Observing the Web as a way of making sense of a world of “wicked” problems


(Image courtesy of Thanassis Tiropanis in his “Web Observatory” presentations).

In a previous post I talked about Socrates and notion of the “examined life”. Countless words have been written on human attempts to examine the psyche, and the challenge of more effectively understanding how we can live together more harmoniously for the betterment of all.

This is what is at the heart of most governments, and during the ANZSOG Master Class earlier this year I asked John Alford what he felt was the greatest challenge which currently faces public sector managers. He felt that it was need to simultaneously manage the demands of “business as usual” with the complexity presented by the so-called “wicked problems”.

A “wicked problem” is one that “resists resolution”, and, all too often, through its own solution there emerge further “wicked problems”. In discussing this with other colleagues an interesting distinction emerged: the difference between problems that are “complex” and those that are “complicated”. When it comes to dealing with “wicked problems” many are complicated but not complex. For example the NASA Space programme. Whenever problems arose during the race to the Moon the Director asked his team three questions:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Do we still want to do this?
  3. Get on and solve the problem.

Much of what was required was to uncomplicate the seemingly complicated, to simplify and retain the essence without getting overwhelmed, and the results speak for themselves. Something that is complicated can seem to be complex, but, when it is analysed in terms of systems and processes it can be simplified and solutions can be found.

The challenges of twenty first century government and governance are both complicated and complex and, as The Economist outlined in a recent article, globalization and digital technologies are making many of the traditional systems and processes seem outdated, adding another layer of complexity. In order to even begin to deal with these issues we first need to be able to observe what is going on, and to then apply tools to those observations in order to make sense of them.

This is at the core of the Web Science “Web Observatory” initiative.

A “Web Observatory” is, in essence, a “Social Machine to observe Social Machines” (see an Overview paper here). If we consider the world of astronomy, then what the physicists do is utilse a range of telescopes (such as the “Square Kilometer Array”) to focus on a different part of the sky. From these divergent observations they construct a picture of the universe.  The Web Observatory (or “Web of Observatories”) consists of a range of Web “telescopes” which focus on particular parts of the Web (be they certain Social Machines, such as Twitter or Wikipedia or others which utilise Open Data such as maps or transport applications).


Given the vast amount of open data that is now available we are not short of telescopes, but the trick is to make sense of it, and that requires a range of tools to both visualise and analyse what is going on.

Making sense is not only the purview of scientists however; it is absolutely at the core of twenty first century policy development, and we are now contributing to this with a new ANZSOG research project “Governance in the age of Social Machines: Web Informed policy making” (an overview of which can be found as both a Overview Paper and Presentation).

This project is being undertaken in partnership with the Web Science Trust, University of Southampton, University of South Australia and Government of South Australia, and our objectives are:

  1. To develop the data publishing and governance structures which enable the SA Government to publish its data on the Observatory;
  2. To develop a methodology to utilise that data to inform policy making, and
  3. To develop cases which underpin a “digital literacy” education programme to be developed by ANZSOG together with the SA Government for delivery to other jurisdictions.

The project will address three key research questions:

  1. How do we build a “Social Machine” to better observe the workings of government?
  2. How can this Government Web Observatory better inform the creation of public policy?
  3. What are some of the key challenges, which governments will face as a result of being armed with a Web Observatory?

It is both exciting and refreshing to see organisations such as ANZSOG and others supporting initiatives such as this which focus on the core of our digital literacy and competencies. The reality is that we can have all the data in the world, but if we cannot learn to “read” it – and from there turn it into information and knowledge – then we are merely flailing about in the dark.

The UK has recognised this with it’s “teaching coding” in schools, and The House of Lords has just called for evidence for its Committee on Digital Skills stating that its goal is to examine “the digital capability of the nation”.

In his recent presentation at the National Archives “Information:  The Currency of the Digital Economy” Conference in Canberra, Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull stated that

“In reality data is not an ice-cold world of algorithms and automatons. There is an essential role for people, with all the limitations, inaccuracies, subjectivity and humanity that come with being human … It is now the responsibly of us all, government, industry and the community more broadly to unleash the latent power of today’s modern information for a common social and economic good.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need to learn to design our world for “data” as much as we need to design for humans, because with the emergence of Social Machines humans and data are becoming inextricably bound.

Posted in ANZSOG, Digital, Government, Social Machine, Web Observatory, Web Science | Comments Off

It’s about the people, stupid!


Last week I attended the “Humanising the Robot Economy” at Nesta, which was essentially the launch of “Our Work Here is Done: Visions of a Robot Economy”.

