18 October 2009

Summary of this week 12 Oct - 17 Oct

From my Diigo bookmarks this week.


The Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI) is an initiative led by Microsoft Public Sector Developer Evangelism teamExternal Link. OGDI uses the Azure Services PlatformExternal Link to make it easier to publish and use a wide variety of public data from government agencies. OGDI is also a free, open source ‘starter kit’ (coming soon) with code that can be used to publish data on the Internet in a Web-friendly format with easy-to-use, open API's. OGDI-based web API’s can be accessed from a variety of client technologies such as Silverlight, Flash, JavaScript, PHP, Python, Ruby, mapping web sites, etc.
The government's data has become more open, transparent and accessible for developers. Participation by such a huge player as Microsoft in OGDI will add more significance to this already widely embraced and hotly debated initiative.

The site is a blend of the US’s equivalent, data.gov, and Directgov | Innovate. It’s got a listing of available data packages, powered by the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network, and user-generated lists of apps and new ideas. This is just right: the data you need, combined with a way to promote the things you make and a place to get ideas if you’ve got itchy typing fingers but lack inspiration.
The UK government has also jumped into the open government initiative. Will it keep successfully spreading into other countries at this rapid space, or is there still more to consider as Lawrence Lassig argues there is in his rather controversial article.


Law.Gov is an effort to create a report documenting exactly what it would take to create a distributed registry and repository of all primary legal materials in the United States.
Law.Gov would be similar to Data.Gov, providing bulk data and feeds to commercial, non-commercial, and governmental organizations wishing to build web sites, operate legal information services, or otherwise use the raw materials of our democracy.
A similar attempt to Data.Gov in the law field, advocated by the founder of the Public.Resource.Org.

[Cloud Computing]
[ For more on Google's long-term cloud play, see "Google at 11: Taking the battle to Microsoft [5]" and "Google set to take on collaboration giants [6]." | Is our Internet future in danger? [7] See InfoWorld's special report on whether the Net's infrastructure can handle projected demand. ]
What got my attention this week was a study to be formally presented on Oct. 19 of Internet usage by Arbor Networks, which found that just 100 ASNs (autonomous system numbers) out of about 35,000 account for some 60 percent of traffic on the public Internet. Put another way, out of the 40,000 routed sites in the Internet, 30 large companies now generate and consume a disproportionate 30 percent of all Internet traffic, according to the two-year study.
These days, networks are far more likely to be interconnected. On one hand, these networks are more efficient and generally more robust. However, because many are interconnected -- McPherson calls that a "flattening of the Internet" -- when a big one goes down, lots and lots of sites are affected. The results can be far-reaching.
This concentration of power on the internet on a small number of (commercial) players can turn out to be highly problematic. Will cloud computing be still achievable and should it still be what the future web is like after the Sidekick fiasco and intermittently occuring Gmail outages?

The Finnish government has become the first in the world to make broadband internet access a legal right.
According to local reports, the Ministry of Transport and Communications in Helsinki has pushed through a law that will force telecommunications providers to offer high speed internet connections to all of the country's 5.3 million citizens.
Will other countries follow Finland's suit, enabling far broader populations than ever before to have access to the web? This right might become on of the most fundamental ones in the further developing knowledge economy.

We've just flipped the switch on Al Jazeera Blogs (http://blogs.aljazeera.net). This is the first new product I've launched since taking over the Al Jazeera English website, so am reasonably excited about it (just reasonably, since we're fashionably late to the party but the fantastic content will make up for it).
Another example of a local web narrowing the gap between the global web.

