Situational Awareness

Back a few years ago when I used to play first person shooter games quite frequently, I often helped other players by sharing with them the knowledge and experience I had acquired over the years. One piece of knowledge that I always passed on, time and time again, was the importance of utilizing situational awareness when playing as a team. With it, you could almost always overcome any opposing team, even if their individual skills surpassed those of your own team members. The reason being is that with situational awareness a team almost became like a symbiotic entity reacting instantly and immediately to different situations and threats without being slowed down by a central command and control. In effect, no single person in the team gave orders to the others, instead everyone relayed their situation and everyone else in turn reacted on their own to assist the other people in the group when the need arose.

One such perfect example was when we were playing a team who we felt we were on par with or possibly even exceeded with regards to our individual skill levels. However, after a few rounds of play we quickly realized we were doing something wrong. Round after round, we stuck close together, preplanned our moves in perfect detail, and then proceeded to get slaughered by the opposing team. Finally after being frustrated round after round, I said at the start of a new round "Forget it! Just do whatever you want!" Can you guess what happened? We won that round of course. And as soon as we had, I had know what I had been doing wrong. I had been trying to force my team members to work the way I wanted them to (through a central command and control approach) instead of trusting their skills and judgement to maximize their own unique strengths in overcoming the enemy. In effect, we were playing incorrectly as a rigid centralized perfect team against a well connected yet flexible decentralized team. We didn’t stand a chance, as we were like a bear trying to swat at a million bees buzzing around us.

Now for more information of what situational awareness is and what it can do for people working on collective goals, the US Coast Guard has an interesting site that talks about it in detail. Of particular interest is this quote below.

Effective team situational awareness depends on team members developing accurate expectations for team performance by drawing on a common knowledge base.  This concept, known as maintaining a “Shared Mental Model” allows team members to effectively:

  • Anticipate the needs of other team members.
  • Predict the needs of other team members.
  • Adapt to task demands efficiently.

To ensure a Shared Mental Model of the situation, team members must share their knowledge relative to:

  • The task and team goals.
  • Their individual tasks.
  • Team member roles and responsibilities.

To provide a solid base for building team situational awareness, team members need to have information that will help them develop relevant expectations about the entire team task.

I don’t know about you but that has collective thinking written all over it for me especially when they mention the "Shared Mental Model".

BTW one very important fact that I forgot to mention is that for this situational awareness to work, the rules for team collaboration had to be extremely simple. For us, it really all came down to what we called the "10 Second Rule". If another team member relayed a situation that we knew would put him at risk (i.e. multiple enemy inbound!), then we had 10 seconds to decide what we wanted to do and to respond. If he didn’t hear that response then he knew he was on his own. If he did hear a response (i.e. Affirmative, on my way!) then he knew that help would be showing up within 10 seconds as well (which means the person responding knew they had to get there in that time before confirming action). That’s really it though. A single simple rule. Everything else came down to combat training (i.e. when this type of situation occurs then here are a few ways to react to it) which created this "Shared Mental Model". And that shared mental training allowed everyone to take action as they saw fit, being flexible enough to handle every situation, and yet also allowed everyone to work on the "same page" as well.

Collective Thinking

While visiting Maarten Visser’s Grid Thinking website yesterday, a couldn’t help but realize how similar my thoughts were to a lot of what he said there. Of particular interest, was a post about collective intelligence. Now why I found this interesting is because while discussing the Recovery 2.0 project, I indicated that whoever worked on the ideas for it should openly and continually relay their research discoveries and findings. By doing so, the collective minds of everyone on the project could come to bear so that if one group got stuck at a point, another group could take over with ideas that the first group hadn’t thought about it. In effect, what you create is a leap frog process for evolution and problem solving with multiple minds collectively working on a single goal, all ready to help push the development forward if it falters at a point.

The potential downside to this approach that I’ve seen in the past, however, is that people often have a difficult time agreeing on the best approach to take. Thus they sit around and argue instead of progressing forward. Well what if you agreed that there would be no arguments in the first place. What if instead you said that whatever approaches are determined ALL would be followed. Every person involved in the process would decide upon which approach they want to go with and then diverse variations in the development would be made and continued upon. Therefore, what you get is a multiprocessing effort that is working on a common goal in many different ways. As the development continues, each variation on the approach continues until it hits a roadblock which leaves the remaining variations to go forward by natural selection. And yet the beauty of sharing is that each variation can learn and utilize the knowledge of other variations even though that other variation didn’t fully succeed. In effect, you get a collective mind that allows each variation to learn and grow collectively from the mistakes of other variations.

As Jeff Jarvis indicated the other day, this creates a swarm effect that shrinks and grows based upon the obstacles before the collective group. Thinking from a natural viewpoint, imagine water flowing down a street. If it reaches an obstacle, it immediately spreads out looking for alternate ways around the obstacle. Even more so, multiple ways could be found around it but once passed the water swarms back together to collectively carry on its way. Therefore, both its diversity and its collectiveness are it’s greatest strengths. The irony here is that this strength can only be utilized because of its ability to break into smaller pieces. If it didn’t have this ability, if it could only act as a whole piece to move forward, then it would continually be blocked by obstacles. Only by working in smaller groups does progress occur. Therefore, small is allowing the collective swarm to act in a very big way.

