[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Opening science’s books for the crowd

Science takes a long time. Researchers can slave over their work, publishing modest increments for years before something really connects, and sometimes it’s not even then – it can be years later, when someone else makes the connection.

But paying for that time can be politically tricky, and in any case the funding tends to come with the political cycle and with the tide of political and public opinion. So what’s the answer?

(Beth Ditto from The Gossip leaps into the crowd on a Sydney harbour cruise)

Since June, 2006, when Jeff Howe wrote a great piece in Wired titled The Rise of Crowdsourcing, the idea of getting a crowd of passionate amateurs to replace professionals has had a mixed development. Daniel Terdiman made this observation a couple of years later.

One of the elements of Howe’s defining crowdsourcing was a new understanding of how, when brought together to utilize collective intelligence, big, disparate groups of people working on a common task can be extraordinarily productive and deeply creative.

Howe talked about the rise of platforms like iStockphoto and the open innovation site InnoCentive. Karim Lakhani, an MIT technology and innovation lecturer quoted in the article, surveyed 166 problems posted to InnoCentive from 25 different companies.

The strength of a network like InnoCentive’s is exactly the diversity of intellectual background. We actually found the odds of a solver’s success increased in fields in which they had no formal expertise.

As well as InnoCentive, the network of retired scientists and engineers in YourEncore was also tackling serious science and tech questions. In April, 2010, Suzannah Lyons surveyed the current crop of citizen or crowdsourced science projects for ABC Science Online.

Most coverage at the time was about the impact in consumer areas like photography and the media. It seemed as though crowdsourcing would decimate professionals in those fields. And in some ways it has. Newspapers have folded, particularly in the USA’s densely populated media landscape. In specialist fields like technology, science and the arts, the best criticism and news is on blogs. But while there is also a mess of half baked content out there, that only makes makes thorough research, good writing and sharp editing all the more valued. In some ways, it’s just been a shake out and restructure, a new model. The best writers work professionally, and their blogs have almost inevitably become start-ups themselves.

Since Flickr and iStockphoto, there are a lot more photographers feeding into the global pool. Especially since Getty’s link-up with Flickr. At the same time, the increased engagement with good photos seems to have increased demand. So while (maybe) they’re earning less, there’s better photography in circulation and increased demand. It seems like a win-win.

(Australia’s $100 polymer bank note)

Crowdfunding first blipped on my radar with the microfunding site Kiva. That lets people give small amounts of money to entrepeneurs in developing nations. It’s a fantastic, simple concept, basically harnessing the power of the web and the long tail for private sector philanthropy, and it works.

And the model has since expanded to creative projects. Think the Kickstarter and FundBreak (which has just changed its name to Pozible) models, or in journalism there’s Spot.Us. For small to medium sized projects, from a doco about David Lynch to the relaunch of  New Matilda. The New Matilda story was interesting, given they raised $150,000 to fund the online media site for a year. And while that’s still comparatively small scale for serious research, it’s getting there.

Kickstarter is billed as a fun way to fund and follow creativity – being part of the process of creative projects you like, even if you’re not a creative participant. Like a part time executive producer, I guess. In a way it’s like informalising the venture capital process, although in most of these cases, the money doesn’t equate to an actual stake in the project, it’s more like philanthropy. And many of these projects then send special gifts to funders – for example, when Diaspora was funded, many of the people who donated were given one-off t-shirts.

Crowdfunding’s never going to replace the traditional ways of funding science, but tapping the long tail of interest in science could diversify the base, so to speak, and open up different kinds of science that aren’t so suited to the current funding climate.

So how would that work in research?

Turns out it already is. Though not in Australia. There’s FundScience – which Nature covered in July, 2010. Like many of these platforms, it uses a reverse-auction like approach, where the project seeking funding puts a number on the page that is make or break for the project. If they don’t make it, they don’t get the money.

Applicants can request up to $50,000 and must be based at a university, so that the money received through FundScience can be administered like any standard research grant. Projects are selected by a network of peer reviewers, and FundScience provides 10% of their requested funds as seed money. Researchers who sign on are also required to blog about their progress to keep contributors up to date on their efforts.

EurekaFund is another microfinance platform for science. One current project, by an MIT team called Raw Solar, hopes to use cheap materials and innovative design to cut the cost of solar. At the time of writing, it’s raised $25,351 of a $75,000 goal (you can even drill into the budget). In Nature, EurekaFund’s Jason Blue-Smith said:

A small grant can help build a track-record of innovation for researchers in the early stage of their career, who may still be working in a senior scientist’s lab and may have few opportunities to develop their own ideas.

