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How to lose friends and predict epidemics

October 19th, 2010 by

With The Social Network out in cinemas, everyone is talking about Mark Zuckerberg and his 500 million friends. Seeing as we have recently discussed Mark, today I would rather talk about his nemesis, Nicholas Christakis.

While Mark is busy building friendships, Nicholas is destroying them: according to him, if your friend gets fat, the chance of you getting fat at the same time increases by 57%. Because of Nicholas, overweight people all over the world dine alone tonight (crowd goes awwww).

The social network makes us all stars
To be fair to Christakis, his point is not to make you ditch your fattening beer-buddies, but rather show how real social networks influence our health, norms and behavior. To be clear, we are not talking about virtual networks like Facebook, but those networks humans have formed for thousands of years, well before the Internet became our one and only master.

Counting our family, friends and work relationships, we are connected to probably hundreds of people. They in turn are connected to hundreds of people, some of whom we are connected to and many of whom we are not. We are all embedded into that vast fabric of humanity, mutually affecting each other. As a picture, the people in a social network look a bit like stars in the night sky, all connected to their neighbors with little lines.

Christakis and his colleague Fowler focus on how the structure of social networks can help us to predict the spread of epidemics. Their ideas apply to any type of social behavior spread by people, including consumer adoption of a product or diffusion of abstract ideas such as political views.

Everything you know is old
Today, the best way to predict epidemics is with labs (or analysis nodes), which report the incidence of certain conditions to a central database. One or two weeks later we find out at what stage the epidemic was the day the information was collected.

According to Christakis and Fowler there is a better way. Epidemics don’t spread randomly amongst a population. If we want to get an early warning of an epidemic or even forecast it, the key is to figure out how it travels through the structure of social networks.

In such networks, different people have different numbers of connections. One person might have three friends, while another might have 100. Curiously, however, two people with the same number of connections may not be equally important in the spread of an epidemic. Those individuals who are the stars at the center of the social galaxy are the key to early detection. Because of their centrality, when these individuals pick up a piece of information, a germ or a specific behavior, it will quickly spread through the rest of the population. If you want an early warning of an epidemic, it is much more effective to monitor these central people than it is to monitor random people in a population.

Your friends have more friends than you do
Mapping a network, however, is a hard task: it can be expensive, unethical, or technically unfeasible, not least because these networks are changing all the time. So how do you find out who are the central people in a network? Christakis and Fowler came up with a cunning insight: the friends of randomly chosen people have more connections, and are more central, than the random people themselves. As the saying goes, your friends have more friends than you do.

The two researchers tested this theory by observing the behavior and emails both from random subjects and their friends. They found that monitoring the friends allowed them to forecast an epidemic 60 days before it hit. The length of this advance warning depends on factors such as the nature of what is spreading and the structure of the network, but the main point remains: we can predict future events with amazing accuracy by simply understanding the ties between people.

Apart from the fact that it is fascinating, the reason I mention all these ideas is because of how they can be applied to the concept of distributed work.

An obvious example is how a crowdsourced group of related volunteers could help us to understand trends faster. More interesting is how these ideas might improve the efficiency of distributed work. Would adding a social layer to existing crowdsourcing services (where people are generally unrelated) help forecast the diffusion of good practices, data and other information throughout a network of workers?

If you have any thoughts on this subject, please spread them. We would love to become infected.

IGI 2010: The Future is Bright

October 14th, 2010 by

Microtask IGI IcelandSome people claim that there are certain things you MUST do before you die. The threat is thinly veiled: if you ignore their advice, one day, when you least expect it, you will wake up a very disappointed corpse. These people are annoying.

The first time I visited Iceland, a tour guide told me that eating rotten shark flesh was just such an unmissable experience. Given that the mere smell had literally made me projectile vomit moments earlier, I was less than convinced. Would my life really be any richer if I risked it in this way? (In the end I flushed a small piece down with 40% brennivín liquor while holding my nose. While effective, the downside of this method is that I still can’t comment on the taste.)

Yet, since this first visit, I have returned to Iceland many times. As you might have guessed, it is not because of the unforgettable cuisine (whale and puffin are also on the menu). What keeps drawing me back is the incredible concentration of jaw-dropping scenery, wild parties and gaming companies.

Making microwork a game
This world class gaming industry provided my excuse to return to my favorite destination a few weeks ago, to speak at the Icelandic Gaming Industry (IGI) Conference 2010. In attendance were relevant companies from the gaming world including Gogogic (Vikings of Thule), Betware, and Mindgames.

For Microtask, it was an unmissable opportunity to discuss our vision for the gaming industry – or so I told my board, when convincing them to send me. Even though they were aware of my predisposition for anything involving this crazy little volcanic island, it was an easy sell.

At Microtask, we believe that in the future, computer games will play an important role in the distributed work industry. Microwork will be seamlessly integrated into online games, both to monetize them and improve the game itself.

