Exploring digital for good at Thinking Digital

Exploring digital for good at Thinking Digital

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The impact of digital technology on the economy and society occupied speakers and delegates on the first day of the main conference at Thinking Digital. There’s definitely an alternative and subversive mood to Thinking Digital this year. It’s been noted by several people in the #TDC14 Twitter stream.

Herb Kim [@herbkim], the event’s founder and director, kicked off the day by acknowledging that this was the seventh year that the community of digital thinkers and doers had gathered on the banks of the River Tyne at the Sage in Gateshead, UK, to discuss the sector.

Herb Kim

"The first event was hugely optimistic. The Apple iPhone had just launched and there was a nascent wave of social media. Now we’re more cautious. This year is likely to be a reflection on some of the profound implications of technology on the economy and society,” said Kim.

Data reformation

Jenni Tennison [@JeniT], technical director, UK Open Data Institute [@ukodi] was first up with a session titled Data Reformation. Her view is that open data improves cooperation, transparency and understanding.

Tennison drew on the historical analogy of the translation of the first bible from Latin to German by Martin Luther in 1522. Prior to this the religious document was locked behind doctrine, its content interpreted by monks and priests. Luther's bible democratised the document and enabled people to question whether what they were being told was true.

Jenni Tennison

“The same dynamic is at play today as data is released and made open” says Tennison. Instead of reviewing a third party’s perspective on data we can view it directly and make our own judgments on its fidelity.

Tennison shared examples of the government’s data sharing (flood plain information), itself a data entrepreneur, she claimed, philanthropic organisations (funding raising and investment decisions), private organisations, and crowdsourcing (OpenStreetMap).

In every case data drives efficiency and purpose she claimed.

Reading re-imagined

Text remains the primary means of data display between an individual and a computer system. It is as old as computer systems itself. The shift to mobile is reinforcing this issue. As we move to small screen screens, the methods of displaying and rendering text remain the same.

Maik Maurer [@maikmaurer] introduced the Thinking Digital audience to Spritz [@SpritzInc]. It’s a new way to display and read using small displays.

Spritz has completely rethought how text is displayed. The start-up renders a single word around a pink character that the eye focuses upon. In this way it is possible to increase the speed at which you can read, claimed Maurer.

Maik Maurer

Words are displayed at different speeds and can be matched to the speed that an individual is able to read. I downloaded the app and got up to 750 words per minute.

Spritz is based in Boston and is building out an eco-system for content publishers. You could see it used as an interfaced or reader on a mobile phone. It’s a human/machine interface to watch for sure.

Understanding computers

Dale Lane [@dalelane] from IBM Watson [@ibmwatson] also tackled the interface between human and computers and asked why it was we still aren’t able to communicate with computers in natural language.

The issue is the complexity of language. Lane teased the audience with the phrase “Policeman helps dog bite victim.” The meaning of the short sentence depends on which words you assign as nouns and verbs.

Dale Lane

We can query search engines for answers but the results returned will be documents that contain the same keywords. Inevitably as the number of words increases so does the number of documents returned.

The issue is content and context.

IBM’s Watson project uses cognitive technology to process information more like a human than a computer. It interrogates the semantic make-up of natural language and generates hypotheses based on its understanding.

Lane gave the example of reviewing patient medical record against papers, journals and text books. Watson is able to provide signposts to relevant papers and ask further questions to help improve diagnosis. Its acts an assistant to a doctor helping make informed decisions.

Lane claimed that ultimately Watson will democratise information from experts from around the world.

Free is a lie

Aral Balkan [@aral] challenged the Thinking Digital audience to think about its reliance on technology and the amount of data it shared.

“Computers used to be something you drove too. Now we wear them,” he said.

He said that Facebook itself has admitted that it can predict when two people are in a new relationship based on the frequency and intensity of posts and comments.

Aral Balkan

The plain fact is that if a service is free you're the product.

In an onslaught leveled at Facebook and Google, Balkan called out the eco system of services that are closed communities that have driven huge financial value for a small group of companies.

The price he said is your data and social graph. He likened the business model to corporate surveillance.

Balkan is the founder of the Indie Tech a community with the vision to enable consumers to own their own data. His personal goal is to develop a mobile phone independent of the current eco-system of tech firms.

"I want to live in a world where I have alternatives. The real cost of free is our privacy, civil liberties and human rights. That is too high a price to pay,” he said.

Government role in market making

There’s a firmly held belief in modern economics that governments should stay firmly out of markets. Interventions should be limited to setting a level playing field and solving market failures.

Mariana Mazzucato [@MazzucatoM], an economist and professor at the University of Sussex strongly counters this view. Her presentation, based on her book The Entrepreneurial State, made the case for state intervention to drive innovation.

Mazzucato listed countless examples where the US government had funded pure and applied research, and early stage development in sectors such as aerospace, healthcare, telecoms and transport.

The iPhone, she said, contains no less than 15 technologies that have benefited from government funded research.

This doesn’t let corporations off the hook, far from it says Mazzucato. She criticised the reduced investment in corporate research and development, aggressive tax management, and a recent trend of share buy backs.

Government free loans aren’t the solution either. Instead public sector investment should be recognised.  Mazzucato called for a new narrative between public and private investment. Both need to be dynamic and creative, she said.

Discovery engines

We’ve reached peak search said Erin McKean [@emckean], founder and CEO, Wordnik, citing numerous flaws in search algorithms.

“The trouble with search engines is we frame every question as a query. When you've a hammer everything looks like a nail. Google doesn’t allow you to rummage through data for unknown unknowns,” said McKean.

Wordnik is an online social dictionary. Unlike any other it provides definitions, etymologies and examples of contextual usage.

McKean explained that Wordnik has created a map of an English language.  It has used this blueprint to create a discovery engine called Reverb.

Reverb

The app is available on the iPad and iPhone. You load it and its starts learning immediately and presents you with information that it believes you might like.

“We needn’t create a lengthy sign-on because people aren’t good at completing questionnaires or necessarily willing to admit what they like reading,” said McKean.

The app learns what you read and what you don’t. It couldn’t be simpler.

Sonifying the genome

Jennifer Gardy [@jennifergardy], Assistant Professor, School of Population and Public Health, University of British Columbia, and Peter Gregson [@petergregson], a cellist and composer, returned to Thinking Digital to present the results of a new project. The pair previously presented separately in 2012.

Peter Gregson

Gardy described how she had mapped a human genome to create a pattern that Gregson was able to transcribe into music for the piano and cello.

Gregson added an “aesthetic layer in G major” so that the result didn’t sound angular and harsh. The result was a beautiful and poignant moment in the afternoon.

Audio via Sara Hartley on Soundcloud with thanks.

Falling Whistle

The final speaker of the day was the most inspirational. Sean Carasso [@seancarasso] was 26-years-old when he traveled through eastern Congo to learn about the war.

Sean Carasso Days later Carasso found himself in a military encampment, where he met five boys being held prisoner by the national army. One boy told him of children too small to carry guns being sent to the frontlines, armed with only a whistle.

After he and his partner worked with the UN to have the boys released, he went home that night and wrote the Falling Whistles journal.

Today Falling Whistles a non-profit organisation with chapters around the world, campaigning for peace in the Congo. The whistle remains a symbol of protest and the organization asks individuals to be whistle blowers for peace.


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