This, together with the “Fourth Revolution” at the RSA, reinforced for me the challenge we are facing as a society to both understand the integrate this current “revolution” being driven by digital information and interaction technologies.

The panel of speakers included:

  • Frances Coppola – Associate Editor at Pieria
  • Dr. Nick Hawes – Senior Lecturer in Intelligent Robotics at the University of Birmingham
  • Izabella Kaminska – Reporter for the Financial Times Alphaville service
  • Elly Truitt – Professor at Bryn Mawr College
  • Ryan Avent – Economics Correspondent, The Economist; and
  • Carlota Perez – Professor of Technology and Development, LSE and University of Tallinn).

The event was moderated by Stian Westlake, Executive Director of Policy and Research for Nesta, and brought together a range of expertise and perspectives to do with how “robots” are, and potentially will, change the economy and the relationship between humans and “work”.

Discussing “robots” can be quite an emotional topic because throughout human history the idea of “automatons” has persisted as “artificially alive devices” which can be viewed as either friend or foe – something that is of benefit to human society and something that is a threat.

According to Wikipedia a robot is a “mechanical or virtual artificial agent” which can be viewed as either friend or foe – something that is of benefit to human society and something that is a threat.

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines a robot is “any automatically operated machine that replaces human effort, though it may not resemble human beings in appearance or perform functions in a humanlike manner” and Merriam-Webster describes a robot as a “machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being”, or a “device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks”, or a “mechanism guided by automatic controls”.

In all cases the idea of a “robot” is of something that is independent of human connection, because of its “autonomous” nature and the focus on mechanical and, more recently, information engineering. But what I feel is missing in this conversation is the emerging science of bio-engineering and “bionics” and “the transfer of technology between lifeforms and manufactures”.

Let’s have a think for a minute about what is on the horizon.

Firstly, the augmenting of our “knowledge” and “information” through both personal computing, be it our smartphones permanently grafted to our palms, Google glass on our faces or our Fitbits and personal health monitors.

Secondly, the augmentation of our physical selves through the replacement or amendment of body parts (pacemakers, artificial limbs, cochlear ear implants).

Thirdly, the emerging “internet of things” where anything that can be connected to the internet via wireless technologies is being connected, uploading real-time data and increasingly integrating our physical selves to the digital universe.

As the conversation at Nesta unfolded I kept thinking about the legacy of Descartes in terms of dividing how we see the physical and social sciences, the “man in the machine” perspective, where there is a division between us and the world around us. I felt that the “robots” discussion was pretty much limited to this separation, and came away feeling that something really crucial was missing.

In his book “Built to Last” Jim Collins talks about “the tyranny of the ‘or’, and the power of the ‘and’”, and the importance of being able to consider all options at times when we are often encouraged to make a single choice. I have always subscribed to this view, and what I think was missing in the “robot society” conversation was the lack of focus on the potential convergence of humans AND machines (not necessarily Cyborgs) but certainly a much closer inter-relationship and integration, with boundaries that are increasingly blurred and ambiguous.

My intuition is telling me that this is where the real “robots” are going to have the greatest impact, and we have the early stages of this already in the concept of the “social machine”. What concerns me is that if we continue to bifurcate and divide the way we think about humans and “robot” technologies then not only will we miss out on the real opportunities, but we will be unaware of the real threats.

So, are we talking about “humanising the robot economy” or “roboticising the human economy”?

I believe we are on the brink of some crucial decisions for humanity at the minute and there is a crucial need to educate people in order to make at least a somewhat informed choice about the world they want to create. There are some exciting initiatives now under way which include:

All are contributing to the development of a “digital literacy”.

Posted in Creativity, Futures, Information, Innovation, Research, Social Machine, Social Machine, Web Science | Comments Off

Brain, soul and spirit food


This past couple of weeks I have lived in London soaking up as much as I can of life in this dynamic and vibrant city. Whilst I don’t really like being in London at this time of the year – with every man and his cat – I have used this opportunity to participate and engage in activities and events that are slightly off-beat, for which London is renowned.

The first was a talk for The School of Life event with Arianna Huffington. Huffington is an amazingly accomplished woman who has in many ways defined online publishing and speaking her mind.

In her latest book “Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Happier Life” Huffington puts out “a clarion call, a meditation, and a practical response to the question of how to live.”

I particularly loved two things that she said.

The first was the need for sleep, and to recognise how important sleep is for everyone. So many people boast about how little sleep they need, but to what extent does that leave them burnt out and suffering in the long run?