Andrea Gagglioli pitched another project, OpenGenius, in a letter to Science. There’s also the Open Source Science Project, which was designed to increase access in both directions – for the public to the science and for the scientists to the public’s wallets.

One of the earlier sites was SciFlies – named by founder and marine engineer David Fries with a nod to fruitflies and their goal to create a ‘swarm’ of science supporters, as well as just generally being fly, in a hip hop sense, which I like. Covered in Nature in May, 2009, it works differently to the others, members or visitors to the site see profiles of scientists and their projects, and can donate to the ones they like.

SciFlies will distribute cheques to researchers after their donations reach $5,000. Anyone who doesn’t make that amount will not get any money, and donors will be asked to redesignate their money.

Another model is LabGiving, which started out of a social inventory tracking system for lab supplies. Part of that system is now linking donors with biomedical scientists, however, it’s not clear just how many projects have been (or could be) funded.

There are quite a few researchers and start-ups going it alone, too. Doing crowdfunding, but without any particular platform. For example, Jackie Schooleman, chief of Virtual Proteins, issued certificates:

I also started some kind of foundation, called “friends of Virtual Proteins” were people could buy small amounts of certificates in the company. It’s a kind of crowd funding.It’s very easy to join, in the early days you did not need a whole lot of money. Because we sell certificates rather than shares, I still have 100% control in the company,  and our commercial strategy cannot be influenced by shareholders. By joining they commit money in the trust of the company.

Raising the kind of funding that supports serious, large scale research is probably out of the question, but as Nature Neuroscience editorialised,

The idea is for scientists to raise enough money to run a small research project that requires a limited amount of money and time. The hope is that these small pilot projects could provide preliminary data that would lay the groundwork for more substantial projects. This approach is appealing at a time when the consensus is that government grants are rarely awarded to risky projects, particularly those without pilot data or from young investigators with limited track records.

That’s one of the real benefits of this approach, that it might help some of the riskier, more failure-prone projects get up. But there are other benefits. Interacting with the broader public via the initial pitch, blogging the projects (a requirement for some of the platforms), and explaining the return at the end of the project. That can be a challenge too – again, from the Nature Neuroscience editorial:
Regardless of the size of the award, instead of convincing one’s peers that a project is worth pursuing, scientists must convince potential investors who may have entirely different perspectives on what makes a scientific question compelling or pressing. Although this may be a refreshing change, crowd sourcing could result in a skew of its own. For example, the public may be more inclined to fund research that is relevant to disease, rather than more basic research. Another issue that may require some time to work out is quality control in the proposals on offer. The peer review process varies widely across organizations, from very rigorous to none at all. One could argue that peer review is at odds with the process of microfinance, as the idea is to let donors choose what they consider valuable. However, it would be wasteful for laypeople to invest in projects that are ill conceived, lack sufficient institutional resources or duplicate previous work.

There’s a risk here. But one of the aspects I like about the whole process is that rather than money going through a particular institution or even through particular projects, it’s generally going to particular researchers, and as this Margaret Pagano opinion piece from the Independent comments:

putting money behind scientists rather than pre-destined projects is far more blue-sky, as brilliant discoveries or inventions are so often serendipitous.

I’m really interested in hearing from anyone who has worked this way, how did it go? It seems like part of a larger move to a more open science, alongside blogging and Twitter, and publishing without the barriers of phenomenally expensive print journals. Plus by diversifying the funding base, it makes science more resilient to political shifts. Which sounds like a win-win.

[Reading #7] Changing cities

1. Our cities are getting bigger

It’s clichéd to talk about more people living in cities than not, but it’s a milestone.  The way our cities work is changing too. We used to measure them every handful of years in a census, but increasingly we can keep much closer tabs through real time studies of the flow of people and information. So how does that change things?

(experiments with light by UK photographer/artist Helen Stevenson)

A new Institute For The Future study on the Future of Cities, Information and Inclusion tackles the subject. In this Fast Company piece, writer and urban planner Anthony Townsend’s analysis is measured:

None of these developments are unambiguously good.

Using sensors to track people and change are bound to inspire new ideas and new ways of being communities. It’s easy to be hyperbolic. But it also has the potential to drastically reduce civil liberties – think how networks of closed circuit cameras are increasingly being used, add in the vast change in public information from social networks like Foursquare, and the data troves available through the gov2.0 process.

