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June 30, 2009

[pdf09] Sunlight Foundation announcement

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Ellen Miller, founder of The Sunlight Foundation, says that after this morning’s sessions at PDF (Vivek Kundra’s announcement, Beth Noveck) “We feel pretty good.”

Sunlight Labs has a staff of 14 and a community of about a thousand. Clay Johnson talks the problem that the government data isn’t always in computable form. Now there’s, a task queuing service for people who want to help. It’s beginning with three tasks: Earmark reading task, photo uploading task, and find the twitter accounts of your local reps task. E.g., the earmarks are in PDF files which are not easily computer-processible. E.g., “Wal-Mart” may be expressed as “walmart,” Wal Mart,” etc. You get points for doing tasks to level up. Highest level: Transparency Overlord.

TransparencyCorps is open source so you can run your own on your own site. “We ask you not to call it TransparencyCorps because that would be a jerk thing to do.” :)

David Moore with announces a complete redesign. “We’re building a social network of actions around Congress.” “Users tracking this bill are also tracking…”

Q: [tim carr of FreePress] Can orgs like mine plug into these?
A: Yes. At OpenCongress, you can use the social info, and you can get at the data via API.

Q: How about for state govt’s?
Clay: We’re working on it. 18-24 months, maybe.

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June 29, 2009


At Personal Democracy Forum, announces itself as a “marketplace for challenges” of theX Prize sort. You can create a challenge at their site, or create a “wish” by using #cpost at Twitter.

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May 24, 2009 – Symbolic of what’s right with the Obama administration reports that has opened to “mixed reviews.” Puhlease. It’s nowhere near what it will be, but OH MY TOASTY GOD, our government is now committed to making public data available in open formats to anyone who wants it. As if it were normal! As if it were obviously the right thing to do! In open formats, people!

So, sure, let’s keep an eye on it. Let’s make sure the news permeates every government department. But first let’s swoon in delight.

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May 21, 2009 vs. Wired.mag, out loud

There’s a really interesting discussion going on at BoingBoing gadgets about the relationship between Wired Magazine and Chris Anderson, the editor of the mag, who turned it off its path of Rich Nerd Fetishism, and has made it interesting and important again, is diving in. It’s great to see this sort of discussion done in public.

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May 17, 2009

WolframAlpha’s big problem

After a day of poking at the awesome WolframAlpha and watching some of the reactions around the Web, a major problem has emerged. WA is fantastic if it has what you’re looking for. But if it doesn’t, it looks like it’s failed, as in: “What? It can’t tell me how much energy it would take to move Henry VIII one kilometer, expressed in cheeseburger-calories? What a piece of crap!”

Google doesn’t have this problem. If you get no hits, it’s almost always because you’ve so egregiously mistyped something that no one else on the planet has ever posted anything with that same typo. Or, it’s because you’ve put an odd phrase in quotes, which requires taking the special action of, well, putting things in quotes. Almost always, Google succeeds at what it does (find pages that contain particular text), even when it fails at doing what you want (find a particular answer).

WolframAlpha, on the other hand, is like a roomful of idiot savants. Each knows a scary amount about a topic. And, unlike a such a roomful, WA also knows how to recombine and compute what each of the savants knows. But if the room doesn’t have the savant you’re looking for, you get back nothing but a “Huh?”

The eclecticism of WolframAlpha is its selling point. But the delight that it knows things you would never have guessed at means that you can have trouble guessing what it knows about. The question is whether general users will go back enough times to be trained on the sorts of questions it can answer. If not, WA will remain an awesome tool for specialists but will not become the broad, general-purpose tool it wants to be.

It would, however, be a completely awesome addition to Google…a path I suspect Stephen Wolfram does not want to take.

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May 11, 2009

Smart and secure grids and militaries

The piece I wrote about Robin Chase prompted Andrew Bochman to send me an email. Andy is an MIT and DC energy tech guy (and, it turns out, a neighbor) who writes two blogs: The Smart Grid Security Blog and the DoD Energy Blog. Neither of these topics would make it into my extended profile under “Interests,” but I found myself sucked into them (confirming my rule of thumb that everything is interesting if look at in sufficient detail). So many things in the world to care about!

