On Critical Mass

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I finally got around to carefully reading “A Theory of the Critical Mass…” by Oliver, Marwell, and Teixeira. Now I’m asking: what took me so long?

The article formalizes the notion of critical mass in collective action. It identifies two main independent variables that can influence the “probability, extent, and effectiveness of group actions in pursuit of collective goods”:

  • The form of the “production function” that relates “contributions of resources to the level of the collective good”. Two important categories of production functions are: (a) decelerating: the “first few units of resources contributed have the biggest effect on the collective good, and subsequent contributions progressively less”; (b) accelerating: “successive contributions generate progressively larger payoffs; therefore, each contribution makes the next one more
  • The “heterogeneity of interests and resources” in the population of potentially interested actors.

The authors then show that the problems and opportunities for collective action are very different for accelerating vs. decelerating production functions and for homogeneous vs. heterogeneous populations of actions. I’m not going to summarize the findings: the paper is a joy to read, so I mostly want to urge you to do that.

However, there were a couple of ideas that I found particularly relevant to issues in open content systems that I care about, so I did want to mention them.

First, this work looks at critical mass in “public” goods, where all the value is created by a group of people. This is true for many open content systems: Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap are two good examples. However, this isn’t true of other systems, including our Cyclopath bicycle routing system. Cyclopath began with a nearly complete transportation map created from Mn/DOT data and with a good objective route-finding algorithm that did not require user input. While we have shown that user input improves route-finding significantly and that algorithms based on user input are better than purely objective algorithms, I think it’s fair to say that most of the value of the Cyclopath “good” already was present before any user contributions were made. It’s interesting to consider how the concepts of this paper can be applied to a system like Cyclopath.

Second, Oliver at al. show that with decelerating production functions, the optimal outcome would be achieved if the *least* interested people contribute first and the *most* interested people contribute later. This obviously isn’t the way it usually works. They point out that one way to make this happen is for the most interested parties to “hold back”; perhaps they can offer “matching contributions” to entice less interested parties to contribute early in the process. This might suggest new strategies for intelligent-task-routing-like strategies to elicit participation in open content communities.

Third, many of the illustrative examples the authors give concern the different opportunities for collective action in “upper middle class” vs. “lower income” neighborhoods. I wonder: what’s the equivalent of an “upper middle class” open content system?

Fourth, the notion of “interest” presumed here is one of direct tangible personal benefit: if I give N dollars, I’m increasing the chances that I’ll receive M dollars (M >> N). However, we know that many contributors to open content systems (and many ‘volunteers’, too) contribute for other types of reasons, e.g., they “believe” in the public good, they are altruistic, or they want to build a reputation. For example, in Cyclopath, our most active editors don’t request many routes. For another example, other researchers have shown that there are many users in discussion forums who just answer questions and don’t ask any of their own.

Fifth, finally, and simply, I’d like to empirically measure the production function in various open content systems. I suspect that in many cases it is decelerating: i.e., early units of contribution are proportionally more valuable. I’d also like to measure this for individual users. Doing this calculation requires a way to measure the global quality of an open content system as well as the quality for a particular user. We can do both of these for Cyclopath. We can do the latter for MovieLens… not sure about the former.

Don’t bore me

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Doctors: do no harm.

Authors: keep the reader turning the page.

Speakers: keep the listener, uh, listening.

The title of this post and the third aphorism represent the sine qua non for a successful research talk (or any kind of public speech). Once the audience stops listening, you, the speaker, might just as well stop speaking.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since the CSCW conference last week. I saw quite a few talks on subjects I’m interested in, with good research, good content in the presentation, and good – i.e., fluent – delivery. I was engaged by the content in many cases and asked a lot of questions.

However, in reflecting on my experience, many of the talks began to seem, hmmmm…, monotonous. The speakers didn’t look animated. They didn’t use much of a dynamic range in their speaking: they weren’t loud sometimes and quiet others, fast sometimes and slow others. There weren’t too many jokes (shout out to Cliff and Reid, two speakers who did joke a bit). The slides too were pretty homogeneous: none that shouted “I’m important – notice me!”.

Again, the content was good – it wouldn’t have gotten in otherwise!

But speakers, lively up yourselves! It’ll keep your audiences’ ears open, so that your great content will get in. (And please: if you do a lively presentation with poor content or poor organization or poor slides, it’ll just seem … poor.)

Designers as Activitists?

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Since I started riding the bus to work, I’ve gained about 80 minutes of reading time a day, and lately I’ve been reading recent issues of interactions.  I’ve found many of them quite interesting, probably because they’re rather far afield from my usual concerns. They’re mostly by and for HCI (broadly construed) practitioners, rather than for researchers. One particular article got my attention: Learning from Activists: Lessons for Designers, by Tad Hirsch.

Hirsch talks about how activists have been technology innovators, touches on some examples, and talks about what the design process is like under these conditions. For example, the “immediacy of activist projects, coupled with a perpetual lack of funding, forces a kind of rough-and-tumble innovation”. Sounds right.