The IFTF report touches on cloud computing, public interfaces, smart personal devices, broadband connectivity and open data infrastructures. It’s simply presented and asks lots of questions (a good sign) about the tensions. Who wins from smart cities? Who controls the data? Is crowdsourcing just offloading the responsibilities of the government onto the governed? And how do you approach the proliferating digital, economic and knowledge gaps? Lots of good examples. Short, too.

There’s a lot of Jane Jacobs in the thinking – really useful given the usual focus on future smart cities as a kind of wonderful utopia – about inclusion, and that’s something that’s teased out in this review of a series of presentations from the group.

2. Creative class saves cities?

Richard Florida’s concept that creative capital is crucial to a city’s economic success has been taken up with gusto, here he is in the ‘Flight of the Creative Class’:

Concentrations of creative talented people are particularly important for innovation…Ideas flow more freely, are honed more sharply, and can be put into practice more quickly when large numbers of innovators, implementers and financial backers are in constant contact with one another, both in and out of the office.

Bilbao’s success following the construction of Frank Gehry’s beautiful Guggenheim is usually the cited case study, but Thomas Sevcik (MD of Arthesia) knocked it over in a talk at this year’s Art Basel Miami:

Sevcik showed one graph charting the annual arrival of passengers streaming through the Bilbao airport — the “gotcha” part is that the big spike occurred not when the Guggenheim opened, but a few years later, when Europe’s budget airlines, such as Ryan Air and Air Berlin, started flying to Bilbao. Moreover, Spain was already investing in new cultural and business developments that may have contributed to the rise of Bilbao anyway. And what may work in Bilbao may not necessarily present a universal model for civic success.

He took aim at the creative industries, too, as actually being innovation-averse.

Due to chronic under-funding, “once [creative industries] find a formula [of] how they can sell a product – a special type of website or special strategy – they tend then to sell the same thing over and over.” Comparing the culture sector to others such as biotech or the financial industry, Sevcik claimed that the latter is more creative and innovative than the culture industries.

It’s a good reminder. Watch your assumptions. Just because artistically creative people are good at being creative in their discipline doesn’t mean they’re any more creative elsewhere.

3. Great ideas can start prosaic and small

Here’s one. It’s Der Gründungszuschuss, which according to Daily Kos, roughly translates as ‘start up grant’. And that’s basically it, start up grants for the urban poor.

It is a program for the unemployed that gives a monthly amount of seed capital for those on unemployment. The grant is means-tested and is paid on top of unemployment, health and other benefits. For example, a married couple with children can get a grant up to just under $32,000! A single person who is unemployed and has no children can get up to just over $25,000. The benefits are paid out over a period of nine months. After that, there is an extension of benefits called the “building phase” that pays an additional $400 per month for six months.

Some will fail, obviously. But the grants are supported by business classes, business planning mentoring, and ongoing seminars and training. How great.

4. And while we’re on cities

There’s a lot of talk about China’s astronomic urban growth. But sure there may be 20 new cities built there every year, but does anyone live in them?

5. Want more?

Read Write Web’s Best Internet of Things. New York Times’ Year In Ideas, and a 10 year special from NYT on the Best Ideas of a Decade.

How about The Guardian’s new data visualisation channel. Mitchell Whitelaw’s brilliant TEDxCanberra talk on showing everything instead of search. Touchable holograms. And, uhh, a brilliant example of the kind of research you could only really do by crowdsourcing.

Science blogging, a rethink

In science media circles, everyone knew about NASA’s press conference last month. Alien life? A second branch of life on Earth? Unusually hyped, even for NASA, it was published in the premier journal Science.

(lead researcher Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and Mary Voytek, Steven Benner and Pamela Conrada in a Paul E. Alers/NASA photo from the press conference)

But as UK science writer Ed Yong wrote in a post-mortem it:

turned out to be nothing more than bacteria that can thrive on arsenic, using it in place of phosphorus in their DNA and other molecules. But after the initial layers of hype were peeled away, even this extraordinary claim started falling under suspicious glances.

Despite the issues, most of the mainstream media went for it (the story was barely covered in Australia, although the Science Show had a report from a partner of one of the scientists and Stuart Gary wrote a piece for ABC Science).

Did having Science and NASA on the stand draw everyone’s guards down? Probably. And once upon a time, that’s where it would have ended.