Instead of getting out a credit card to pay for a virtual cow, players of Farmville, for example, could perform tiny, game-like tasks. The tasks will not feel like work or detract from the gaming experience. Distributed work could also be used to enhance the Artificial Intelligence of non-player characters in MMO games. In this way a dozen Chinese Goldfarmers could control the end-of-the-level monsters.

IGI 2010: Truly unmissable
Unlike rotten shark meat, IGI 2010 lived up to all expectations. With its unifying focus on the future, a host of excellent speeches (notably the presentation from futurist legend and hacker Pablos Holman) and lots of cool activities (such as off-roading in huge 4x4s and relaxing in the lagoon pictured above), it was a great conference. Attendees were enthusiastic about Microtask’s ideas, and provided some insightful feedback.

Although (or perhaps because) I didn’t notice rotten shark on the menu, I think that anyone involved in the games industry should try to get to an IGI conference if they get the chance. I don’t suppose missing it is something you would regret on your deathbed, but it is certainly worth the effort. I just hope they have one in 2011!

Open Source Life

October 11th, 2010 by

Bride Of Frankenstein by Kaptain Kobold @ FlickrAs far as scientific breakthroughs go, they don’t get much bigger. Like the splitting of the atom and the invention of two minute noodles, it elevates man into a realm once considered the preserve of the gods.

What I am referring to, of course, is the creation of artificial life by biologist Craig Venter.

The Bride of Frankenstein
Without getting into too much detail, what Dr Venter has in essence done is manufacture a synthetic chromosome and insert it into a bacterial cell, which had its own chromosome removed. The breakthrough was that the bacteria then replicated normally with this set of artificially created genetic instructions.

While The Economist front page declared And man made life, not everyone has been so enthusiastic. Matching the glowing headlines has been an equal amount of skepticism. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London saidwhat he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac program and making it work on a PC – and then saying you have created a computer.”

Whatever your view, there appears to be a level of consensus that the breakthrough is, at the very least, significant. Venter’s brilliance, according to Prof Jones, is “realizing that the genome was not a problem of chemistry but a problem of computer power.” With such computer power – Venter is thought to be the largest private user of it in the world – he has demonstrated a way to harness biology for industrial purposes.

Much like the splitting of the atom, the advance seems to have as much potential for harm as it has for good. While the possible benefits, such as manufacturing bacteria that consume carbon dioxide and excrete fuel (Venter has a deal with ExxonMobil to create just such bacteria), are enormous, so too are the dangers.

Just as hackers today churn out malicious software viruses, one day it seems people will be able to use a laptop, synthetic biology and some spare time during ad breaks to manufacture real viruses. While most hackers, even now that Lost has finished, would consider such a suggestion abhorrent, rogue states like North Korea and terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida obviously would not. After all, they may not have access to TV at all.

Safety in numbers
Rather than try to suppress this field of research (which would probably not be possible anyway), some suggest that a better way to protect society from it is to instead open the know-how up to as many people as possible. The idea is that this will give the good guys of the computing and genetics world a chance to quickly neutralize any malicious threats.

Of course, creating an antidote to a real life virus is rather more complicated and fraught with danger than dealing with the latest malware. For a start, as anyone who clicked on the link to extra detail above will know (I prefer Charlie Brooker’s analysis), this is not something a geeky school kid is going to be able to help out with from mom and dad’s garage. And of course, if efforts to find an antidote fail, we can’t simply flick the reset button (or depending on the situation throw the computer out of a six storey window, only feeling better when we hear the sound of it smashing on the street below).

But that is not to say that the idea does not have merit. Numerous crowdsourcing platforms already draw together people from around the world to complete everything from microtasks to complex problems. With enormous communities of highly educated, well resourced good guys like those working on earlier post, perhaps it is not such an idealistic idea.

Working in conjunction with teams of private and public scientists and organizations, the ideas, labor and enthusiasm of thousands of volunteers (and their computing power) could be exactly what is needed to defend the world from such a threat. At the very least, they should be able to come up with a new flavor of animal for my two minute noodles. Either way, I’ll be happy.

Teaching kids to win

October 7th, 2010 by

Darth Vader Christmas by Thomas Hawk @ FlickrA friend of mine once taught at a school in London’s East End. It was what a recruitment consultant might describe as a “challenging” teaching environment. The role was less Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society, more Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds. Kids weren’t climbing on their desks so they could chant “O Captain, my captain”, they were just finding a better angle for throwing their chair at the blackboard.

Throwing away the text book
The most disruptive students – let’s take Darren as an example – made teaching almost impossible. My friend’s solution: let them send texts and play games on their phones. Despite this being against school rules, it made his job easier, and there was less disruption for those that actually wanted to learn. It was the most beneficial solution for all concerned, although big things weren’t expected of Darren come exam time.

