Distributed Problem Solving

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Contextual Citation

"- If you look at humanity's large-scale achievements, these really big things that humanity has gotten together and done historically-like, for example, building the pyramids of Egypt or the Panama Canal or putting a man on the moon-there is a curious fact about them, and it is that they were all done with about the same number of people," he says. "It's weird; they were all done with about 100,000 people. And the reason for that is because, before the Internet, coordinating more than 100,000 people, let alone paying them, was essentially impossible. But now with the Internet, I've just shown you a project where we've gotten 750 million people to help us digitize human knowledge. So the question that motivates my research is, if we can put a man on the moon with 100,000, what can we do with 100 million?" (citation of Luis Von Ahn, [1])


William D. Eggers:

"It doesn't get much bigger than digitizing human knowledge. Think of it. Technology and a clever business model allowing for the kind of large-scale coordination heretofore impossible in the annals of human history-without force, and much of it for free.

reCAPTCHA and Duolingo both represent a distinctly 21st-century form of distributed problem solving. These Internet-enabled approaches tend to be faster, far less expensive, and far more resilient than the heavyweight industrial-age methods of solving big social problems that we've grown accustomed to over the past century. They typically involve highly diverse resources-volunteer time, crowdfunding, the capabilities of multinational corporations, entrepreneurial capital, philanthropic funding-aligned around common objectives such as reducing congestion, providing safe drinking water, or promoting healthy living. Crowdsourcing offers not just a better way of doing things, but a radical challenge to the bureaucratic status quo." (http://reason.com/archives/2013/12/25/crowdsourcing-social-problems)


Excerpted from William D. Eggers:

Chunk the Problem

"The genius of reCAPTCHA and Duolingo is that they divide labor into small increments, performed for free, often by people who are unaware of the project they're helping to complete. This strategy has wide public-policy applications, even in dealing with potholes.

In Boston, the city collects data on the driving habits of residents. Specifically, citizens volunteer to passively survey road conditions by opening an app called "Street Bump" during their daily commute. The resulting GPS data, combined with gyroscope readings, identifies potholes in time for intervention.

Boston's pothole problem might previously have required a small army of inspectors, managers, and relayed complaint calls. Now a citizen doesn't even have to report a problem herself. The local government can thus cheaply perform work that would otherwise rack up payroll. City officials Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacobs, the innovators who created Boston's Citizens Connect in 2009, call their approach microvolunteerism: empowering citizens to make small commitments to the public good, with a huge aggregate impact.

Microvolunteerism has proved effective the world over. The Kenyan slum of Kiberia needed maps. These would help citizens locate water sources and help officials plan future improvements. To map the slum, volunteers carried GPS units through Kiberia and marked landmarks such as water pumps and bathrooms."

Decentralize Service to the Self

A young woman slices her finger on a knife. As she compresses the bleeding with gauze, she needs to know if her wound warrants stitches. So she calls up Blue Cross' 24-hour nurse hotline, where patients call to learn if they should see a doctor. The nurse asks her to describe the depth of the cut. He explains she should compress it with gauze and skip the ER. In aggregate, savings like this amount to millions of dollars of avoided emergency room visits.

Since 2003, Blue Cross has been shifting the work of basic triage and risk mitigation to customers. Britain's National Health Service (NHS) implemented a similar program, NHS Direct, in 1998. NHS estimates that the innovation has saved it £44 million a year.

Mobile technology enables the promising technique of mobile self-monitoring. Tools that help users solve their own problems funnel an expert's valuable time toward only those cases that require their particular expertise. The burden of basic services gets shifted from credentialed professionals to individuals empowered with technology, whether it's a new car owner printing out DMV forms at home or parolees checking in via ankle bracelets.

Self-guided Internet-based education, such as the Khan Academy, augments an autodidact's library by assessing student weak spots and confirming progress. A simple monitor, such as Nike's FuelBand, which tracks and gamifies fitness workouts, can inspire wiser behavior in individuals, for greater public health. Such technologies can place responsibility for our well-being directly into our own hands.

Gamify Drudgery

Finland's national library houses an enormous archive of antique texts, which officials hoped to scan and digitize into ordinary, searchable text documents. Rather than simply hire people for the tedium of correcting garbled OCR scans, the library invited the public to play a game. An online program called DigitalKoot lets people transcribe scanned words, and by typing accurately, usher a series of cartoon moles safely across a bridge.