But in the past few years, an ecology of science blogs and blogging platforms has emerged: Seed’s ScienceBlogs, ResearchBlogging, Wired’s Science Blogs, Nature BlogsDiscover‘s blogs, Science Blogging, PLoS Blogs, Scientific American Blogs, Guardian Science Blogs, Lab Spaces, SciBlogs NZScience 3.0, Scientopia, Field of Science, Occam’s Typewriter, Science Magazine Blogs, and here’s geophysicist Cian Dawson on geoscientists blogging. (There’s a smattering of science blogs in Australia, some linked to radio shows, some to international platforms. As part of the Federal Government’s gov2.0 drive, they’ve set up a government blogging platform.)

Between live tweeting of the press conference, and rapid-fire analysis from key bloggers, particularly Rosie Redfield, the issues with the Wolfe-Simon et al. paper quickly emerged.

I don’t know whether the authors are just bad scientists or whether they’re unscrupulously pushing NASA’s ‘There’s life in outer space!’ agenda.  I hesitate to blame the reviewers, as their objections are likely to have been overruled by Science’s editors in their eagerness to score such a high-impact publication.

NASA and many other mainstream science communicators and journalists were quick to dismiss these criticisms as being outside the peer review process.

Do critics of the blogosphere’s reaction realise how much of the best science writing is happening on blogs? These aren’t (all) undergrads or hobbyists – when they talk about “bloggers”, they’re talking about top flight science writers and scientists. Rosie Redfield, for example, is “The Boss” of the Redfield Lab at University of British Columbia. Long time science bloggers Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders blogged about this, of course, at Science of Blogging.

In this case, it quickly spun out of control for NASA – despite their great record with blogging and social media – seems like they messed up the PR,  then got a hint of what a lot of politicians and businesses have seen in the past year or two when the social media world senses it’s being taken for a ride.

It’s a great story, but it’s not the most important story.

The real story is how much the very practice of doing science is changing. Several recent controversies have shown how conflicted the peer review process has become. It’s closed and therefore open to (perceptions of) conflict. And that closed process means there’s nothing to be learned from the interactions of peer review, which can be hilarious:

The writing and data presentation are so bad that I had to leave work and go home early and then spend time to wonder what life is about,

but could inspire new ideas and avenues too.

The reverse chronology blog feed is a style of writing that is just really well suited to science. Instead of the story beginning and ending with the latest published paper, it’s ongoing, updated as new facts come to light – in many cases by writers (scientists or not) that are following the journals (often in their own discipline).

In that sense, it’s becoming part of being a scientist. Being part of a larger conversation of ideas, being able to publish thoughts in process and comments on other work. It’s communicating science, but also about doing science, and fostering innovation. It’s not for everyone, but for the right people, blogging science and talking openly about science is powerful.

In some ways, the way we think about science blogging needs a rethink. The science community tends to think of blogging as amateur or DIY media, which it can be. But I reckon it would help if scientists started to think about blogging as an extension to what they do at conferences.

So conferences are a chance to present ideas (which may not be quite ready for the breaking paper), hear them critiqued or questioned, and do the same for others. It’s good for connecting with people.

And as well as just being interesting, that conversation is where science blogging really works too.

What do you think?

Are you finding this blog interesting?

It’s been up and running three weeks – I’d hold out asking until a month, but that will be just about Christmas and I’m sure commenting on a blog will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. What with all the eggnog, Christmas songs and time off.

So the idea is that this blog becomes a conversation about great ideas and where some of those ideas came from. It doesn’t matter what kind of ideas – I’m interested in technology, science and engineering, business and finance, art, music, architecture, writing and plenty of other aspects of creative culture – the key is how the idea developed from a diffuse idea to a real thing.

Or maybe didn’t develop into a real thing – sometimes failure’s the most interesting prism on this stuff. I’m just really interested in this kind of thing. But I also hope that some of the ideas here will prompt flights of inspiration themselves.

So what do you think. Is it doing any of that? What could I do better, differently? Do you have ideas for reviews, interviews, overviews, stories, links?

(Bribe: I have a killer mixtape of Christmas songs for any comments)

Reading #5

  1. Sometimes all it takes to be creative is a different perspective. Matthew Engel’s Financial Times report on Australian politics captures something:

    The insecurity of power is reinforced by the layout of the parliamentary chamber. Instead of nestling alongside their colleagues on the front bench, the leaders sit alone at the despatch box, on swivel chairs, unable to glimpse the darts being aimed from behind.