Anyone that’s been to school can sympathize to some extent with Darren. For every inspiring Dead Poet’s Society moment, there are countless instances of dead boring subject matter and dull repetition. Sounds familiar huh? Almost like having a dull job. With that in mind, it’s not much of a leap to think that theories on what makes a satisfied worker will have some relevance in the classroom.

A previous post discusses Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s idea of Flow. Flow is an optimal state of activity where one is totally immersed in the performance of a task. Such a state is common when people strive to achieve a clear, challenging goal that requires the exercise of their skills and abilities. Also important is direct feedback and a sense of personal control. The activity itself can be anything from a microtask to a long, complex game.

If you’ve ever been involved in a competitive game, you probably have experienced the sensation. This is because games generally contain the key elements required to achieve the state of flow. As discussed in the earlier post, if you could make work more like a game, you would have more success engaging your workforce. Or, if the methods of Lee Sheldon are anything to go by, your classroom.

Class war
Sheldon teaches courses in game design. When teaching his students difficult concepts, he uses the terminology, structure and reward systems of the World of Warcraft MMOG to motivate and grade them. The results include increased class participation and motivation.

It’s easy to dismiss this approach as only working because the students – wannabe game designers – are likely to be highly familiar with the quest-based teaching plan. Replicate it in a class full of Darrens and the results probably wouldn’t be as positive. But the idea of improving participation through employing a relevant game-based structure has been shown to be effective in other cases too.

A game called Re-Mission has improved the way adolescents and young adults manage their cancer treatment. The game itself saw users control a character called Roxxi, battling cancer cells in a highly accurate depiction of a human body. Those that played the game showed greater adherence to the strict drug-taking regimens, and retained chemotherapy drugs in their bodies for longer periods than the control group. The games creators HopeLab assert the game works because it gives the players “a sense of power and control over their cancer”.

That final quote includes what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi cites as two crucial elements of achieving flow. Now, if only my teaching friend could think of a game structure relevant to his students, bigger things might be expected of Darren come exam time. Maybe a quest that involved throwing chairs at the blackboard could get things flowing.

Do crowdsourced design contests work? You be the judge – and win!

October 4th, 2010 by

Microtask t shirtNothing beats first-hand experience. Put your money where your mouth is. What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger. Or so everyone always says.

A few weeks ago we discussed the use of crowdsourcing in design contests. Writing this blog – and reading the feedback we received in response to it – got us thinking. Why not try it out for ourselves? After all, we wanted to design a Microtask T-shirt, and crowdsourcing has made running design competitions easier than ever before.

Crowdsourcing the shirt on my back
Because we focused on 99Designs in this earlier post, it was a natural choice to run the competition. Having said this, based on our initial research, Crowdspring, designoutpost, designcrowd, MycroBurst, designcontest, and redesignme all seem to offer a great service as well.

This decision out of the way, the first step is to create the challenge, decide on a prize and provide a design brief.

As we had a clear vision of what we wanted, we were able to provide competitors with very detailed, specific instructions relating to things like colors. We also gave them various images of our brand identity and some background information about Microtask. We offered a prize of US$300.

From beginning to end, the process was fascinating.

For a start, 99Designs offers an extremely professional, well-oiled service. Creating the challenge, pre-payment and the other practical details could not have been easier. We were most impressed.

Unfortunately, from this point, things did not run quite as smoothly.

Distributing work: no easy task
As a person who commented on our earlier blog pointed out, the process does not end with the posting of the competition. You do not just “sit back and relax.” A lot of feedback and additional guidance is also required.

For us, this mainly involved either re-stating aspects of the initial instructions (over and over and over again), or encouraging competitors to come up with something more creative than simply collages of the images that we had given them.

By the close of the competition we had received 130 designs from about 40 artists. This was considerably more than 99Designs promised. The downside was that the far majority of these were either terrible – in that they completely ignored the design brief – or almost identical to the few designs which were actually decent.

Despite this, overall we are happy with the winning design, pictured above, and are not about to chase 99Designs for its money-back guarantee.

Taking what we have learned, we believe that next time – with a bit of luck – the process could be even more successful. For example we would make the instructions extremely clear and as short as possible, taking into account that the designers do not seem to spend too much time reading them. We might also experiment with a competition where the designers cannot see each other’s work.

At this point, however, what we would really like to know is: What do you think of the design? Do you think it is worth $300? Have you had any experience with crowdsourcing creative work? Do you have any ideas how we could do it better next time? Finally, can you think of any way that the Microtask system could distribute creative work in a more efficient way?

Please post your thoughts as comments. The best five will win… you guessed it… a one-way ticket to Finland! Ok, not really. You’ll win the highly original, crowdsourced, newer than new, Microtask T-shirt! (Which we expect you to wear EVERY single time you leave the house, regardless of whether you actually like it).

For a better look at the t-shirt, click HERE.

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