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May 7, 2009

Wolfram podcast

My interview with Stephen Wolfram about WolframAlpha is now available. Some other me-based resources:

The unedited version weighs in at a full 55 minutes. The edited version will spare you some of my throat-clearing, and some dumb questions.

A post about what I think the significance of WolframAlpha will be.

Live blog of Wolfram’s presentation at Harvard.

Wolfram’s presentation at Harvard.

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May 6, 2009

Evidence-based journalism

Richard Sambrook, director of the BBC‘s World Service and Global News, has posted an excellent engagement with Jay Rosen’s piece on He Said/ She Said journalism. He agrees that that type of journalism is a problem, but the problem isn’t with the He Said/She Said format. The problem is lazy journalism, says Richard. He points to some cases where we want a juxtaposing of views, which I’m sure Jay agrees with. Richard says his real concern is that some may take Jay’s piece as license to simply spout off. He writes:

Evidence-based reporting, the basis of objectivity (as distinct from impartiality) is in retreat and needs to be bolstered. He Said, She Said started life a hundred years ago as a journalistic discipline to counter yellow-journalism as Pulitzer and others tried to establish a degree of civic responsiblity in the press. It may have run its course but there are many who simply favour journalism of opinion – under the cloak of “calling the story”. I maintain we need evidence, fact-based reporting more than ever in a world awash with information rumour and opinion. That sometimes calls for a journalism of restraint – in which the New York Times (and the BBC) has an honourable tradition.

Evidence-based is a nice way of cutting through the argument about objectivity’s corrupt philosophical underpinnings. Of course, people are going to argue about what counts as evidence and what the evidence means — that is, I disagree with the implication of Richard’s blog’s tagline — “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan — but evidence is an important term not used often enough in these discussions. Evidence provides a way to disagree that can progress towards truth, or at least towards agreement, or at a minimum, an understanding of where the actual disagreement lies.

Of course, I offer this opinion without any evidence :).

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May 4, 2009

How important is WolframAlpha?

The Independent calls WolframAlpha “An invention that could change the Internet forever.” It concludes: “Wolfram Alpha has the potential to become one of the biggest names on the planet.”

Nova Spivak, a smart Semantic Web guy, says it could be as important as Google.

Ton Zijlstra, on the other hand, who knows a thing or two about knowledge and knowledge management, feels like it’s been overhyped. After seeing the video of Wolfram talking at Harvard, Ton writes:

No crawling? Centralized database, adding data from partners? Manual updating? Adding is tricky? Manually adding metadata (curating)? For all its coolness on the front of WolframAlpha, on the back end this sounds like it’s the mechanical turk of the semantic web.

(“The mechanical turk of the semantic web.” Great phrase. And while I’m in parentheses, ReadWriteWeb has useful screenshots of WolframAlpha, and here’s my unedited 55-minute interview with Wolfram.)

I am somewhere in between, definitely over in the Enthusiastic half of the field. I think WolframAlpha [WA] will become a standard part of the Internet’s tool set, but is not transformative.

WA works because it’s curated. Real human beings decide what topics to include (geography but not 6 Degrees of Courtney Love), which data to ingest, what metadata is worth capturing, how that metadata is interrelated (= an ontology), which correlations to present to the user when she queries it (daily tonnage of fish captured by the French compared to daily production of garbage in NYC), and how that information should be presented. Wolfram insists that an expert be present in each data stream to ensure the quality of the data. Given all that human intervention, WA then performs its algorithmic computations … which are themselves curated. WA is as curated as an almanac.

Curation is a source of its strength. It increases the reliability of the information, it enables the computations, and it lets the results pages present interesting and relevant information far beyond the simple factual answer to the question. The richness of those pages will be big factor in the site’s success.

Curation is also WA’s limitation. If it stays purely curated, without areas in which the Big Anyone can contribute, it won’t be able to grow at Internet speeds. Someone with a good idea — provide info on meds and interactions, or add recipes so ingredients can be mashed up with nutritional and ecological info — will have to suggest it to WolframAlpha, Inc. and hope they take it up. (You could to this sorta kinda through the API, but not get the scaling effects of actually adding data to the system.) And WA will suffer from the perspectival problems inevitable in all curated systems: WA reflects Stephen Wolfram’s interests and perspective. It covers what he thinks is interesting. It covers it from his point of view. It will have to make decisions on topics for which there are no good answers: Is Pluto a planet? Does Scientology go on the list of religions? Does the page on rabbits include nutritional information about rabbit meat? (That, by the way, was Wolfram’s example in my interview of him. If you look at the site from Europe, a “rabbit” query does include the nutritional info, but not if you log in from a US IP address.) But WA doesn’t have to scale up to Internet Supersize to be supersized useful.