    Unless they swing round, which Tony Abbott does all the time, turning his back on the PM to confer with his colleagues – especially when she is speaking, a gesture of contempt that would be recognised among primates. There is indeed something rather simian about Abbott: he is a hulking fitness fetishist-cum-exhibitionist, often photographed in the skimpy swimming trunks that Aussies call “budgie-smugglers”. The other week he was spotted running through the parliamentary corridors, past the coffee shop, in his tight black shorts: “It was like watching evolution in reverse,” said one latte drinker.

    Abbott’s attitude to Gillard is understandable. She enters the House with a strange waddle, as though she were a stringed puppet (perhaps with one of the faction leaders doing the pulling). Her accent is the least euphonious variant of whining Strine, and the content of her answers mind-numbingly repetitive. I heard her accuse Abbott of opposing with “three-word slogans” at least six times, which in itself constitutes a three-word slogan

  2. Radiolab, on WNYC (I get it on podcast), is one of the best of a new breed of radio. Intensely creative, captivated by the trade of ideas, informed by truckloads of radio and science experience. This great New York Oberver piece says it shows scientists haven’t simply replaced the theologians, the metaphysicians and the social critics as posers and answerers of the biggest questions:

    They’ve also become, in a time of gene-splicing and hadron-colliding and psychopharmacology, our true avatars of creative expression, the last radical artists left.

    This show is a conversation between science and mystery. You’re right at the edge of what the science can tell you. Which to me is as much about, like, magical thinking and weirdness and poetry as the science itself.

  3. Lee Fleming, at Harvard, collected data on all US patents since 1975, and looked at the network structures around them. It’s detailed in a fascinating Harvard Magazine piece on network analysis (I got this from a piece about network analysis on Arie Goldschlager‘s blog by the way):

    Comparing the models of the “broker”—an influential person connected to many others who don’t know each other—and the “connector”—an influential individual with a habit of introducing his collaborators to each other—he found that brokers are more likely to come up with new ideas, because they are situated at the center of a group and communication goes through them.

    But brokers have a harder time getting their ideas publicized, relative to connectors. Fleming found that brokers whose ideas became influential most often were connected to a “gatekeeper” who was part of a more highly integrated network and could disseminate the idea there.

  4. Google has been one of the past decade’s most fiercely innovative companies. From my experiences and reading, it seems that innovation stems from a mix of connectedness and disconnectedness. Their work is online, so there’s obviously connectivity. But they work in small teams that find their way to each other when they do. Several people I know went to ‘Google Under The Hood’ days in Sydney and Melbourne over the past few weeks.  I reckon the best insights come from failures, not successes, because you can see things in a cool, dispassionate way – the obvious recent example would be Wave, and I’d love to hear more about that. There’s nothing about Wave in this short review, but it does go into Google’s guidelines for innovation (it’s by Alex Roberts from the Federal Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research’s Innovation blog – which I hadn’t seen before, but am glad to have found):

    One of the other things mentioned was Google’s guiding principles ‘10 things we know to be true’. These principles include: that if you focus on the user, all else will follow; that great just isn’t good enough; and you can be serious without a suit.

    On looking at these principles I also came across their 10 design principles. These include ‘Dare to innovate’ – “Google encourages innovative, risk-taking designs whenever they serve the needs of users. Our teams encourage new ideas to come out and play. Instead of just matching the features of existing products, Google wants to change the game.”

    The APS has its Values which articulates our philosophy for the public service. But I was wondering – what could an APS philosophy for innovation look like? What should it look like?

  5. Gary Hamel’s business management blog at the Wall Street Journal is annoyed by lists of ‘most innovative companies’, which he says fail to distinguish between the five types of innovative businesses: young tyros like Spotify and Hulu; Nobel laureates like Intel and Cisco; artistes like IDEO and Grey New York; cyborgs like Google, Amazon and Apple; and born again innovators like Proctor & Gamble and Ford. He says the difference isn’t abstract, it’s structural (and it’s just as relevant to, say, a research institution or government):

    What limits innovation in established companies isn’t a lack of resources or a shortage of human creativity, but a dearth of pro-innovation processes. In too many organizations one finds that . . .