Things get more interesting later, as Hirsch says that “Activists willingness to engage in extra-legal activity also enables unique design opportunities”. He hastens to add that he doesn’t mean violence or vandalism, but the “exploit[ation] [of] excess acpacity”, like squatting in abandoned buildings or using wireless networks without their owners’ permission.

Finally, he talks about how “contestational designers” [i.e., those who design for activists] are “openly partisan practitioners who take sides in pressing issues of the day. They are neither objective technicians nor hired guns — images that continue to dominate the technical development community”.

It was this final point that I found most provocative. On the one hand, I too feel that it is imperative for all educated people — and I hope that includes not just designers, but also software professionals, academics, and students — to “take sides in pressing issues of the day”. However, if we do that in our roles as professionals — as designers, as researchers, as academics, etc. — do we lose our professional community? Note that Hirsch isn’t proposing this [that all designers, let alone all HCI researchers, should become “contestational designers”] — I’m just tracing out the implications of his advice.

For example, it’s obvious that the HCI community is heavily liberal and leftist. “Everyone” at CHI 2009 was ecstatic about Obama’s election, but this fact was mostly “informal”. That is, the conference program per se did not reflect it. But what if this changes? What if activist papers play a larger and larger role in our professional community? Would they all be liberal-activist papers? Would that drive out non-liberals? Or would conservative activists, Chinese nationalist activists, anti-abortion activists, gun-rights activists all be represented? Would you be happy about papers about providing technology support for radical environmentalists to shut down a coal plant, or for radical anti-abortion activists to shut down a family planning clinic?

I don’t know… However, as I get older, I am more and more interested in reconciling my personal beliefs and my professional practice. Hirsch’s article made this topic more urgent for me.

Talk about needing a Geowiki!

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This Slashdot post talks about TIGR, the Tactical Ground Reporting System, which the US military developed for groupd troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Developed as much on the
ground in active warzones as in a lab, TIGR lets platoons access the
latest satellite and drone imagery in an easy-to-use map based
interface, as well as recording their experiences in the field and
accessing the reports of other troops.”

For more details, see the interview with the developers. Some fascinating quotes, including:

soldiers learn … the area that they’re
assigned. That is they learn the people. They learn the villages. They
learn the roads. And that knowledge that they gain over the course of a
deployment is often times lost. When those soldiers rotate back to the
United States and new soldiers come in and are assigned a territory,
then they come in without all of that knowledge. They used to come in
without all of that knowledge. And that was actually a very, very
dangerous period of time called the turnover of authority. And one
thing TIGR has done is that TIGR has made all of that information
available to the soldiers that are coming in new, as it were, to an
area, so that they’re acclimated and have good knowledge of the people
and the places and the roads and things of this sort when they arrive.

you’re just really looking for geospatially relevant information for
the mission at hand. If you’re going to take this route and you’re not
familiar with this route that you’re thinking of taking, you can look
and see how many attacks have taken place; what kind of attacks have
taken place; who’s been there before. So all of that information is at
your fingertips.

What a different application than Cyclopath! (And one that I personally would have qualms about working on, although I don’t see this as a simple case of ‘working on a military application’.) And yet the motivation for the approach is nearly identical. More evidence for the utility of a geowiki approach!

Way Beyond the Desktop

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When I teach user interface design, I always come to a point about 2/3 of the way through the semester where I show the students this picture. It’s a picture from circa late 70s or early 80s of someone sitting in front of a Xerox Star. I tell them this was the dawn of the desktop computer / GUI era, and this picture illustrates many of the assumptions that were implicit in this area. Then I ask the students to tell me what they notice about the picture.

Maybe you want to try it before reading any further…

OK, you’re back?

The students notice lots of interesting stuff, but a lot of what I want to point out they usually don’t notice: it’s too obvious to notice, like: the user is an adult, a man, can see, can read, has no motor disabilities, is white, is a white collar worker, which means he’s probably educated, is working (not having fun), is alone, etc.

Then I say that all of these assumptions are false for many (or most) human beings and for many (or most) human activities.

Well, at CHI 2009, I was finally convinced that the CHI community has definitively got that. Now, many CHI’ers have gotten this long ago. Maybe it’s just me noticing this is true about the field. In any case, there was great stuff about topics like: tabletop devices, social media, and, my favorite, designing in the developing world.

My absolute favorite event in this vein was Jan Chipchase’s presentation. Jan Chipchase has the coolest job in the world. He’s a researcher for Nokia, and he travels all around the world observing practices related (veeeeeeery broadly) to mobile phone use and coming up with ideas for new Nokia designs and products. By “all around the world”, I don’t mean North America, Europe, and Japan (although he certainly spends lots of time there). I mean Ghana and Uganda and Afghanistan and Vietnam, among lots of other places. He does contextual inquiry in monsoons, participatory design in shanty towns, and lofi prototyping in villages. His talk consisted of showing a large number of slides and telling stories. It was great. If you’re interested in learning more about what he does, check out his web site referenced above. He has lots of interesting blog entries and posts his slides for all or most of his slides.