Friday, 31 December 2010

Living Earth Simulator aims to predict everything that's happening on our planet

I thought I had stumbled across an old Goodies script, or a pilot episode for Dr Who, but no, this is real. As ambitous projects go, this one must be right up there alongside making Heathrow a world-class airport.

The Living Earth Simulator will collect all the data in the entire world, to predict everything from the next major disease outbreak to the next financial crisis. And taking a leaf from the Large Hadron Collder - we now have the concept of a "knowledge accelerator that can collide different fields of knowledge" - i.e. a "knowledge collider". (Note to self: must add that term to my repetoir of knowledge management jargon).

Call me an old sceptic, but I've yet to see any evidence that collecting more and more data makes us better at predicting the future, or that it is even possible to accurately capture social trends as a mathematical model.

With fairly limited data at my disposal, I'm willing to predict that the UK will come to a grinding halt with the first flurry of snow and ice next December 2011. Of course....lessons will be learnt (maybe from LES?)!

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Living Earth Simulator aims to predict everything that's happening on our planetThe Living Earth Simulator is quite possibly the most ambitious computer project ever undertaken. This all-encompassing simulation will collect all the data in the entire world, to predict everything from the next major disease outbreak to the next financial crisis.

The Living Earth Simulator could do for our modern world what the Large Hadron Collider has done for the early universe, says project chair Dr. Dirk Helbing. He calls the LES a "knowledge accelerator" that can collide different fields of knowledge to produce a far greater understanding of what's going on in the world around us.

Such a program, he says, could help show us the next epidemic before it starts, illuminate better ways to deal with climate change, and predict when the next recession will hit. According to Dr. Helbing, the answers to all these mysteries can be found by examining the sum total of human activity:

"Many problems we have today - including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading - are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work. Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century."

So where would they get all the data from? Lots of different organizations are already compiling massive amounts of data, and these would help feed into the Living Earth Simulator. Possible sources would include NASA's Planetary Skin project, which tracks climate data on every corner of the globe, as well as more everyday sites like Google Maps and, yes, Wikipedia. Helbing and his team also plan to incorporate medical records, the latest financial information, and, most frighteningly of all, everything that's going on in the world of social media.

Of course, once all that data is together, there's still the question of what to do with any of it. Helbing says this will require cooperation between social scientists and computer scientists to create the rules and programming that the LES needs to interpret the data and create an accurate model of the Earth as it is today. We've only now got the technology advanced enough to pull off such an endeavor, and it will still be very tricky.

Part of the solution, Dr. Helbing explains, is the rise of semantic web technology. This simple but powerful concept makes a computer see information not just as a set of numbers but as specific data in a specific context, meaning computers will be able to tell the difference between the seemingly random numbers making up, say, financial markets and weather reports in much the same way humans can.

An obvious question to ask is just how much the LES will be able to learn about particular people. On this point, Helbing argues that the vastness of the project should protect everyone's privacy, as the LES's aggregative strips out all individual data in an effort to create an overall picture.

Once you collect all the data and program the simulator, actually running the LES is relatively simple. Yes, the project will need huge banks of supercomputers to run the entire program, but the processing power required isn't beyond what we're currently capable of. Computer expert Pete Warden says that, in all probability, we do have the processing power to handle what the LES requires. That said, he's skeptical about whether the LES could actually produce useful results:

"Economics and sociology have consistently failed to produce theories with strong predictive powers over the last century, despite lots of data gathering. I'm sceptical that larger data sets will mark a big change. It's not that we don't know enough about a lot of the problems the world faces, from climate change to extreme poverty, it's that we don't take any action on the information we do have."

To this point, Dr. Helbing argues that the LES will offer predictive far in advance of our previous models, as it would be able to see global recessions and disease outbreaks coming before they really get started. It's a bold claim, and we won't know for sure what the real capabilities of the LES are until the day that it's up and running.


Thursday, 30 December 2010

Top 10 Semantic Web Products of 2010

This seems to be the time of the year for top tens. Semantic in the context of this list is any product that adds meaning and context to data.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Top 10 Startups of 2010

Seems like a good way to round off 2010 by looking at some of the startups that have identified their niche market and USP. Will these still be around in 12 months time? Who knows, but all credit to them for addressing important consumer and business pain-points in particularly innovative ways.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The deep, profound allure of the beta test

"If it’s new, unproven and likely to be out of business before dinnertime, I want it. If it requires a hefty capital investment, great. If it locks me into a proprietary system that the market is likely to reject, leaving me high and dry, even better. What I’m saying is, bring the shiny, because I really like the shiny."

If this appeals to you (as it does to me) head on over to right away!

Friday, 10 December 2010

Communities of Practice in Public Service

Just a blatant bit of self-promotion really. Details of a presentation I did recently on how to create a trusted environement for sharing knowledge. Focus was primariliy on Communities of Interest or Practice, and aimed at third sector organisations. Please also check out the other presentations at this link.

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Managing User Generated Content



This seminar looked at the challenges and opportunities of user generated content.

The level of engagement with user generated content across the third sector is highly varied. Some organisations have thriving online communities, others have made costly investments which have failed to live up to expectations, and some have yet to dip their toes into this area.

The seminar, held on 24th November 2010, looked at the practicalities organisations face when implementing user-generated content and the dangers of choosing not to engage at this level.