    1. Few, if any, employees trained as business innovators
    2. Few employees have access to the sort of customer and industry insights that can help spur innovation
    3. Would-be innovators face a bureaucratic gauntlet that makes it difficult for them to get the time and resources they need to test their ideas
    4. Line managers aren’t held accountable for mentoring new business initiatives or lack explicit innovation goals
    5. Innovation performance isn’t directly tied to top management compensation
    6. The metrics for tracking innovation (inputs, throughputs and outputs) are patchy and poorly constructed
    7. There’s no commonly agreed-upon definition of innovation and hence no way of comparing innovation performance across teams and divisions.
  6. I love this… taking the hack day concept and putting it to work in science. Science Hack Day happened earlier this month at San Francisco’s Institute for the Future:

    About 100 people gathered to learn from each other, tinker, form collaborative teams, and build projects that combined ideas from particle physics, molecular biology and bioinformatics, data science, astronomy and space science, robotics, geography, microscopy, software hacking, and web design. NASA was there, with an exuberance of marketing schwag and an eagerness to make their stores of data more accessible to citizen scientists; Mendeley was there to raise awareness of their open API, which grants access to Mendeley’s academic research data and web of scholarly relationships; YDN was there to show YQL, the query language that makes it easy to manipulate and mashup data from all over the web. There were Arduinos, LEDs, double helix legos, duct tape of course, a DNA tie, a $512 Polymerase Chain Reaction machine to enable DNA amplification for biohackers everywhere, plenty of cameras, plenty of refreshments, and a superabundance of smart, friendly people. Here’s the complete list of projects built.

The screwed down genius of DJ Screw

The narcotic slide of chopped and screwed hip hop is an acquired taste, once got it’s hard to shake. But when you look at how it started, and developed, what could have been a curious, but strictly local anomaly starts to look like a textbook case study for open innovation.

The sound is slow, most of all, layered with lazy scratches and subtle effects, edits and cuts. It’s a heavy, sleepy groove setting the sensual languor of Philly soul and R&B crooners against the menace of slowed down rap verses.

Everyone who has mistakenly played a 45rpm single at 33 knows the effect, but by dedicating himself to this process Screw turned what could have been a joke into a rap subgenre, an oft-copied process (countless Southern rap records have ‘chopped & screwed’ versions), based on a technique so simple that it has philosophical heft.

That’s Jace Clayton in this month’s Frieze (it’s a typically great piece).

Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw, slowed things down in Houston sometime in the mid-late ’80s. It was hot. People took things slow. In this Rap Pages interview, he said it was all about mix tapes with songs people could relax to.

Slower tempos, to feel the music and so you can hear what the rapper is saying.

So where did the idea for this music come from?

I mean people had experimented with slowing down and speeding up records – that’s one of the basic tools of the club DJ, being able to modify the pitch to beatmix records together – but this slowed down hip hop was something different.

Was it the cough syrup everyone was drinking? That’s what this MTV feature says.

Of course, it wasn’t just the slower pace of Southern life that was simpatico with chopped and screwed music. It was also the drug culture springing up in Houston at the time — specifically, the one centering on the consumption of the prescription cough syrup Promethazine, which includes codeine. The elixir goes by a number of names — syrup, drank, Texas tea — and its depressant qualities were the catalyst to an illicit subculture built around its abuse and the lethargic beats of chopped and screwed.

Ultimately, that’s where most people say the sound came from. Three Six Mafia’s ‘Sippin on Some Syrup’ came out in 2000, months after Screw died. People had been drinking ‘drank’ since the ’60s, but it had a resurgence in 91-92, and that was definitely part of it. Before that, most southern hip hop was fast. But the cough syrup got people in the mood for something slower.

Toward the end of the ’80s, Screw was messing with his turntables, slowing his records down, just hearing how it sounded. His cousin, Big Bub, says that’s when he came up with the new sound.

One day he picked up a Mantronix album — that’s the first thing I heard [slowed down]. He played it at a slow pitch and really liked the way it sounded. He kept messing with it, messing with it, and about a year later, he made a [whole] tape all slowed down.

The mood was closer to West Coast rappers like Dr Dre and DJ Quik – although sonically very different. As Clayton says in his Frieze piece, this could easily be a joke genre. There’s more to it, but on first listen it really just does sound like a 45 on 33, and that’s a pretty basic premise for a new sound. For some reason, it works.

