Crowd Sourcing Maps in the Wake of Typhoon Haiyan

The Red Cross and the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs are on the ground in the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan. An urgent need? Understanding the lay of the land.  Which streets are usable?  What buildings are still there, and which ones have collapsed?  OpenStreetMap – the wikipedia of the mapping world, is stepping into the breach – providing a platform to crowdsource an up-to-the-minute picture of the situation on the ground.

Typhoon Haiyan - OpenStreetMap Changes


As of today, over 700 people have contributed over a million and a half changes to the shared map of the ground (update: as of 9  December the numbers stand at 1618 people and 4.4 million changes. Click the link to see the current stats.) To make the information accessible to aid workers, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team is releasing daily exports for GPS devices and other information systems.

OpenStreetMap has been involved in helping in humanitarian crises before, but this is the first time they are doing so at the behest of the Red Cross themselves.  Updated satellite imagery may have been just as helpful as the crowd-sourced map.  Apparently, the DoD has that, and they’ve been telling the Red Cross where to focus their attention, but they haven’t yet released the images.  It’s not as easy to get ahold of eye-in-the-sky images as one might think, not even for the Red Cross.

What is the Medium? is working to remake online publishing.  Again. is a project of Ev Williams.  His creds for remaking media are impressive.  He was a co-founder of blog pioneer Blogger and then of micro-messaging pioneer Twitter. Both companies changed the way the world communicates.  Blogs turned every person into a publisher, and twitter wired up the global nervous system.

The rolls-royce domain name gives the site a primacy of placement, and telegraphs the scope of the founder’s ambition.  It’s reasonable to assume that was a 6 figure, and perhaps a 7 figure, purchase.  We’re looking here at another bid to remake media.

“It’s not too late to rethink how online publishing works and build a system optimized for quality, rather than popularity. Where anyone can have a voice but where one has to earn the right to your attention. A system where people work together to make a difference, rather than merely compete for validation and recognition. A world where thought and craftsmanship is rewarded more than knee-jerk reactions.”

from Welcome to Medium

It’s hard to read “” without recalling Marshall McLuhan’s seminal and concise teaching – “The Medium is the Message.”  McLuhan seemed to presage the birth of Twitter in particular when he spoke of the explosive impact of electronic media.  Instant information overthrows governments.  And more.

It’s that kind of understanding of the sensitive dependance on the structure of the medium that seems to be underlying the work of the company.  They’re creating a publishing system that aims to improve the quality of conversation, and they’re doing it from the medium on up.

Solar Mosaic Fires a Shot at Banking

I’m in Berkeley, and my old friend Dan Rosen has been gracious enough to show me around a bit. Dan is the CEO of Solar Mosaic – a young solar company on an interesting journey.

The development of Solar Mosaic is an example of what happens when passion and commitment lead the show. The company grew from a desire on the part of its co-founders – Rosen and Billy Parish – to enable and encourage solar in whatever ways they could.

A stack of Parish's new book in front of a picture of the community funded solar on top of the Asian Resource Center.

At first, they crowd sourced no-interest loans for community solar projects. They put 28.8kW of solar panels on top of The Asian Resource Center in Oakland, and continued to do the same in a small handful of other community projects. As they waded into the field, they started to sense a larger opportunity – distributed investment.

They’re about to launch a platform that will allow anybody to invest in solar projects at a respectable rate of return. The solar developers will get loans for their projects at rates below what they can get from the bank. Solar Mosaic takes a modest fee, and everyone is happy – except the banks.

The Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act that is making its way through Congress points to similar ideas – crowd-venture funding and community-owned businesses. Although they’d love to see the law pass, Solar Mosaic isn’t putting all their eggs in that basket – their investment instruments will be approved by the SEC under current laws.

What’s beautiful about what happening here is that the company’s commitment to making a difference led them into a space that they didn’t imagine they would enter. They’ll be enabling development of solar infrastructure, as they originally hoped, but they’ll be doing much more – creating a disruptive funding model that cuts out the middle-man and promises to change the way we build.

The Filter Bubble’s Filter

Just came across a link to a TED talk by Eli Pariser in support of his new book – The Filter Bubble.