Steve Dale – Encouraging communities to share knowledge and creating a trusted environment

  • The difference between a Community of Practice (CoP) and social media is that a CoP has a defined purpose

  • Social media sites such as Facebook are not trusted, so people are considerably less willing to share knowledge on social media sites

  • Creating an initial "critical mass":

    1. Hold an initial physical launch in which potential contributors are invited and can register

    2. Use facilitators (different from moderators) to drive the CoPs, these should be selected from active participants

    3. Mix online activity with offline e.g. if no one is responding to an particular thread contact them physically (e.g. by phone) and ask them to contribute


Wednesday, 8 December 2010

How Google can thrive in the age of Facebook

Some good points here about the dangers of adopting a 'me too' strategy as opposed to amplifying your own strengths. Maybe Google should stop trying to be a social network and look to providing better integration between its myriad products (vidoes, maps, books, blogs, news, docs sites....etc.). Not forgetting the ace in the pack - Google is an open web environment, whereas Facebook is closed, i.e. information you put in is held hostage forever. Once users' realise that their information has value, they might begin to think more seriously about where they want put it.

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By some measures. we're hitting an Internet age that leaves Google behind. But here's a prescription to keep search relevant in the face of Facebook's social empire.

Google and Facebook logosBeing king of the web is a short-lived gig. Only several years ago the web was navigated by search and Google was the clear king of innovation. Now, as the web takes on an increasingly social structure we seem to be heading into the Age of Facebook.

By some measures, it will be an age where Google isn't welcome. The company has long been seen as a one-trick pony, gifted at search and little else. It's stumbled again and again in social media with Orkut, Buzz and Wave – efforts that were at best mixed successes. Increasingly, executives and engineers in Silicon Valley openly declare that Google can't beat Facebook at its own game. Underscoring the pessimism, several key employees have bolted Google for Facebook in recent months.

Meanwhile, Facebook is expected to earn $3.2 billion in revenue next year, mostly from online ads – which is more than Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) makes on display ads alone. Time is running out for Google to find a way to keep its revenue and profit growing. Doing that will mean thriving in social media. While there's not a single strategy that Google can use to reach that goal, there are several approaches that can help. And early signs are that Google is busy taking those steps.

1. Don't copy Facebook.

Copying Google's search engine didn't work for Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), or Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) – it only made clearer that they were laggards. Besides, Orkut was Google's attempt to copy Friendster and MySpace, and while Orkut was popular in India and Brazil, it never gained traction elsewhere.

Instead, Google would be smarter to study how people are behaving as the web evolves and then anticipating how the social web will operate in the future. Google hasn't offered too many details on what kind of social features it's building, but CEO Eric Schmidt has said it won't be a full-on social networking site but a social component built into existing Google products.

This approach has its risks as well. Google has a large installed base of users with, for example, Gmail. Google Buzz, a second-generation social network, failed in good part because of how Google handled the importing of Gmail contacts into Buzz connections.

Since Buzz, Google went back to its drawing board. Since then, one of the worst-kept secrets in Silicon Valley has been what a project called Google Me, an ambitious effort not to launch a new service like Buzz, but to incorporate a social element into all the services associated with a Google account – documents, calendars, photos on Picasa, videos on YouTube. Throw in the Google Music store it's long been planning as well as the ebooks for sale on the newly announced Google Editions and there starts to emerge a critical mass of services that a social layer could be built upon.

2. Focus on Facebook's weaknesses.

A few months ago, a 224-page Powerpoint presenation by a member of Google's user-experience team made the rounds. It thoughtfully made the case that our online identities aren't one-dimensional, that we all interact differently at work, with family, with friends, etc., and that social networks don't reflect that complexity. The presentation was seen as a vulnerability of Facebook that Google could attack.

Facebook responded quickly with Groups, which lets users share different content with various groups of friends. But Google had made its point: Facebook can't do everything, and there is room on the web for different approaches to social media. It made clear that Google would try to focus its strengths on Facebook's weaknesses.

It also explains why Schmidt takes every opportunity he can to swear that Google takes privacy seriously. He's not just regretting the privacy brouhaha that greeted the launch of Buzz, he's taking aim at the loudest and most consistent complaint about Facebook – its cavalier attitude toward privacy.

Facebook has pushed our comfort levels on privacy for a long time. Zuckerberg has argued that in time we'll all grow to accept that there is no privacy anymore on the web. But the reality is, as I've argued before, Facebook can't make its social ads pay without collecting and sharing as much personal data as it does.

3. Invest in a customer base.

So what does Google do if it builds a social component throughout its myriad products and nobody uses it? That was the problem with Wave, a well-designed tool for real-time collaboration that Google quietly killed this summer.

In fact, it's the Catch-22 that fells many social sites: Nobody wants to sign up unless their friends sign up, and their friends don't sign up because their own friends haven't signed up...

To start a fire under its social offerings, Google may become aggressive in buying startups with a strong social bent. It approached Yelp with little success, and is often mentioned as a suitor for Twitter. This week, Google is reportedly talking with Groupon, a deal-of-the-day site with a loyal customer base.

Viewed from one angle these deals don't make sense because many users of a site bought by Google are already Google users. But from another angle, that's the beauty of it. If Google owned Twitter, say, then users might start interacting with each other in Picasa, or documents. Google has the cash to keep buying other startups – a music site with social connections like Spotify or Mog, for example – until it can nurture a viable user base for its social layer.

It's too early to count Google out of the social web. Its failures in the field to date are ominous only if Google hasn't learned from them. It needs to do a lot of things right to succeed, but if it does, then we may not be calling this the Age of Facebook for very long.


Impact of the new Facebook Profile Page on business social media - San Diego online marketing |

Some useful information about the Facebook Profile page changes. One of the big changes to all this is a change to the way Facebook will roll the change out. Often criticized for making wholesale changes, Facebook will allow uers to opt-in to the new profile page.