PhD Two Dot Oh

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Update: I have been accepted in the doctoral program at UW-Madison. My [Statement of Purpose] begins to describe my research interests.

Twelve years ago I was at a crossroads. I had just returned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison after a year-long stint in India conducting field research on land information modernization when I was given the opportunity to join the only geographic information systems (GIS) facility at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. If I left, my Ph.D. would suffer; if I stayed, such an opportunity might not come again. For six years I had been working with GIS and studying its adoption and implementation both here in Wisconsin and in developing countries. Here was a chance to actually work in the field of GIS and information systems implementation in developing countries. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Much has happened in the intervening twelve years: the stock market boomed and then went bust, to be forever known as the "internet bubble;" the web became synonymous with the internet; everyone had an opinion, and now everyone also had the means to tell others about it; and a thirty-years old concept called open source became new again. Open source gained more airplay than it had ever before, moving from the fringes of computing to the mainstream. And, with the help of open source, I learned how to program. For the first time, I was not just dealing with the impact of computer technology on society, I was actually creating that technology myself. I started to understand it from inside out.

Since 1988, my life has been intertwined with GIS. First in studies, then professionally, I worked with GIS and studied its impact on society. At UW-Madison, I studied the propagation and implementation of GIS in the Wisconsin counties. At the World Bank, I worked on making GIS implementation possible in India, Bolivia, and Trinidad and Tobago. All these different contexts had different forces serving as motivation for implementation. In Wisconsin, the motivation was financial reward through a Statewide grants program. Sectoral project monies were pushing information technology (IT) modernization in India. The Bolivians wanted an assessment of how GIS would enable the various governmental agencies modernize their decision making process, and Trinidad wanted to utilize GIS for environmental impact assessment.

It is not the technology, however, that was needed. It was the idea of sharing, open sourcing that was needed. While my specific work focussed on GIS, most agencies I worked with needed a complete bootstrapping of their IT infrastructure. Information about all their work was usually stagnant – not moving, not shared, locked up, festering, and growing stale. I remember in La Paz, Bolivia, one of the government agencies I was visiting needed a telephone line more than it needed better information technology. With two telephone lines serving almost a 100 employees, it was impossible to reach anyone of them. The library at the Indian Institute of Science, the premier institute for higher scientific education in Bangalore, India, had locks on its book cabinets. The librarian was more concerned about book theft than about knowledge dissemination.

Information gets locked up because of different reasons. Businesses control information because doing so lends a competitive advantage. Businesses exist to maximize profit, and, as long as they can do so legally, successful businesses do just that. One way they do so is by being closed. Profitable deals are made behind closed doors, and nondisclosure agreements (NDA) are the staple ingredient of business negotiations. Public knowledge, however, cannot be easily measured in bottom-line-oriented concepts such as return-on-investment (ROI) and return-on-equity (ROE). Developing countries might face economic and technological hurdles, even social and military mindsets that might hinder flow of information. And, powerful interest groups in richer societies might control information because such control wields power.

While the power wielded by controlling information can be very seductive, it is dwarfed by the power unleashed by sharing information. Technology is now making it possible to share information in ways not possible before. Computer networking technology made sharing information possible, but that idea did not propagate down to the common users. Advent of the world wide web made it possible for anyone with a computer and a dial-up line to suddenly have a presence, to become one’s own publisher, however, it was still an /einebahnstrasse/ – a one way street. Ten years ago, Ward Cunningham invented the "wiki," a tool for online collaboration that gave rise to collaborative publishing. It was the public level manifestation of collaborative computing that itself had given rise to the open source, the idea of creating something new through openness and sharing. This, in turn, has given rise to a multitude of new technologies such as blogrolls, tagging, aggregation, social networking, and inter-wiki linking resulting in proliferation of user-generated content as is evident in online communities such as the Portland Pattern Repository, Epinions, Amazon’s user reviews, Flickr, Friendster, and LinkedIn. These online social communities are creating a collective social memory that is archived and is searchable. Compare this with indigenous knowledge inherent in tribal communities – knowledge-transfer is by word-of-mouth, hyper-linking happens only during community events, searching is endangered by concussion or senility, and the carbon-based archive simply dies of old age or illness. What is the best way to preserve this knowledge? Do collaborative computing and its founding principles hold the key to long-term knowledge conservation? Can open source do for indigenous knowledge what being closed did for businesses?

In the twelve years since I left the university, I have worn many hats – from policy advisor to practitioner; from user of IT to creating it as a programmer. In all these roles, the one consistent observation has been that an idea has a better chance of success if it is shared, if it is open. There is a great attraction in keeping an idea closed – profit sharing doesn’t seem as lucrative as profit hoarding. Information, however, thrives on being shared. From code to data, information is complex, and it soon outgrows the capacity of a single entity to maintain and develop. Communities come in where individual entities fail. Technology geared to enable communities collaborate is particularly unique – it encourages collaboration at all levels from code to data. Information sharing is commonplace in academia. All research is built on the shoulders of others, hence openness is the very foundation of the academic edifice. But whither public knowledge of indigenous communities? I want to apply academic rigor to inquiry into the tenets of open source and their impact on conservation of indigenous knowledge.

Twelve years ago I was a computer user; an advanced user, but a user nonetheless. Since then, I’ve assisted with policy creation, assessment of management practices, needs assessment and requirements gathering, systems integration and technology transfer, creating programs, and data automation and analysis: a complete round-trip information systems perspective. Twelve years ago I was at fork in the road. I took a path that delayed my Ph.D., but, I believe, better prepared me for academic inquiry than I was at that time. Twelve years ago I left my Ph.D. to pursue work. Now I am stepping away from work to get back to my Ph.D. I never really left it – I just took the scenic route to finishing it.

See [Viability of Ideas] for more thoughts on this.