Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Is the US safer today?

This is big news right now. It is based on a leaked US intelligence report, stating that the US is less safe today than it was before the Iraq war. Of course politicians now rush to contradict or support this claim.
I am currently teaching a course in Helsinki, and even here this is a big topic in the local newspapers, mostly in support of the arguments in the report. I was curious to see what the Web thinks about this claim, so I entered the two statements "the US is safer today" and "the US is more at risk today" into TeCFlow, a software tool that combines search with social network analysis, and did a coolhunting query. If you don't know what I mean by coolhunting, it is explained here.

Here is the picture I got

The picture shows that the statement "the US is safer today" is more central on the Web than the statement "the US is more at risk today", which is not what I would have expected, but perhaps still true? So the Web thinks we are indeed safer that we were before 9/11. The question remains, of course, if we would be even safer if the Iraq war had never been started?

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Ohmy-News - Pioneer of Citizen Journalism

Recently I read an excellent article in the Swiss Newspaper NZZ about Oh Yeon Ho, one of the pioneers of citizen journalism. He founded Ohmy-News as an Internet Journal in South Korea, in competition to the three large, well-established daily newspapers in South Korea.
In the meantime Ohmy-News is a huge power in South Korea's media landscape, with up to 780,000 readers per article. Oh Yeon Ho is leading the largest editorial staff of any newspaper, numbering 44,000 guerrilla reporters. He has no control over his reporters, they all operate in self-organization, and headlines bubble up in swarm creativity. But he still needs the human experts, to check the factual correctness of the submitted articles.
Oh yes, and by the way, with a staff of 80 paid employees, Ohmy-News has also been profitable since 2003, with 80% of revenue coming from ads, and 20% through selling news to other Web sites. Ohmy-News citizen reporters get $3 per published article, while a top story gets $20. Inspite of this relatively low compensation, there is no shortage on submitted articles. This is because this is a great platform for aspiring reporters, an excellent way of spreading one's beliefs, and also a way for authors to get more money, which can be transferred directly from a reader to the author, if the reader likes an article very much.
Another great example of swarm creativity!

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Facebook feeds - How Swarms turn the Power of Swarms on to themselves

Today's NYT talks about how Facebook - the online diary and meeting site for teens and students - had to turn off its feed feature as soon as it was made available.
Like an RSS reader, the new Facebook feature basically allowed a user to be informed about any change that one of the other Facebook users made to her/his home page. While it seems that today's teens have no problems giving up privacy and sharing intimate detail of their private lives online, this one obviously was too much. What the new feature did, was tell every virtual move of the Facebook page owner to anybody subscribed to his/her page.
Well, the good thing is that the new feature proved really usefully in organizing a communal protest against it - it was fully transparent to everybody who joined the campaign against the new feature, this was an avalanche of protest breaking loose in full public view.
Facebook's operators took the criticism very well. Their solution was to give control back to the users, allowing them to opt out alltogether, or to selectively exclude areas of their page from the Facebook feed.

Yet another example that swarms are great in self-policing and self-enforcement of their community's standard, even while the standards are evolving.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Repairing a car in Ghana - an exercise in Swarm Creativity

During my visit in Ghana we planned a big tour to see more of the country. So it was really unfortunate when the 4 wheel drive vehicle of my friends broke down. The gearshift in our car suddenly stopped working. The only gear still working was the reverse. Fortunately this happened not too far from home, so I drove home backwards!

My friend then called one of her Ghanaian friends for help. About two hours later he came by Trotro, bringing along a mobile car mechanic. Quickly, the mechanic located the broken part, and took it out. Him and the friend of my friend then disappeared by Trotro to a street market, where they got a generic spare part and temporarily fixed our car. The next day, we drove to the used car parts market in Accra, trying to find a replacement part.

For more specialized goods there are various dedicated markets outside the main Makola market, such as a huge market dedicated to only selling used car parts. Booths staffed by independent entrepreneurs display heaps of parts, either sorted by make, or by functional parts. There are booths only selling used parts for Toyotas, Nissans, or Volkswagens, while other booths only sell mufflers, or brake pads. The parts have been salvaged from old cars and car wrecks. There are hundreds of small entrepreneurs, each displaying his wares – used car parts – in little stalls.

At first glance, it might be better for an aspiring vendor of parts to be the only vendor of its kind, getting all the business. But looking more deeply, it makes absolute sense for the vendors to swarm together at one location, such that a mechanic trying to locate a particular part for a repair has a much bigger chance of actually finding the part he is looking for. There are even specialized “finders”, that have memorized the inventory of the different used parts suppliers, who help the prospective buyer of a car part to locate the vendor who might have the particular part for sale – a human sort of search engine. What an amazing example of swarm creativity.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Accra's Makola Market - another example of self-organzation

While there are supermarkets in Western style in Accra where the tourist or expat from the Northern hemisphere can buy almost everything, this is not where Ghanese people shop for their food and other daily necessities. Rather, they go to the Makola market, which I found yet another amazing example of self-organization and swarm creativity.

The Makola market is not only at the heart of Accra, it literally is THE heart of Accra. Located in the middle of the town, it is the place for 90% of Accra’s inhabitants to buy all their goods for daily life. Other than submarines and aircraft carriers, there is very little that can not be bought at Makola market. There is no central control, each booth is operated by its owner. At the top of the range are the established stores, where a room facing the street has been converted into a market stand. At the other range of the spectrum, little vendors display their wares on a blanket on the sidewalk. Heaps of shoes, staples of fresh and dried fish, life chickens, rows and rows of vegetables, fruit, and other types of food, staples of school books, all sorts of cloths and fabrics, suitcases, and myriads other things form a chaotic composition of colors, smells, and textures, that overwhelms the tourist.
For the expert visitor of the Makola market, though, it is actually quite easy to navigate the market. Each of the different types of goods and groceries occupies a distinct spot within the sprawling expanse. Vendors of vegetables, fruits, meat, or fish, but also of suitcases, clothes, shoes, or school books have their pre-allocated locations. Why is it, for example, that there is an entire road where there is one booth besides the other only selling suitcases?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The Danger of Trotros

When I was already back in Switzerland, I heard that one of my Ghanaian friends had just had a very bad car accident with a Trotro. While driving with her passenger car to the farm where she was the manager, she had collided with a reckless Trotro driver. While she was only slightly injured, the Trotro had been irreparably damaged, and the entire busload of passengers had been seriously hurt.
I guess this is the the drawback of self-organization, in that each Trotro driver wants to maximize income for himself by driving as rapidly as possible. On the balance between public good and optimizing his own gain, this driver tried to tip the scale too much towards himself, with very bad consequences for himself and his passengers.