From watching the video, the argument is interesting.  In short, he claims that the big gateway sites – Google, Facebook, etc. are increasingly using algorithms to tailor information to their viewers, only showing them what they want to see and ‘hiding’ from them all other information, be it boring or unpleasant or disquieting or what-have-you.  Ultimately, he claims, this threatens the dream of the Internet as the great connector.  These algorithms, he claims, are in the same seat as the Newspaper editors of the 20’s, and need to be programmed to include the lessons learned from those times – editorial balance, etc.

From this short presentation, though, it looks to me like he does a lot of his own filtering of facts in order to set up this equivalence between the newspaper editors of the ’20s and the algorithms of today.  The biggest difference is that in the 20s, most people saw exactly 1 newspaper, and that’s how they got their picture of the world.  On the web, you choose your sources of info.  Most people have many, and everyone can have as many as they like.

The Internet is an information marketplace and a filter marketplace.  There are any number of different kinds of filters – each person decides which ones they use, and the market as a whole decides which ones become popular.  Moreover – even the big ‘fitlerers’ that he fingers – Google and Facebook – don’t block out any information.  You want to see what your conservative friends are up to?  Click on their pages.  Facebook’s response?  It’ll show you more about them.  Want to learn about any topic at all in Google?  Search for it.  Nothing’s hidden.

The argument here boils down to a claim that lazy people who aren’t interested should be given a default mix that has broader boundaries.  Yet, there’s no reason to claim that once a particular website / filter / presentation of information becomes popular it suddenly has to change it’s magic-mix that made it popular in order to make sure people get a a balanced picture.  If people want a balanced picture there is no barrier to them getting it, besides habit.  Why does any particular website have to be paternalistic about what info it shows its users?  “They want Justin Beiber, but we’ll give them Greek Philosophy.”  It’s silly.

Should a website make it’s filter explicit and adjustable?  If people want it, then there will be websites that do.  All the rules of open markets apply.

Flickr Shows us How to Change

Flickr changed their photo page.  I haven’t even interacted with the new page yet, and I already like it.  Why?  The way they introduced it to me.   From the initial ‘want to see the future’ to the 5 step quick tour, to the surprise guest.

Go check it out.  I’ll wait.

I don’t know about you, but after seeing this, I immediately thought of Facebook.  Every time Facebook changes anything, all streams are a-flutter with people forswearing the new, pining for the old.

What did Flickr do right?

  1. They didn’t force change on me, they let me choose it.  They even tempted me in and stimulated a desire for the new.
  2. Once I jumped over, they helped me understand how to operate in the new environment.
  3. They worked hard to put a smile on my face when it was all done.

Well done.

Wave Hello to Web 3.0

My spider sense tells me that we’re looking at Web 3.0 on this one – the next big step up – and what could very well be a serious crimp in Facebook’s style. It’s a communication and collaboration platform. It’s open. It’s got an API. It’s open to community development. It’s got Google momentum and mass exposure to make it happen.

It’s email, it’s live chat, it’s a wiki, it drags and drops files from the desktop, it embeds itself everywhere. Garden walls comes down. And it’s open – it’s just the beginning. Think whiteboard, think document collaboration, think task tracking, think project management, think collective web browsing. Zing!

You can see a demo and dig deeper at the Google Wave Site. Mashable gives you a distillation.

My wheels are just starting to turn on this one…sensing big potential…bubble, bubble.

Wolfram Alpha

On the knowledge management front, it looks like Wolfram is about to take a major step forward.  I don’t make these predictions often – based on Wolfram’s track record and what it sounds like they’re set to deliver – this could be the next step in knowledge search, research, and computation.  Meaning – it looks like it’s going to make the Google/Wikipedia method look a tad bit dusty.  Wolfram Alpha is set to go live sometime in May. There’s a blog which gives us a bit of a tease.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram demonstrated Wolfram Alpha yesterday at Harvard.  The video (embed below) gives us tons of mouth watering scenarios, video of Dr. Wolfram typing, but almost no views of the product performing.  It sounds like it’s working.  It sounds like he’s demonstrating something quite amazing.

Hat tip to Joel Katz for the heads up.

Stay tuned…