The second was the statement that you can’t do everything in life so just recognise that some things you won’t achieve … like climbing Mt Everest or learning a language when you know you’re never going to get around to doing it. Both of these comments resonated for me as I enter a phase in my own life where the careful management of energy is something crucial to how I live each day.

“Feeding the soul” is also crucial to me, and I have been raving to everyone about one of the most enlightening and insightful “artistic experiences” I have ever had, “Symphony of a Missing Room” which is part of the LIFT Festival at the Royal Academy. This “piece” (I can think of no other word) is a multi-sensory experience that guides you through the Royal Academy in a way that draws on each of the senses – sound, texture, smell, weight – and is based on the total trust that you develop with your guides and the disembodied voice which calls you.

Developed by Swedish artists Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl, they describe “Symphony” as both “a reinterpretation of an existing exhibition, and an autonomous artwork”, whilst encouraging people to engage with themselves as physical sensing beings, and to explore “reality”. What I enjoyed most about “Symphony” was the removal of the visual sense and the heightening awareness of my own presence using all other senses. In a world that I feel is overwhelmingly visual – and, as an auditory kinesthetic I sometimes struggle with the overwhelming prevalence of this, and am becoming allergic to our “screens everywhere” culture! – I loved focusing on the other ways that I draw on experience and interpret what is my own “reality”.

This notion of “reality” is one that artists have explored since time immemorial and the current “Matisse:  The Cut Outs” exhibition at the Tate Modern gives an extraordinary overview of Matisse’s work during the latter part of his life when he explored the interplay between two and three dimensions, colour and surface, as he “carved in colour” with scissors and paper. I was never a huge fan of Matisse when I studied at the Courtauld, but this exhibition won me over, and in particular the stained glass designs he did for the Chapelle dur Rosaire de Vence. For Matisse, who worked continuously throughout two European wars, his art was a mechanism of “self defence” and a refuge within which he sought a world of peace and harmony during troubled times. This echoes the words of Huffington who also speaks of the need for space amidst the chaos, and the time to reflect.

I have purposefully drawn on other events for my own reflection, and two, in particular, are worth mentioning here: The School of Life’s “Eureka Tour of London” and Dotmaker Tours “London in Slow Motion” led by Rosie Oliver, both of which are co-developed by Cathy Haynes. Cathy and Rosie have a delightfully relaxed approach, and, as they gently guide you from Cleopatra’s Needle through the Embankment and along the Strand to Covent Garden, the National Gallery, and the Seven Dials, they explore ideas such as “creativity” but also “speed” and the changing tempo of life in this grand old city. As I wandered around I reflected on “Symphony” and the juxtaposition of the senses, the balance between what was presented to me and what I had to actively seek out, and the increasing tension that I think many people feel between the speed, immediacy and ubiquity of the digital world, versus the slow persistence of our physical surroundings.

I have written a lot about this, but what I am finding interesting is that no matter what environment I am in the discussion around this tension arises, as does the underlying need for some sort of “digital literacy” to enable and empower people to make conscious choices.

This notion of “choice” came out loud and clear in a talk at the RSA by The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge entitled “The Fourth Revolution”. I have enjoyed previous books by this duo, and in their latest offering they question the ongoing sustainability of the Western “democratic” model, asking whether it will be the liberal values of democracy and freedom or the authoritarian values of command and control which dominate in the twenty first century.

Two quotes really caught my attention:

“Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.” (Thomas Paine)


“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state a necessary evil.” (Common Sense, 1776)

At the core Micklethwait and Wooldridge stress the need to ask “what is government for?”, which is perhaps THE most important question facing all citizens in a world where digital information is revolutionising everything around us. In the world of the “social machine” the relationship between all stakeholders is changing, and both the public and private sectors are questioning their own “realities” as data becomes a critical currency in its own right. There is, it seems to me, both a philosophical as well as a technological determinism at play, which requires both the time and space for us as humans to think about the type of world we want to live in, and to then slowly harness the tools and technologies available to actively create it rather than sit as passive consumers.

This, of course, is the underlying driver in Web Science, and it was both a privilege and a pleasure to be a part of the launch of the Web Science Institute at the Royal Society.

As Professor Dame Wendy Hall stated in her Opening Address “it’s about the people, stupid!”. This is where Web Science has its greatest potential – to put the people first, empowered by technology – but also educated in how to harness those technologies to expand on our humanities rather than subsume them.

If nothing else, during my time here over the past few weeks, I have found the timeless grandeur of this most majestic of cities (in many ways) reinforces the need for us all to slow down, take time to appreciate the wonders around us, and understand our own experiences of “reality”.

Posted in Analogue, Creativity, Data, Digital, Government, Web Science | Comments Off