[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 #4

  1. Imagine a situation that brings sci-fi writers Douglas Rushkoff, Ray Hammond, Scarlett Thomas and Markus Heitz together with experts in photonics, robotics, telematics, dynamic physical rendering and intelligent sensors. Sounds perfect, right? That’s what Intel’s Morrow Project did (follow that link to read/watch the stories). Brian David Johnson is the futurist/futurecaster responsible for this project, and although I imagine some of the benefits of a project like this would be in imaginative, unpredicted ways of putting technologies and ideas together, he’s more pragmatic:

    When we design chips, we need to do it five to 10 years in advance, so what that means is we want to have an understanding of what people will want to do with these devices long before they come out. So my job as a futurist at Intel is to have a very pragmatic vision of what people will want to do.

  2. Henry Jenkins is another MIT guru and while in the past he’s talked about the convergence of new and old media, now he’s on what he calls “spreadable media.” It’s really what we’re calling “viral” at the moment, but actually looking at what that means. In this Q&A for Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, he takes apart that ‘given’ to reveal there’s a lot more going on under the surface:

    Many talk as if things just happened to “go viral” when they have no way to explain how or why the content has grabbed the public imagination.

    Our work starts from the idea that people are making conscious decisions to aid the circulation of certain content because they see it as a meaningful contribution to their ongoing conversations, a gift which they can share with people they care about.

    As they circulate this content, they first are playing key roles in appraising its value at a time of exploding media options; they also help to frame the content, helping it to fit better into the ongoing social interactions; they may also build upon, appropriate, transform, and remix the content further extending its shelf life and enabling its broader circulation

  3. Steven Johnson explaining he’s not a communist, even though he loves what he calls the fourth quadrant – public research, amateur labs, places where ideas are open to unfettered interaction. And he drops the example of Kickstarter as a case in point:

    Consider a recent start-up called Kickstarter, which embodies many of these complex values. Kickstarter is a site that allows individuals to fund creative projects, like movies, art installations, albums and so on. Donors may get special gifts in return for their contributions — signed copies of the final CD or an invitation to the opening — but they don’t own the creations they help support. In just two years of existence, Kickstarter has raised more than $20 million for thousands of projects, taking a small cut of each transaction.

    The economic exchange that Kickstarter enables between donors and creators works outside the traditional logic of markets. People are “investing” in others not for the promise of financial reward, but for the social rewards of supporting important work. The artists, on the other hand, are relying on a decentralized network of support, not government grants. And somehow, in the middle of these new models of collaboration, lies Kickstarter itself, a for-profit company that may well make a nice return for its own investors and founders.

  4. Australia doesn’t have Kickstarter, but we do have FundBreak. Indie opinion/analysis website New Matilda folded this year – and when it did there was a real outpouring of feeling. But with crowdsourced funding sites like this, they’re attempting to set up shop again:

    Our business model will operate more like a public radio station than a subscriber service. That is, we’re not going to paywall our content. Financial supporters will have the same access to content as first-time visitors and non-paying readers. We’re proud of our writers and we want their work to be read as widely as possible.

    So the big question is, what do you get for giving us your hard-earned cash? Quality media. It doesn’t come cheap.

    We’ve set a budget target of $175,000. This figure represents the bare minimum that we need to run the business. This is an all or nothing fundraising drive and if we don’t reach this target, we’ll cease publishing at the end of December.

REVIEW: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

In 1943, the famed MIT radiation laboratory – the Rad Lab – needed a quick fix. So they threw up a building to house researchers until the end of the second world war, expecting to tear it down within a few years.

But 50 years later the wooden, asbestos-ridden Building 20 was still producing spectacular ideas. It was the starting point for companies like Akamai Technologies and the Digital Equipment Corporation, it’s where Noam Chomsky’s linguistics department began, and it’s where Amar Bose (Bose Corporation) is rumoured to have tested his speaker designs.

So why was that run-down temporary building so good at producing ideas?

That’s a question Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson‘s seventh book, aims to answer.

We think ideas start with a bang. Eureka moments, light bulbs flashing, breakthroughs. But ideas don’t come out of nothing, Johnson argues. To find out where they do come from, he rewinds some of our biggest supposed epiphanies – evolution, discovering the structure of benzene, Gutenberg’s printing press, triodes, the World Wide Web, Twitter – and plays them back slowly, to work out what actually happened.

Mostly it’s a mix of serendipity, mistakes, fortuitous collaborations, slow burning hunches, people who can take a pre-existing idea and put it to use somewhere completely different, and, you know, good timing.

Ever dreamt the answer to a big science problem? That’s how German chemist Friedrich August Kekule von Stradonitz came up with the ring structure of the benzene molecule. Of course, that was after Kekule spent a decade exploring the connections of carbon-based molecules – it was on his mind.

Constantly comparing our creativity and ingenuity with the rush of mutation and survival that drives evolution, Johnson makes a strong case for things we make being no more than an extension of the processes that made us and the world around us.

MIT’s Building 20 had just the right balance between order and chaos, Johnson says. You get nowhere with too much chaos, too much order is stultifying. But in that space where you’ve got a bit of both, you have the potential for creativity. Building 20 always had space for a new experiment and for interdisciplinary projects that couldn’t find space anywhere else. If the structure of the building wasn’t right, then – because it was a ‘temporary’ structure – you could move offices around, take out walls, drill holes.

Imagine a chess board. At any point in the game, you have a limited number of possible moves. Every time you make a move, you open up a new range of possible moves. Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman came up with an idea he called ‘the adjacent possible.’ That’s the moves you have at any one point on the chess board – a finite number of adjacent possibles.

Johnson says Building 20’s flexibility expanded each researcher’s range of adjacent possibles.

To put it another way, think about the classic breakthrough moment: the light bulb. Thomas Edison’s best known for inventing it. But amazingly, he was the very last of some 23 people to invent the light bulb – and this is actually very common. In the nascent light bulb’s case, it’s because 100 other inventions were needed before the light bulb was possible. But in place, inventing the light bulb joined the range of adjacent possibles. And, Johnson says, its invention was virtually inevitable.

It’s not always like that though. Johnson argues many of our best ideas appear on the edge of consciousness, unformed, like the first proteins and sugar molecules coalescing in a primordial soup. Doomed to fail, forgotten, never realised, poorly timed. But some work.

Ideas, he argues, are a process, not a one off event. And most often, a great idea starts as one of these unformed ideas, a hunch, and stays that way for a long time.

Johnson calls it a “slow hunch.” It’s when this slow hunch collides with someone else’s hunch, or the tools to make it possible, that you get the classic ‘Eureka’ moment.

In July and August, 2001, two FBI agents – one in Arizona and another in Minnesota – filed reports on radical Islamic terrorists targetting aviation schools, but the FBI’s internal systems were designed to keep these hunches apart. If those hunches collided, Johnson argues, the FBI might have uncovered the plot to fly planes into the World Trade Center.

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.