Digital Fishers – The Taxi Driver Pitch

Eugene Bardach’s Practical Guide for Policy Analysis (2000) is a handbook for public policy practitioners that I use in my executive and professional development courses (see “Better Briefings Workshops“). Bardach uses a test, “New York Taxi Driver Pitch” to argue that your policy explanation needs to be clear, succinct and simple. This test, in which the analyst imagines trying to explain the problem and recommended solution to a taxi driver during a trip through city streets, is similar to my “grandmother test” (which some of my older colleagues call the “mother test”). I’ll attempt to make my Digital Fishers Taxi Driver Pitch here (good thing it’s a trip out to the airport, and traffic is moving slow):

The Neptune Canada project involves the construction of the world’s largest fibre optic cabled seafloor observation system off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This 800 kilometre long network of cables will be connected to a number of nodes on the seafloor. At each of these nodes, instrument clusters will gather live data from the ocean environment and that data will be transmitted to a database at the University of Victoria. The system will then provide free access to this data via the Internet to anyone interested.

A group at the University of Victoria recently received funding from CANARIE Inc. (Canada’s Advanced Research and Innovation Network) for a project called “Data from the Deep, Judgment from the Crowd” to look at new ways to collect and analyze data from the Neptune project. One part of this project is called the “Digital Fishers” crowdsourcing component.

The Digital Fishers component will apply an approach called crowdsourcing to part of the Neptune data stream. Most of the data coming in can be handled by computers – water temperature, for example, or earthquake activity. But some of the data – specifically underwater video and audio – is harder for computers today to handle. Take the video images, for example: when the cameras are turned on, there will be five minutes of video taken every hour of every day at each of the nodes (it’s only five minutes per hour because the cameras have to have lights on to record anything down there – and the lights change the environment – so the scientists limit how long and how often the lights are turned on). That’s two hours of video per day – and it has to be look at by a person to see if there’s anything of interest there. That’s a lot of time to spend looking for something that might not be there. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – or a marine biologist – to do it.

This is where our Digital Fishers and crowdsourcing comes in. Crowdsourcing is a term coined in 2006 to describe the process of taking a task normally performed by employees and allocating it to volunteers – the crowd – using the Internet. You send out the request for volunteers, allocate the task, send out the data, and collect the responses – all using the web. Crowdsourcing works best for tasks that have three things in common:

  • they involve a large number of small, simple tasks that humans do better than computers (like, telling the difference between a rock and a fish),
  • they require very little time on the part of the volunteer to learn how to complete the task, and actually do the task (a minute or two), and
  • they give the volunteer a sense of accomplishment and of having contributed to a large complex project.

The easy way to think about the Digital Fishers project is a system that will enlist volunteers to come to the project website (this is actually the hard part – how to get people to the site takes some work), watch a short segment of video or listen to some audio, and click on a simple response box (something like: “nothing here”, or “wow – creepy green fish!”) – that then gets attached to that segment. With a pretty small number of visitors, we can have all the video segments viewed at least once (since the audio is taken 24 hours a day, seven days a week, getting all these segments listened to is a bigger challenge). With a lot of visitors, each of the segments can be viewed more than once to make sure multiple people see the same thing, nothing gets missed, and no-one purposefully tries to mess with the system (like, someone saying “SpongeBob spotted at the Crusty Crab”). There are other ways that people can do this – we can design games so that it’s more fun, or attach some kind of contest to participating (for example, high producers would get more points) or increase the devices that can be used to interact with the system – things like smartphones and game devices like PSPs and iPod Touches. The whole idea is that if a really large number of people do something small with their spare five minutes, they can contribute to a large science project and feel like they’ve made an important contribution.

NASA – you know, the Space Shuttle people – ran something like this years ago called Clickworkers. Participants were asked to mark craters on maps of Mars that they viewed on the Internet. In its first six months of operation, more than 85,000 users visited the site with many contributing to the effort, making more than 1.9 million entries. And when you looked at the work they did, you couldn’t tell the difference between what the Internet-based volunteers did and what the professional scientists did.

The other benefit of this approach – besides getting lots of work done for very little money – is connecting with the public and getting them excited about ocean science, whether it’s a kid in grade 7 or a retired executive – or a taxi driver looking to kill a few minutes on-line after work.

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