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[tech@state][2b2k] Real-time awareness

At the Tech@State conf, a panel is starting up. Participants: Linton Wells (National Defense U), Robert Bectel (CTO, Office of Energy Efficiency), Robert Kirkpatrick (Dir., UN Global Pulse), Ahmed Al Omran (NPR and Suadi blogger), and Clark Freifield (

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.

Robert Bectel brought in [I use NetVibes as my morning newspaper.] to bring real-time into to his group’s desktop. It’s customized to who they are and what they do. They use Netvibes as their portal. They bring in streaming content, including YouTube and Twitter. What happens when people get too much info? So, they’re building analytics so people get info summarized in bar charts, etc. Even video analytics, analyzing video content. They asked what people wanted and built a food cart tracker. Or the shuttle bus. Widgets bring functionality within the window. They’re working on single sign-on. There’s some gamification. They plan on adding doc mgt, SharePpoint access, links to Federal Social Network.

Even better, he says, is that the public now can get access to the “wicked science” the DOE does. Make the data available. Go to IMBY, put in your zip code, and it will tell you what your solar resource potential is and the tax breaks you’ll get. “We’re going to put that in your phone. “We’re creating leads for solar installers.” And geothermal heat pumps.

Robert Kirkpatrick works in the UN Sect’y Gen’ls office, called Global Pulse, which is an R&D lab trying to learn to take advantage of Big Data to improve human welfare. Now “We’re swimming in an ocean of real time data.” This data is generated passively and acively. If you look at what people say to one another and what people actually do, “we have the opportunity to look at these as sensor networks.” Businesses have been doing this for a long time. Can we begin to look at the patterns of data when people lose their job, get sick, pull their kids out of school to make ends meet? What patterns appear when our programs are working? Global pulse is working with the private sector as well. Robert hopes that big data and real-time awareness will enable them to move from waterfall development (staged, slow) to agile (interative, fast).

Ahmed Al Omram says last year was a moment he and so many in the Middle East had been hoping for. He started blogging (SaudiJeans) seven years, even though the gov’t tried to silence him. “I wasn’t afraid because I knew I wasn’t alone.” He was part of a network of activists. Arab Spring did not happen overnight. “Activists and bloggers had been working together for ten years to make it happen.” “There’s no question in my mind that the Internet and social media played a huge role in what happened.” But there is much debate. E.g., Malcolm Gladwell argued that these revolutions would have happened anyway. But no one debates whether the Net changed how journalists covered the story. E.g., Andy Carvin live-tweeted the revolutions (aggregating and disseminating). Others, too. On Feb. 2 2010, Andy tweeted 1,400 times over 20 hours.

So, do we call this journalism? Probably. It’s a real-time news gathering operation happening in an open source newsroom. “The people who follow us are not our audience. They are part of an open newsroom. They are potential sources and fact-checkers.” E.g., the media carried a story during the war in Libya that the Libyan forces were using Israeli weapons. Andy and his followers debunked that in real time.

There is still a lot of work to do, he says.

Clark Friefield is a cofounder of healthmap, doing real time infectious disease tracking. He shows a chart of the stock price of a Chinese pharma that makes a product that’s believed to have antiviral properties. In Jan 2003, there was an uptick because of the beginning of SARS, which as not identified until Feb 2003. In traditional public health reporting, there’s a hierarchy. In the new model, the connections are much flatter. And there are many more sources of info, from tweets that are fast but tend to have more noise, and slower but more validated sources.

To organize the info better, in 2006 they reated a real-time mapping dashboard (free and open to the public). They collect 2000 reports a day, geotagged to 10,000 locations. They use named entity extractin to find disesases and locations. A bayesian filtering system are categorized with 91% accuracy. They assign significance to each event. The ones that make it through this filter make it to the map. Humans help to train the system.

During the H1N1 outbreak, they decided to create participatory epidemiology. They launched an iphone app called “Outbreaks Near Me” which let people submit reports as well as get alerts, which beame the #1 health and fitness app. They found that the rate of submissions tracked well with the CDC’s info. Also

Linton Wells now moderates a discussion:

Robert Bectel: DOE is getting a serious fire hose of info from the grid, and they don’t yet know what to do with it. So they’re thinking about releasing the 89B data points and asking the public what they want to do with it.

Robert Kirkpatrick: You need the wisdom of crowds, the instinct of experts, and the power of algorithms [quoting someone I missed]. And this flood of info is no longer a one-way stream; it’s interactive.

Ahmed: It helps to have people who speak the language and know the culture. But tech counts too: How about a twitter client that can detect tweets coming from a particular location. It’s a combo of both.

Clark: We use this combined approach. One initiative we’re working on builds on our smartphone app by letting us push questions out to people in a location where we have a suspicion that something is happening.

Linton: Security and verification?

Robert K: Info can be exploited, so this year we’re bringing together advisers on privacy and security.

Ahmed: People ask how you can trust random people to tell the truth, but many of them are well known to us. We use standard tools of trust, and we’ll also see who they’re following on Twitter, who’s following them, etc. It’s real-time verification.

Clark: In public health, the ability to get info is much better with an open Net than the old hierarchical flow of info.

Q: Are people trying to game the system?
A: Ahmed: Sure. GayGirlInDamascus turned out to be a guy in Moscow. But using the very same tools we managed to figure out who he was. But gov’ts will always try to push back. The gov’ts in Syria and Bahrain hired people to go online to change the narrative and discredit people. It’s always a challenge to figure out what’s the truth. But if you’ve worked in the field for a while, you can identify trusted sources. We call this “news sense.”
A: Clark: Not so much in public health. When there have been imposters and liars, there’s been a rapid debunking using the same tools.

Q:What incentives can we give for opening up corporate data?
A: Robert K: We call this data philanthropy but the private sector doesn’t see it that way. They don’t want their markets to fall into poverty; it’s business risk mitigation insurance. So there are some incentives there already.
A: Robert B: We need to make it possible for people to create apps that use the data.

Q: How about that Twitter censorship policy?
A: Ahmed: It’s censorship, but the way Twitter approached this was transparent, and some people is good for activists because they could have gone for a broader censorship policy; Twitter will only block in the country that demands it. In fact, Twitter lets you get around it by changing your location.

Q: How do we get Netvibes past the security concerns?
A: Robert B.: I’m a security geek. But employees need tools to be smarter. But we can define what tools you have access to.

Q: Clark, do you run into privacy issues?
A: Clark: Most of the data in HealthMap comes from publicly available sources.
A: Robert K: There are situations arising for which we do not have a framework. A child protection expert had just returned frmo a crisis where young kids on a street were tweeting about being abused at home. “We’re not even allowed to ask that question,” she said, “but if they’re telling the entire world, can we use that to begin to advocate for their rescue?” Our frameworks have not yet adapted to this new reality.

Linton: After the Arab Spring, how do we use data to help build enduring value?
A: Ahmed: It’s not the tech but how we use it.
A: Robert K: Real time analytics and visualizations provide many-to-many communications. Groups can see their beliefs, enabling a type of self-awareness not possible before. These tools have the possibility of creating new types of identity.
A: Robert B: To get twitter or Facebook smarter, you have to find different ways to use it. “Break it!” Don’t get stuck using today’s tech.

Linton: A 26-ear-old Al Jazeera reporter was at a conf “What’s the next big thing?” She replied, “I’m too old. Ask a high school student.”

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