Saturday, 4 June 2011

Koios, the free open and collaborative problem solving platform

This year I have been prototyping a solution for solving complex social challenges online.

Many people don't get what it is I am developing. Most people who do get the idea think I'm mad to even try to do it. Some also think I am naive and wasting my time chasing a fairytale unicorn.
In this blog post I share my vision and some of my thoughts about the system and why the project is worth doing.

I have had the idea for this system for many years. I love watching documentaries. Documentaries often present social problems. Take for example social issues such as the obesity epidemic, ethics and abortion, poverty, racism, human trafficking, corruption, bullying. The list goes on and on and there are small issues on a personal level and there are the really big issues like climate change.
I have always liked to develop new innovative web solutions. Developing this kind of problem solving service seemed like the ultimate challenge. But, I always knew that it would be too big of a challenge to do on my spare time alone.

After searching for months on the web for similar projects, I could not find any sites that had tried to do this. There are, of course, thousands of sites that target various social problems. Some communities also have a set of web2.0 tools like a forum and a blog or wiki. On these sites you get to discuss the problem but there are no built in support for solving the problems in a systematic and analytic way. There is however some portals for social issues. www.worldchanging.com is a good example of this. Sites like this are a step closer but they mostly let people gather around the problem and share ideas. Again they are not really solving the problem just creating awareness and helping out with social networking, donations etc.

Last year, to my surprise, I got funding by the Norwegian government for doing this project so I set out to design the system. I had already spent a few years doing research on my spare time so I had a good starting point.

After a year of iterative design, prototyping, testing, reviewing and further research I finally have a mock-up that can be viewed online. This pre alpha demo version is put online so I can more easily show it to other remote people and get feedback. It also helps other interested parties to more easily find it so to get even more feedback.

Now to the interesting part. Why on earth do I think it can work and what makes it new?
When wikipedia started out not many people would envision that it would become the de facto reference source website and that it would replace traditional reference books.

My vision is to take the process of social problem solving to the masses. Anyone who wants to help solve a social issue should be able to just go to the website and be able to use proper tools and get help from others to solve the problem.

We recognize you don't really solve complex social issues. You just make the situation better or worse. By making variables/indicators go below an acceptable agreed upon level we can say that a problem is solved.

To achieve this vision I want to provide a clear process to follow so that users can follow an intuitive workflow with predefined steps. Users are not bound to follow the workflow step by step but users should go through all the steps to make sure all sides of the problem have been considered. It is up to the site to scaffold/guide the user through the process and help the user to describe models with feedback loops, do scenario planning, do stakeholder analysis and all the other activities that are required to solve a complex problem. In this way we can really “solve” problems on a mass scale.

There is also a competition/game aspect. This is important to attract users that are not domain experts, analysts or already highly motivated to solve a problem. Everyone gets points and badges as they contribute.
What makes it revolutionary is that it is intended for mass scale collaboration. I want to support expert problem solvers, analysts, domain experts and researchers but most importantly support thousands of common people collaborating in connected problem spaces. In this environment you have a few experts doing the supervision and coordination and hundreds of users carrying out tasks like finding facts, testing hypotheses. This is crowd sourcing and collective intelligence taken to the limits. The system is unique in that it lets people from all over the world collaborate intelligently guided by a sound analytic process. This is truly global Collective Intelligence.

Today many communities use a set of typical web2.0 tools to solve problems. Because there are no single portals or platforms that can support the whole range of features required to solve problems they often use a mix of tools. Here is a list of limitations of using a mix of tools like email, skype, forums, blogs, wikis, QnA sites, Google docs, or more customized platforms like Ning, Drupal, SharePoint or project management like tools such as Basecamp etc:
  • Data/conversation gets fragmented in different places and is difficult to find later on.
  • Important insights/data gets lost in offline conversations.
  • Different tools/portals are de-motivating for new potential contributors as they are presented with all kinds of designs/layouts/user interfaces in different locations. This mess is simply unattractive for new people.
  • There are no fixed slots to put certain data. Users are not sure how to organize insights, hypotheses, facts etc. using SharePoint or other tools there are no predefined process or structure so this have to be decided by each group.
  • Transparency is difficult when you don’t know where things are and the different systems have different user accounts.
  • There are no built in support for verifiability, confidence and reviewing. All this has to be done manually somehow.
  • There are no way to store all data in a structured way that makes it possible to holistically connect problem spaces to synthesize new knowledge based on the underlying data shared across all problem spaces.
  • No uniform way to share findings using open data formats.
  • The underlying data cannot be made accessible as web services/API’s and queried by remote systems to allow for Research2.0/science grid/Open linked data.
  • Limitations on the ability to find similar problems/solutions.
  • Limitations on the ability to find potential collaborators.
  • Does not make it easier for people who would like to collaborate on several problems with different groups.
So to summarize; I believe only experts or highly motivated coherent groups can use traditional tools effectively. Traditional tools also have big limitations when it comes to potential future benefits.

I hope I have been able to show the potential gains of such a system and that it is both important and very relevant to try to develop. Even if the project fails it will bring lots of new knowledge to the fields of web science, usability, information visualization, sensemaking, computer-supported collaborative argumentation, virtual learning communities, knowledge management and other fields related to web and system development.

You are welcome to try out Koios at http://koios.org

Do not hesitate to send me unfiltered feedback. Anything from conceptual, design, to feature requests are highly appreciated.
The current koios version (Alpha preview as of June 2011) is not a working tool but should give a good indication of what I am trying to develop. The site is continuously updated.

A few words to help Google out. This website is about Collaborative Web Centric problem solving, Soft Systems Modelling, crowd Sourcing, collective Intelligence, Information infrastructure and complex societal issues resolution, solving wicked problems, tackling social challenges, changing the world, making the world a better place.