Viability of Ideas

Saturday, March 18, 2006

There are several reasons an idea can propagate and become viable --

  1. economics: material gain is a great motivator
  2. edict: motivation flows from the end of a stick
  3. grassroots: individuals desiring to be heard, make a change, leave a mark
  4. collaborative: symbiotic math, or 2 plus 2 is 22
  5. crisis: necessity is the mother of invention
  6. possibly other…

Success of Information Modernization. Traditionally, #1 above has been seen as the main reason behind information modernization, as information and communications technology (ICT) has been developed, innovated, commoditized, marketed, and supported primarily in the private sector. While governments and academia have been big users of ICT, and at times, even sponsors of activity that has led to successful and important productization of ICT research, most of the dynamism in the past decade, the decade of the internet, web, and e-this and i-that, has been concentrated in the private sector. ICT has contributed to well-documented gains in productivity, efficiency, time-to-market, and other such economic metrics that businesses thrive on. At the same time, there have been relatively fewer and less well-documented gains in other more “touchy-feely” indicators such as social justice, equity, and fairness that could be attributed directly to ICT.

Nature of Public Sector Information. GIS has been a strange cookie in all of this. It is implemented relatively heavily in the public sector, and while it is still a distant cousin to more traditional ICT investments such as databases and email, it certainly enjoys a relatively high profile. The interesting thing about GIS is not the technology itself, but the nature of the information that is managed with it, particularly in the public sector. GIS implementations are typically cross-functional and cross-disciplinary. It is common for many public, even some private, agencies participating together in a consortium-style arrangement of GIS implementation. The participants usually spend a considerable amount of resources working out mechanisms and agreements for information management in a shared environment.

Open for Business. Data-custodianship and data-sharing, key factors cited for viability of GIS implementations, are the foundations of collaborative anything, be it creating software, creating data with that software, or analyzing that data to create knowledge. It makes common sense to share, but what are the hard reasons for this? Why is the management of public information more likely to succeed if it is "open"? Or is it? If it is, then it seems #3 and #4 above would be likely reasons. But what if #1 is also a significant reason? What is the economics of free and open public information? See [Open, But Not as Usual] for a take on a model that succeeds.

Tools for Collaboration. I am very interested in collaborative computing and movements, the Free/Libré Open Source Software (FLOSS) movement in particular, and how they might contribute to knowledge conservation in developing countries. Freedom and openness are fundamental to the success of FLOSS, and, I contend, that such concepts are fundamental to the success of GIS as well. Tools like Concurrent Versions System (CVS) and Subversion have been applied to shared code management, but not to shared database/knowledge management, and certainly not to shared spatial data.

Grassroots Publishing. Wikis come closest to the concept of shared knowledge management. In conjunction with blogs, wikis make for an immediate and powerful publishing platform that leverages reasons #3 and #4 above. Really Simple Syndication (RSS), blogrolls, and tagging has further enhanced the publishing, discovery, and networking of personal publishing houses. Recent developments in spatial publishing such as GeoRSS, GPX, Google and Yahoo Map APIs, and Amazon’s photo mapping tool are pushing the current envelope in bringing spatial information into the publishing mix. While there are no standards right now, and both the technology and its coverage are spotty, it is likely only a matter of time before it will be very easy to enhance knowledge with spatial information and publish it into a network of connected nodes.

Making the Connections. Knowledge is being created and shared, fueled by reasons #3 and #4, and most of the excitement is stemming from the FLOSS arena. The immediate reaction to the “Free” in FLOSS is, “It is bound to fail because they can’t make money doing it.” There could, however, be sound business reasons behind this convergence. Collaborative anything cannot adhere to a single, narrow standard. That means, accommodation of a diverse set of user capabilities, ambient conditions, languages, and expectations is essential, a problem that can be solved by neither social nor technological means, but by both working together.

This Spring I am planning to go back to school at the UW-Madison to work on my Ph D to study [Why Ideas Propagate]. I have a topic, hypothesis, experience, motivation, and method.

Topic - Impact of collaborative computing based on the principles of Free/Libré Open Source Software (FLOSS) movements on knowledge management and conservation in the public arena.

Hypothesis - The fundamental principles behind free and open source software movements are actually sound business principles for knowledge management and conservation for public good.

Experience - For the past four years or so, I have become increasingly interested in the FLOSS movement. My interest is not just at the computing (programming languages/software) level, but at all levels including data, ideas, knowledge extraction, and publication. While working at the World Bank we were spreading the gospel of Joint Forest Management in the forestry projects in India that I was working on. The idea is to involve the people who live on the fringes of the forests, or even within them, and depend upon the forests for their livelihood in jointly managing the forests with the government forest departments. This forms a basis for mutual trust, and increases the chances of successfully managing the forests. Lately I have been thinking of parallels between JFM and knowledge management, particularly when collaborative and open principles are employed.

Interestingly, in another World Bank funded project in Indonesia, publishing and publicizing names of egregious polluters had a more effective impact on their activities than using punitive means. Opening up the information that hereto had been "locked" away in court and official papers and releasing it for public consumption led to more immediate results. Was that because of the implied economic power of that information that got released by opening it up, the power to do economic harm via negative publicity? Or was it because of reasons of honor and shame? In any case, it was the act of opening up the information that led to results.

Motivation - The prime motivation behind my desire to pursue a Ph.D. is to learn and utilize rigorous research methodologies for exposing the economics of open source for effective public policy and knowledge management. I want to investigate my hunches formed on the basis of years of experience and back them up or disprove them with demonstrated academic rigor.

Methodology - Experimental research is the primary method I would like to employ in the pursuit of my Ph D. I would design and conduct an experimental setup for knowledge management guided by the principles of FLOSS. I would compare this with similar but closed systems that have been stove-piped because of restrictive "licensing."