So, given those strengths and limitations, how important is WA?

Once people figure out what types of questions it’s good at, I think it will become a standard part of our tools, and for some areas of inquiry, it may be indispensable. I don’t know those areas well enough to give an example that will hold up, but I can imagine WA becoming the first place geneticists go when they have a question about a gene sequence or chemists who want to know about a molecule. I think it is likely to be so useful within particular fields that it becomes the standard place to look first…Like for movies, except for broad, multiple fields, with the ability to cross-compute.

But more broadly, is WA the next Google? Does it transform the Internet?

I don’t think so. Its computational abilities mean it does something not currently done (or not done well enough for a crowd of users), and the aesthetics of its responses make it quite accessible. But how many computational questions do you have a day? If you want to know how many tons of fish France catches, WA will work as an almanac. But that’s not transformational. If you want to know how many tons divided by the average weight of a French person, WA is for you. But the computational uses that are distinctive of WA and for which WA will frequently be an astounding tool are not frequent enough for WA to be transformational on the order of a Google or Wikipedia.

There are at least two other ways it could be transformational, however.

First, its biggest effect may be on metadata. If WA takes off, as I suspect it will, people and organizations will want to get their data into it. But to contribute their data, they will have to put it into WA’s metadata schema. Those schema then become a standard way we organize data. WA could be the killer app of the Semantic Web … the app that gives people both a motive for putting their data into ontologies and a standardized set of ontologies that makes it easy to do so.

Second, a robust computational engine with access to a very wide array of data is a new idea on the Internet. (Ok, nothing is new. But WA is going to bring this idea to mainstream awareness.) That transforms our expectations, just as Wikipedia is important not just because it’s a great encyclopedia but because it proved the power of collaborative crowds. But, WA’s lesson — there’s more that can be computed than we ever imagined — isn’t as counter-intuitive as Wikipedia’s, so it is not as apple-cart-upsetting, so it’s not as transformational. Our cultural reaction to Wikipedia is to be amazed by what we’ve done. With WA, we are likely to be amazed by what Wolfram has done.

That is the final reason why I think WA is not likely to be as big a deal as Google or Wikipedia, and I say this while being enthusiastic — wowed, even — about WA. WA’s big benefit is that it answers questions authoritatively. WA nails facts down. (Please take the discussion about facts in a postmodern age into the comments section. Thank you.) It thus ends conversation. Google and Wikipedia aim at continuing and even provoking conversation. They are rich with links and pointers. Even as Wikipedia provides a narrative that it hopes is reliable, it takes every opportunity to get you to go to a new page. WA does have links — including links to Wikipedia — but most are hidden one click below the surface. So, the distinction I’m drawing is far from absolute. Nevertheless, it seems right to me: WA is designed to get you out of a state of doubt by showing you a simple, accurate, reliable, true answer to your question. That’s an important service, but answers can be dead-ends on the Web: you get your answer and get off. WA as question-answerer bookends WA’s curated creation process: A relatively (not totally) closed process that has a great deal of value, but keeps it from the participatory model that generally has had the biggest effects on the Net.

Providing solid, reliable answers to difficult questions is hugely valuable. WolframAlpha’s approach is ambitious and brilliant. WolframAlpha is a genius. But that’s not enough to fundamentally alter the Net.

Nevertheless, I am wowed.[Tags: ]


April 29, 2009

Wolfram interview

The Berkman Center has posted the raw audio of my 55 minute interview with Stephen Wolfram, about his deeply cool WolframAlpha program (which he talked about here yesterday). On the other hand, if you wait a few days, you can skip some throat-clearing on my part, as well as my driving him down an alley based on my not seeing where WolframAlpha puts links to other pieces of information. As is so often the case, the edited version will be better.

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