I’m about to leave for Washington D.C. for a Think Tank on Citizen Engagement in Biomedical Research. I have only five minutes to talk during the introductory speed geeking event, where all of us get to know about each other and each other’s projects.
I’m going there to talk about our lessons learned from designing complex socio-technical systems that required intense participation from their users. I’ve been working on designing such systems for many years now. Some projects were/are very successful, some not so much. I’m not sure I will be able to give a full account of what we’ve learned, so I’m putting up a long(ish) version of my presentation here — if I had 15 minutes, this is what I would say to our very interesting group of participants.
I chose these four complex socio-technical systems because all of them were in some measure educational ventures and all required outside users to contribute large amounts of data.
I will start with Ushahidi. Ushahidi was born during the 2007 Kenyan election. That election was bloody and the violence, in many cases perpetrated by the government, was not being reported. Ushahidi was a grass-roots effort to tell their countrymen and the world what was going on by plotting eye-witness accounts on the map with time-stamp. Ushahidi is a Swahili word for Witness. And this open-source geo-temporal tagging platform gave voice to a generation of human rights activists.
I’ve learned of Ushahidi during the aftermath of Haiti disaster. For those interested in this story, please read about it here: ICT & Community. Someday, this amazing story will be made into a movie!
My initial engagement with Ushahidi led to my sons’ project: Cost of Chicken. Cost of Chicken is a food anthropology project which asked kids (and adults) around the world to contribute data about the price, quality, and origin of food that was available to them where they lived. Ushahidi was the perfect platform to collect the data — a kid-run food CrowdMap was born! I hope you will contribute some data points!
Ushahidi platform is the TECH part of the Socio-Technical System. The Food Anthropology CrowdMap run by kids was the SOCIO component. Both are necessary to have a successful project. This CrowdMap succeeded because there were eager high school kids who were interested in getting this information. They collected photographs and data on food where they lived, and they connected with students from other parts of the world and encouraged them to do the same. There was a sense of membership and purpose. Young CrowdMappers felt good about their participation. Without this core team of people who cared about this project, there would be no success.
Ushahidi team recognizes the power of community. It runs a community site and all projects are encouraged to register on the World-Wide map of Ushahidi-run CrowdMaps. While not every project does so, many do. And there are over 6,000 crowdmaps listed! I wanted to see what some of these other projects were about. Since I had very little time for this presentation, I promised myself to take two random points on the map and see what mysteries they bring. (I also did a systematic study of crowdmaps, but I will save that discussion for another post.)
I felt like an explorer…
Unfortunately, this crowdmap was dead…
I tried for a spot in United States…
This map did come up, but it was empty. For both of these projects something went wrong. And more likely than not, it was the social component…
If you feel adventurous, please click on the points of the map to learn of cool crowdmap projects around the world.
Heather Leson is Ushahidi’s Director of Community Engagement — a fantastic human being! She said that Ushahidi team recognizes the need for the social support for each crowdmap project. She described the 5 T’s of success: team, training, trust, time, and tenacity.
I will come back to Ushahidi at the end of my presentation.
The Company Therapist project was one of the first online entertainments on the Web — a soap opera written by its audience. You can still read the archived version, but you can no longer participate as an author.
As an entertainment, The Company Therapist won every award there was to be had in the mid 1990s. Christopher, my partner, and I spoke on TV and radio; we did many magazine interviews. The site had wide coverage by both online and traditional medias. As an entertainment it enjoyed a very large audience and was clearly a success.
But The Company Therapist was much more than mere entertainment — it was an educational venture. For a VERY small percentage of its audience, what started as readership turned into a creative writing venture.
People from all over the world spend hundreds of hours writing stories for The Company Therapist. And they did so because they felt they were part of something good. They were members of an elite community which was being recognized as creative and prolific and fun. All these writers shared in the awards and fame of the site and were committed to “putting their characters through therapy!”
Thus there were really two SOCIAL components to The Company Therapist socio-technical system: the entertainment and the educational components — the readers and the writers. And both of these were carefully and deliberately designed and both were great successes.