In just a few months, 55,000 people helped digitize historical documents with 99 percent accuracy. A formerly tedious task was now fun enough to attract volunteers, and a library perpetually short of funds was able to achieve its goals for much less money.

Build a Two-Sided Market

Road infrastructure costs government five cents per driver per mile, according to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. "That's a dollar the government paid for the paving of that road and the maintaining of that infrastructure…just for you, not the other 3,000 people that travelled that same segment of highway in that same hour that you did," says Sean O'Sullivan, founder of Carma, a ridesharing application.

Ridesharing companies such as Carma, Lyft, and Zimride are attempting to recruit private cars for the public transit network, by letting riders pay a small fee to carpool. A passenger waits at a designated stop, and the app alerts drivers, who can scan a profile of their potential rider. It's a prime example of a potent new business model.

In two-sided markets, an exchange connects two parties-as an Xbox connects avid gamers with game designers, or AirBnb connects beds with travelers. Unlike a retail middleman, the two-sided market links the creator and consumer directly. It provides protections and standardizes transactions, reducing the cost of structuring a deal each time.

Release Your Data

"America is giving you billions and billions of dollars of data for free," Todd Park says. He means government data, like the kind that launched an estimated $90 billion GPS industry, fueling everything from Google Maps to the local weather report to the Garmin on your dashboard.

As chief technology officer of the United States, Park has the responsibility of releasing and publicizing enormous troves of government data-and encouraging private companies to use it. Dozens of health care apps have emerged from the Department of Health and Human Service's Datapalooza conferences, Health 2.0 Developer Challenges, and other data events. These tools match patients to clinical trials, trace the supply chain of food-borne illnesses, or link GPS data to inhalers to chart asthma triggers. Within a year of its 2011 launch, this drive in health care data innovations helped reduce costly repeat hospital visits by 70,000, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

While big institutions once jealously guarded information, now they're finding that strategic, targeted release of data lets a jungle of entrepreneurs pick apart datasets and construct valuable services.

Open data enables more creative uses and the development of niche markets. Insurance companies have begun sharing data with each other to hunt fraud. Motionloft, in San Francisco, has offered the city its private estimates of hourly foot traffic to better deploy city services.

Make It a Contest

When NASA and the British Royal Astronomical Society wanted to better calculate the 3-D ellipticity of 2-D images of galaxies (a step necessary to detect dark matter), they were constrained by budgetary considerations. So they designed a competition. On the data bounty platform Kaggle, scientists vied to construct the most accurate method of analyzing astronomical data. Early leads emerged from a glaciologist from Cambridge and a signature verification specialist from Qatar University.

From radio call-in races to grade school reading challenges, people have long responded to contests. While traditional human resources collect minds with an accomplished record in one discipline, contests discriminate only by results, admitting fresh eyes from unrelated fiefdoms. Where patents incentivize only marketable ideas, contests reward scientific advances with less immediate commercial potential. This shows special promise in medicine, where drug research skews toward the ailments of the wealthy.

Sometimes publicity is what a service needs, as when the U.S. Veterans Administration increased access to its Blue Button Initiative that lets patients click a button to see their personal health data and share it with doctors or other health partners. The VA offered a $50,000 prize for the best way to spread the button to other health care providers. The winner, McKesson Corporation's RelayHealth, succeeded in spreading the Blue Button not to just 25,000 doctors, but to 200,000, while the losing teams also widely disseminated the technology.

The federal government has built Challenge.gov, an engine for government agencies to run their own contests.

Distribute Your Solution

Science-fiction writers used to worry that robots would automate all the work and disemploy everyone but robot owners. Instead, technology is permitting us to coordinate work on a larger scale than ever before. Through microvolunteerism, economic incentives, games, contests, sharing both data and peer-to-peer expertise, and helping people address their own needs, we can distribute the effort of great undertakings.

Building the pyramids and harnessing atomic energy required an elaborate structure of human resources. But that was before the Internet. The challenge of organizing talent is no longer the burden of bureaucracies, but a consequence of systems. These systems can divide big problems into digestible chunks, and spread the labor so thin that it doesn't even feel like work." (http://reason.com/archives/2013/12/25/crowdsourcing-social-problems/4)