It must have been just ahead of the birth of (the less menacing, but still similar) trip hop sounds in the UK . I was listening to the Anglo sounds more; in retrospect, I’m surprised there wasn’t a more explicit connection. There were plenty of similarities, and even closer ties, like Portishead remixing Gravediggaz, but not much. Was it just convergent evolution?

Jace Clayton, aka DJ/Rupture, credits another big influence.

Monterrey Mexicans had been talking over and slowing down cumbia records for years before Screw came along – something he would have been likely to hear in Houston.

It grew quickly, to the point where people weren’t worrying too much about where the sound appeared. Instead of the usual music industry thing, where a sound is quickly formalised – in Houston, this was all happening on mixtapes. Bun B, half of Texas group UGK, says it didn’t even have a name for quite a while.

When you say, ‘screwed music,’ you have to realise that for years, it was what it was without getting labeled. It wasn’t called ‘screwed and chopped’ when he was doing it, it was just a ‘Screw Tape’ — and you always wanted to get that Screw Tape.

Also called ‘gray tapes’ – the cassettes Screw bought in bulk were grey – they moved fast around Houston. Copied ’til they bled, shared, with little thought for legal issues, it was perfect for creativity. Others started playing with their own screw mixes – across town, Michael Watts was doing it, and when he started cutting between records making a double time beat, that added another stab of rhythm to the sound.  That’s when people started calling it ‘chopped and screwed’. Watts’ Swishahouse record label is probably most associated with the sound.

10 years after Screw died, the sound’s seeping out in a bunch of unexpected areas.

His fingerprints are all over a new wave of slow music, from artists like White Ring, Balam Acab and oOoOO of the Internet-centric microgenre called witch house, or drag, to experimental electronic musicians like Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tom Krell, who, performing as How to Dress Well, makes spacey post-R&B. There is chopped and screwed cumbia and reggaetón, and one of this year’s strangest viral hits was the low-concept Shamantis remix of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile,” slowed down into a ghostly, oceanic 35-minute epic.

That’s from a New York Times piece on the reemergence of screw.

So it could have been nothing more than a quirky local phenomenon. It started off slow, for quite a while it didn’t even have a name, but slowly through a process of mixtape experimentation it coalesced into a sound, and as those mixtapes moved through Houston’s hip hop community, that sound developed as particular DJs added their tweaks to the aesthetic.

The result seems like a case study for how open networks can catalyse new things. And what that NYT story shows is the process continuing, picking up steam as it moves out.

Want to hear classic DJ Screw mixes? You really do. So read Government Names and get them  from Bottom of the Map.

Reading #3

  1. Thinking about ideas is all about imagining a future, and that’s something Kristin Alford has lots of experience doing. When I caught up with her for ramen last week in Sydney, we talked through nanotech, climate science, books, data visualisation, Synapse and the Australian Network for Art and Technology (Kristin’s on the board), and the many differences and similarities and complements between art and science (and engineering and technology and…), among other things. Kristin was fresh from a whirlwind three weeks at Tipping Point Melbourne, TEDxAdelaide and TEDxCanberra, where she gave this wide ranging talk (watch the video, read the words at Kristin’s blog) covering quantum dots and semi-conductor LED lights, sustainability and biodiversity loss, New York’s Graffiti Research Lab – but mostly how we make better sense of our very fragmented future:

    Between the idea and what we do with the idea, we need to create better stories. We need more compelling visions of the future. As a futurist, the time scale of way beyond is a tricky one. It can’t just be 10 years or even 40 years in the future. That’s what I do in my normal job.

  2. One of the great things about Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From (I’ll write about this soon – in the meantime listen to Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly talk on this week’s Radiolab) is the way it talks about ideas and innovation coming out of the space between chaos and order. You get nowhere if there’s too much chaos, and too much order is stultifying. But in that space where you’ve got a bit of both, you have the potential for creativity. There’s a lot of wowserish over-reaction to the distractions of social media and the online world, but there’s a very real space in between the distractions and rush of ideas, and the focussed time for actually doing things. This New York Times piece focusses on teachers trying to find the line for their students:

    Frankenstein is in the room and I don’t want him to tear me apart. If I’m not using technology, I lose them completely … Today mixing music, tomorrow sound waves and physics. We’re meeting them on their turf.

  3. A new take on the exhibition catalogue from New York’s Museum of Modern Art – the 2010-11 Abstract Expressionist New York catalogue is an iPad app. Plus more data visualisation and analysis leads: Forbes on using R for data analysis, and Tim Berners-Lee calling for journalists with data skills in The Guardian.