The Company Therapist ran for a few years, but taught us a lot about how to think and design for complex socio-technical systems. In 2009, we started work on the next one: Human Rights & International Criminal Law ICCforum.com
This venture is a partnership between International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor and the UCLA School of Law Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project. We wanted to develop something more than just a legal journal for the International Criminal Court. We wanted a system that allowed citizens of the world to participate and engage with the ICC Prosecutor. Before this project, there was no opportunity for a two sided dialogue with ICC. ICCforum.com changed that. For a very narrow audience — only those who are interested in International Criminal Law and the work done by ICC — and for a very narrow set of topics — all discussions focus on the questions raised by the Prosecutor — this socio-techical system is a great success.
Last November, ICCforum.com won the HiiL Innovating Justice Award — the project was named one of the top 3 innovations in 2012. This year, the project received the Computerworld Award.
The last Socio-Technical project I would like to talk about is Medical Memory. This project was born of a personal necessity — we needed a system that would help us track a complicated medical problem. With many specialists and tests, critical information was being lost! Doctors and labs didn’t seem to communicate well with each other or able to form a coherent story from a mountain of data that was being generated. We wanted to be able to take charge of our own patient information and give the doctors a report that they could quickly scan to remind them of the current problems. (“What? You don’t have a uterus?”)
For a while, this worked well — the doctors all loved to have this handy and complete story of the medical problem to date. But medical profession is known for hoarding information: Isn’t it dangerous to give patients data? They might not know how to interpret it. They might want to call us and ask questions! Labs and doctors were quick to start hiding reports, and as the data become incomplete, the Medical Memory reports became more and more useless. Even as we designed the system to work for us, we lost our enthusiasm and motivation to keep up — it was too hard to get the data from the doctors! (well, some doctors and most labs)
The result was a failure — the technical system worked well enough; but the socio component required cooperation and buy-in from ALL the members of the patient community. And we just couldn’t get that.
So what what we learned was that without motivation, no amount of technical slickness and savvy could save the project from the discard pile. Getting EVERYONE on board and continuously supporting motivation of ALL participants was key to success of ANY socio-technical system.
Harvard Professor Kator gives 4 components of sustained motivation: feeling of mastery, membership in a community, meaningful experience, and (a distant forth) monetary compensation. Please read her Harvard Business Review article: “The Happiest People Pursue the Most Difficult Problems.”
We have our own list of lessons learned: Make It Relevant! Make It Easy!
So how do we make things relevant to the socio-technical system’s participants? We can start by asking what do different people and side have to contribute to the project as a whole.
Participants in the socio-technical projects — regardless of whether they run the project or volunteer, do research or provide data — have three main contribution to make: their time, their expertise, and their dedication to the project. And everyone has a different amount of these — some have more time but less expertise; some are very enthusiastic but lack time; and some don’t really have the interest while being flash with time and relevant experience. When we design the socio-technical system, we want to think how everyone can fit into the project to the best of their ability, availability, and desire.
In an ideal situation, the time required by the project matches exactly the participants’ availability. The expertise necessary match the experience and educational levels of the users. And the dedication required to participate is in total agreement with the interest in the project. But that is rare…
Fortunately, extra time and enthusiasm for the project can compensate for lack of expertise. But the project needs to be willing to invest in educational support for those members.
Similarly, expertise and dedication can compensate for lack of time. But the project needs to create expert interaction mode to reduce the time necessary to contribute to the project — standardized inputs, error checks, structured data, etc. all contribute to time load reduction.
In a large project with many members, we have to be careful to consider the needs of all involved. And to the best of our ability, to support the differences of our participants.
We can also ask what does the project give to its members? Why would people want to participate?
And our answer echos Heather Leson’s and Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s — we need to support motivation. And we can do that by facilitating connection between members of our project; by providing group support when things get hard and giving recognition when it is deserved; by creating a sense of belonging among the members; by building trust; by giving meaning and purpose to the work; and by sharing the sense of accomplishment in all of group’s successes.
I said that I would return to Ushahidi.
Ushahidi just launched a new socio-technical system — Uchaguzi, Swahili word for “choose”. This is an election monitoring platform built on the Ushahidi crowdmap engine. With this project, Ushahidi went full circle and returned to its roots — Uchaguzi was used to monitor 2013 Kenyan elections.
But the team of Ushahidi learned many lessons from its crowdmapping experience. Mainly, with Uchaguzi, it focused on the SOCIAL aspect of socio-technical system. Uchaguzi is surrounded with carefully-designed support structures and that help each election monitoring team to succeed.
So my main message is Design for Motivation.