS:”

Sustainable

Open Innovation

Scalable

“We need to understand that much of the world’s data is in the private sector” but “open innovation” requires that many people work on the problems.  Also the efforts must be sustainable.  They should not depend on funding that “comes and goes.” The Knowledge Economy Institute where Harvey works  focuses on such ways to solve complex problems through collaboration and innovation.

Nigel Snoad from Google, was next and said his work is focused on how to make critical information more accessible in times of crisis.  Snoad noted that the unexpected happens when you give people an “open tool” and “open APIs” are “where we’re going.” He cited Google Flu Trends as an example, but emphasized the Big Data is not a silver bullet.  This is because Big Data comes from “very complex systems.”  It is therefore necessary to “understand the systems” behind Big Data.

The moderated panel closing the session featured the founder of Caribou Digital, Chris Locke; Associate Director of the World Economic Forum’s Telecommunications Industry William Hoffman; and Senior Principal Engineer of the Strategy Group at Intel, Tony Salvador.  Key highlights among their comments included:

  • The poor don’t need more surveillance;
  • We need to get data on things that the people on the ground actually care about.
  • It’s not a technology problem; it’s a business model problem.
  • These technologies have ‘interpretive flexibility’ that can be used to concentrate power.
  • We are just beginning to understand this.  Now we understand that it’s about complex systems.
  • We need to talk about “information” and understand that it is a social construct.
  • There is a growing recognition of public-private partnerships.
  • The potential is there but it’s about Governance. This is in the next set of ‘grand challenges’.
  • We need to examine some of the fundamentals that underline the systems we have today.
  • What is the context of production [of Big Data] and what is the context of analysis once we have that data?
  • Sometimes we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
  • How can we unlock that data and make it valuable to the people it’s coming from?
  • We need to listen. We don’t want to go down the path of reinventing our own assumptions.
  • Big data is potentially big power…These [business] models need to be liberated from, and [sustained?] above, the level of individual institutions.
  • We will see models emerge that will be surprising.
  • We need to follow up with social encouragement and deep engagements.
  • APIs that speak up out of the platforms
  • Data can have value and merit right where it’s being collected
  • Due process is an important topic. Things will go wrong. What will the most vulnerable do when things go wrong?

All in all, a rich hour-and-a-half session at the World Bank Headquarters yesterday, and a contribution to the state of understanding on this topic which affects everyone, even oysters.

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