Reading #2

  1. Graphic designer/computer scientist John Maeda is really a perfect case of someone bridging the art/science divide. President of the Rhode Island School of Design, former research director at the MIT Media Lab, one of the guys behind Second Life. Here’s a great NY Times profile. He’s now on a mission to expand the STEM (science, tech, engineering, maths) model of education to STEAM (adding arts). His show at London’s Riflemaker gallery prompted this terrific Q&A with The Guardian. Actually, here is another great piece on Maeda by the design association AIGA.

    “My undergrad and grad studies were in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT—after which I was at the Media Lab for a year as a PhD student, only to drop out because of a negative experience with my faculty advisor. I am always grateful to my old advisor—if it were not for him I would have never gone to art school. The “lucky accident” we often describe in making art or while designing is prevalent in life in general”

  2. Steve Jobs on how wide experiences and knowledge help catalyse new ideas.

    When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.

  3. Teresa Amabile at the Harvard Business Review, who says they’re all under threat.

    Three key steps to creative innovation are smart people who think differently, passionate engagement, and a creative atmosphere.

  4. If you think about good ideas as the ones that seem stupidly obvious as soon as someone puts them into practice, and yet totally game changing, then Marcus Westbury’s Renew Newcastle is one of the best. He’s taken it to conferences and sessions around the world, and Crikey had Marcus explain the next step, Renew Australia.

    How I ended up doing anything about it is a bit of a long story. Having presented a couple of short-lived ABC TV series a few years back I pitched the ABC a real world feel good arts story. Knowing that there were many in Newcastle keen to revive and activate their decaying spaces I pitched a doco idea to follow my attempts to undergo “a major transformation of the main streets of Newcastle … to provide opportunities for artists and physically change the dynamic of … a broken urban space.”

    They didn’t buy it — but fortunately they strung me along for a bit. By the time they made up their minds I’d done enough legwork that I felt obliged to do it anyway. Shame about the doco because it turned out to be a corker of a story.

This is a new thing

It’s been a slow and fast process realising that far from heading away from each other, my obsessions for science and technology, art, music and creativity were actually closing in on something interesting.

It came to a head last weekend, actually the one over a week ago, when the Tipping Point art/science juggernaut rolled through Sydney. TP’s a conference about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change and environmental issues, and unusually, I found myself right in the middle of the conversation.

Climate change is a big problem. But it’s just one of a handful of intersecting threats. And science can definitely help. But science is just one of the ways we observe and understand the world, and while it’s a particularly rigorous way of assessing things, its recent structures have shifted away from the creative.

There’s a world of reasons why artists and scientists don’t work together more often, but the reasons aren’t all that good.

I’ve been a scientist and worked with scientists, and I’ve done lots of creative things and worked with lots of artists, and thinking about how the two areas intersect, there’s a lot to work with. But if you ask scientists or artists who aren’t already at the boundary what they think, it’s polarised:

Artists: urbane, exploratory, creative. Scientists: geeks, boffins, way down the autism spectrum.

Scientists: innovative, thoughtful, high impact. Artists: airy-fairy, superficial, lacking rigour.

I’m sure you can guess who says what. Sitting in the closing session at Tipping Point, after a weekend of inspiring and electric conversations between artists and scientists, an artist got the microphone and decried the lack of engagement and understanding from scientists.

I don’t know how many scientists knew it was on, or got invited, but there is definitely a disconnect. I guess it goes back to studying in opposed faculties at university. Maybe further. But in my experience, as people, artists and scientists are not all that different.

At best, science wants to observe the world, create ideas (and test them) and explain it all somehow – hopefully, help us do things better, more efficiently, with lower impacts. But while the research is a big part of the outsider’s experience of science – you hear about the field work, the lab methods – talking about the results of the work is often an afterthought.

When I think about music or painting or dance, it’s a way of processing what the artist sees, and then in some way communicating something of the experience. So although the research may be as thorough as the scientist’s, it’s often relegated to catalogue documentation, so outsiders aren’t aware of the depth of preparation.

So, at best, both involve research, both should involve creativity. And, actually, thinking about creativity like that is at the heart of this new thing.

I’ve been fascinated by where ideas come from for ages. It’s informed what I’ve done as a writer and radio maker and science communicator, it’s where they meet. So this blog is all about that. Where ideas come from? How they come into being? Who does them? How? Why?

Love your ideas, suggestions, feedback.