[Micro Payment]
Recent initiatives designed to make U.S. consumer financial products simpler and intelligible to customers, reminds me of a study we did on Mobile Banks in the developing world. Designed to work on the simplest mobile devices and originally targeting the unbanked, mobile banks evolved from simple services (transfer of mobile air time) to become widely used money-transfer and mobile payment systems. In the Philippines, over $100M flows through the GCASH system daily. GCASH and rival SmartMoney are accepted in establishments that take credit cards, giving the unbanked the ability to conduct cashless transactions, a benefit previously limited to credit card customers. In Kenya, the number of transactions that flow through M-PESA is comparable to the number of all ATM transactions in the country.
A key observation we gleaned when we studied Mobile Banks in the developing world is that the most successful services not only have easy-to-use products with low transaction fees, the terms and fees involved are spelled out clearly. The financial products they offer are by design easy for consumers to understand. A recent CGAP survey found that 1 in 6 mobile banking users in the Philippines previously had traditional bank accounts, and 7 in 10 viewed mobile banking services as easy to use.
Many examples of micro payment initiatives. Micro + a large number of participants = something. Historically, a lot of similar projects emerged and failed, but with mobile phones having more prevalent globally as ever before, even possessed by the most economically deprived in African countries, this time "something" can be of real significance.

Many examples of how Amazon Mechanical Turks is being used.

Mechanical Turk service provider CrowdFlower and microwork non-profit Samasource have teamed up to make their services available to iPhone users. Users of CrowdFlower's mechanical turk platform can now opt to send their tasks to iPhone users. Previously, CrowdFlower users could choose between Amazon mechanical turks or CrowdFlower's stable of turks.
Another example of good Amazon Mechanical Turks use.


FRANKFURT -- Google Inc. is launching a new service for booksellers next year called Google Editions, which will let readers buy books and read them anywhere on gadgets ranging from cell phones to possibly e-book devices.
What will happen to Google's already shaky relationship with stakeholders in the publishing industry and law enforcement parties.

A guideline for a polymath collaborative science project.

On 27 January 2009, one of us — Gowers — used his blog to announce an unusual experiment. The Polymath Project had a conventional scientific goal: to attack an unsolved problem in mathematics. But it also had the more ambitious goal of doing mathematical research in a new way. Inspired by open-source enterprises such as Linux and Wikipedia, it used blogs and a wiki to mediate a fully open collaboration. Anyone in the world could follow along and, if they wished, make a contribution. The blogs and wiki functioned as a collective short-term working memory, a conversational commons for the rapid-fire exchange and improvement of ideas. 

The project began with Gowers posting a description of the problem, pointers to background materials and a preliminary list of rules for collaboration (see http://go.nature.com/DrCmnC). These rules helped to create a polite, respectful atmosphere, and encouraged people to share a single idea in each comment, even if the idea was not fully developed. This lowered the barrier to contribution and kept the conversation informal.
Over the next 37 days, 27 people contributed approximately 800 substantive comments, containing 170,000 words. No one was specifically invited to participate: anybody, from graduate student to professional mathematician, could provide input on any aspect. Nielsen set up the wiki to distil notable insights from the blog discussions. The project received commentary on at least 16 blogs, reached the front page of the Slashdot technology-news aggregator, and spawned a closely related project on Tao's blog.
The process raises questions about authorship: it is difficult to set a hard-and-fast bar for authorship without causing contention or discouraging participation. What credit should be given to contributors with just a single insightful contribution, or to a contributor who is prolific but not insightful? As a provisional solution, the project is signing papers with a group pseudonym, 'DHJ Polymath', and a link to the full working record. One advantage of Polymath-style collaborations is that because all contributions are out in the open, it is transparent what any given person contributed. If it is necessary to assess the achievements of a Polymath contributor, then this may be done primarily through letters of recommendation, as is done already in particle physics, where papers can have hundreds of authors.
The project also raises questions about preservation. The main working record of the Polymath Project is spread across two blogs and a wiki, leaving it vulnerable should any of those sites disappear. In 2007, the US Library of Congress implemented a programme to preserve blogs by people in the legal profession; a similar but broader programme is needed to preserve research blogs and wikis.
Outside mathematics, open-source approaches have only slowly been adopted by scientists. One area in which they are being used is synthetic biology. DNA for the design of living organisms is specified digitally and uploaded to an online repository such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Other groups may use those designs in their laboratories and, if they wish, contribute improved designs back to the registry. The registry contains more than 3,200 parts, deposited by more than 100 groups. Discoveries have led to many scientific papers, including a 2008 study showing that most parts are not primitive but rather build on simpler parts (J. Peccoud et al. PLoS ONE 3, e2671; 2008). Open-source biology and open-source mathematics thus both show how science can be done using a gradual aggregation of insights from people with diverse expertise.
Similar open-source techniques could be applied in fields such as theoretical physics and computer science, where the raw materials are informational and can be freely shared online. The application of open-source techniques to experimental work is more constrained, because control of experimental equipment is often difficult to share. But open sharing of experimental data does at least allow open data analysis. The widespread adoption of such open-source techniques will require significant cultural changes in science, as well as the development of new online tools. We believe that this will lead to the widespread use of mass collaboration in many fields of science, and that mass collaboration will extend the limits of human problem-solving ability.

