Reading list for December 2014

Here we go again, here as some pointers to read during the Christmas holidays break 😉

  • Stop Trying to Save the World is an essay by Michael Hobbes which goes over the danger of scaling up big ideas, the need to account for overhead in NGOs, the complex systems nature of society and expectations for development. My favourite quote for the first part of his essay read that the problem with big ideas is thinking “that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.”. As a matter of fact it is not because something works somewhere in a particular context that it will work everywhere in every context. Our community is pointing out to this for the particular case of Semantic Web technologies showing that data sharing champion best practices as found in, e.g., Europe or the U.S. can not just be replicated world-wide as is. This also relates to the third part of the essay reminding the reader that “When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected”. As pointed out by Hobbes this is what happens in complex adaptive systems: everything is connected, tempering with one part of the ecosystem will inevitably have an impact on the other parts. This should be at least acknowledged and, IMO, preferably fostered. For instance, by ensuring local appropriation of the technology deployed the target population will be able to re-purpose it for other usages as well as feeling more engaged with it. The second and fourth part of the essay are about expectations. First, from the donors which can not expect any large NGO to run with a very little overhead or even worse no overhead at all which can be considered “the institutional equivalent of ‘I didn’t inhale.'”. Running a large organisation has a cost which can not be ignored. Hiding it by having a receptionist double as an HR person is not a solution. This actually reminds me how many of us researchers working in large research projects often end up being in charge of a making a website or keeping a server buzzing. I don’t think the goal is the same (reducing overhead) but the end result is quite similar (people doing a job they are not paid nor qualified for).  The other expectations that need to be revised are related to development itself and this sentence summarises it all “social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers”. We should not expect, or even aim at, changing drastically the living conditions of thousands of people overnight. Carefully conducted small projects with less expectations and more care are key to successful positive changes.
  • Consequently, one of the comment on this essay was pointing to The Great Man Made River. A super large irrigation project I was not aware of and that sounds interesting. Especially considering that it costs a tenth of what using salted water would cost. The main drawback is that the water is source from a closed and non refilling source. Whatever way we look at it (60 years, 100 years, …) it will not last.
  • “Big data” coming from fitness trackers, thermostats and social networks is often depicted as a major challenge of our society overlooking the fact that having big data is actually a luxury. Other parts of the world do not have big data issues. They just have very little accurate and up to date data that can be used to tackle their societal challenges. This very good article from The Economist points out that for some countries this lack of data makes it impossible to track the progress being made on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The lack of accurate map data is also impairing the work of those working on crisis situation. Whereas crisis situations are a boost for completing them these maps could be best be completed before they become so sorely needed. The collective effort “missing maps” will try to get this issue solved.

I am a researcher mainly interested in : architectures for publishing, consuming and preserving Linked Open Data in low-resource contexts; complex systems; education; data visualisation; video games

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