An Nature article on how collaborative science (especially observable in mathematics at the moment) can be as viable as or even more efficient than conventional science. Blog, Wiki, open scientific journals are most favorably being used.

Good resources of scientific experiments.

The Journal of Participatory Medicine, slated to launch in fall 2009, will explore the extent to which shared decision-making in health care, and deep patient engagement, affect outcomes.  Our mission is to transform the culture of medicine to be more participatory. We  believe that doing so, as the saying goes, will take a village - perhaps even a large metropolitan area! JPM constitutes a major investment of time and talent in community development. White Paper e-Patients: How TheyCan Help Us Heal Healthcare (PDF, 977 Kb)
There is a thorough review on Health2.0 in the PDF form available.

  Today, we've added 285 new languages to Google Translator Toolkit, bringing the total number of languages supported by this product to 345 — and making it possible to translate between 10,664 language pairs. Google Translator Toolkit is a language translation service for professional and amateur translators that builds on Google Translate and makes translation faster and easier.

In addition, we've made the Translator Toolkit interface available in 35 languages, so that more people can access the service in their own language.
Translation memories and glossaries, when shared across members of a language community, can help unify the language’s written form, increasing translation speed and quality of documents published in that language and preserving the language in the long run.
Because computer-aided translation can improve translation speed and quality, translators become more productive. When automatic translation is available, as it is for 87 of Google Translator Toolkit's 345 languages, it increases speed further by producing instant translations that people can use as a starting point for their work. And at Google, we use these human translations to improve the translation algorithm of Google Translate over time, creating a virtuous cycle that benefits both human translators and machine translation.
Online presence of small languages keeps languages relevant in the age of the Internet and globalization, encouraging minority language use by children, who are ultimately responsible for bringing the language to future generations.
Will it ever become possible to make machine translation between two (or more) languages so sophisticated as to make us feel as though we're communicating with each other in the same language? Some insights about the (new) science behind Google can be found here.

An example of how freely available online learning resources are being used in real highschool class activities.

We've just been told that the public API for Wolfram Alpha will be made available later today. The API documentation will be available at http://products.wolframalpha.com/api .

A complete list of TEDTalks, created by a volunteer and shared by everyone.

An example fo the core notions of open source being applied to other fields.

Five years ago, Internet traffic was, for the most part, managed by tier 1 providers like AT&T, Verizon, Level 3 Communications and Global Crossing, all of which connected to thousands of tier 2 networks and regional providers. Today, that has changed. Now, instead of traffic being distributed among tens of thousands of networks, only 150 networks control some 50% of all online traffic. Among these new Internet superpowers, it's no surprise to find Google listed. In fact, the search giant accounts for the largest source (6%) of all Internet traffic worldwide.
Again, is it really a good idea for one company to have such huge influence over the web, where there are an infinite number of stakeholders? We will need to articulate the answer to this before it gets too late.

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