Now the point of all this rambling is that this is a problem that I’m seeing out there right now. We have a bunch of small groups taking different approachs to solving a problem but they aren’t collectively sharing their knowledge. To me it is almost like a whole bunch of pieces to a puzzle are handed out to different people. They each hold that fragment of the puzzle but unless they work together, sharing the knowledge that they have, then the puzzle will never be solved. Therefore, what can be done to allow people to work on each their own independent approaches or variations, and yet still allow them to share their discoveries and setbacks so that everyone collectively can learn from them? If a way is discovered then hopefully this will allow each group in turn to lay down the small pieces of the puzzle until it is completed and solved. Yes, wikis and blogs are an approach but as David Weinberger apologized to his friends a few weeks past, he doesn’t have the time to visit all of their blogs. We need a way to collectively summarize the research and development of many into very small snippets of rich information so that everyone can scan the collective development but they only need to dig into a specific snippet if it relates to their current development. What could be utilized? A collective RSS/Feed streamlined to only relay the most crucial details of each groups development might work. But whatever solution is taken the obvious trick will be to relay the knowledge without overloading the collective mind.

Conversations Everywhere and Nowhere

Everyone is talking about RSS/Feeds being really important for the development of Web 2.0. I myself think they are the "connectors" that will link the communities out there. However, this thought got twisted slightly this morning into a different viewpoint.

Everyone knows that subscribing to a feed is great if you want to follow a conversation. The problem I saw with this was that it is only a one way conversation. Yes, you can subscribe to the feed but you can’t interject your own thoughts into it because the feed is usually owned by someone else and it’s source is upon their site. Well, what if it wasn’t? What if anyone could contribute to a feed? What if feeds were nowhere and everywhere. What if feeds were continuous streaming conversations. What if they were the conversations about the things that we cared about that in turn make up the Web.

Now the upside to this approach is that anyone, anywhere can immediately become a part of that ongoing conversation but more importantly can change the direction of that conversation by asking their own questions. You really can’t do this on a blog. Each post is a focused conversation that is usually directed and guided by the author of the site. The downside to this approach though is how can you have reasonable conversations with the potential for so many people to be involved? Already, as seen on blogs, many people don’t even bother reading comments to a post when they get over 50 or so in number. Therefore, if feeds are streams of conversations, then how do you record the main points of what is being said, so that others can quickly join in the conversation without having to read a ton of information. Actually this is one of my pet peeves with blogs. They are great for ongoing directed conversations by the site’s author but very rarely is there something being built up or created from those conversations (i.e. a summarized useful accumulation of knowledge). There needs to be some way to gather up these small pieces of knowledge and loosely join them together into a collective knowledge base that anyone can easily access and understand.

Journal Back Online

Someone asked if I could put my journal back online so they could see what I’m working on, so I have done so. I guess if even one person finds it interesting and useful, it’s worth having available.

BTW one of the main problems I found with blogging though is that I find it distracting but also it doesn’t really allow for my stream of thoughts to be solidified into a single idea which means that people would have to dig through my entire blog to assemble the pieces themselves. To hopefully avoid this from happening again, I’m going to create an Articles section to the site shortly as well. Therefore, while my journal will cover daily thoughts, my articles section will instead show those separate thoughts accumulated into a single solid idea (hopefully).

Problems with UI and Tagging

Just read an interesting post by an Anonymous Usability Designer about how Human Interaction Interfaces (i.e. operating system user interfaces) are still in the stone age. I couldn’t agree more. And I’m not just talking on your computer either, I think this problem is even worse on the Web.

I mean think about it. How many clicks does it require you to do something as simple as saving a bookmark even? How about saving something on del.icio.us where you have to tag and classify the info you want saved? It’s nuts. No wonder people are getting frustrated with technology. Instead of it working for us, we are working for it. It shouldn’t be this way. What would I like to see instead? Two things actually. More utilization of dragging and dropping. And, more usage of auto-tagging or auto-classifying of information that you are saving, which is where most people waste their time (or have to work for the technology).

For example, when I save a file or bookmark, I should be able to search or view those bookmarks by name, tag, date, and most importantly of all, relationship. Yes, relationship. I don’t know how many times I’ve remember a site I had visited because I remembered the original source site I found it through. By remembering this referrer site, I browse through it and again find the site I was looking for. But as I said above, I should also be able to search by name, sort by date (i.e. I found it a few days ago), or by tag (i.e. technology-related site).

Now this is where it gets interesting and you could probably save yourself a lot of time. Of name, tag, date, and relationship, tagging is the only thing that requires you to actually decide what you want it to be. Everything else can be automatically determined. The date and name are added by the system and yes, even the referrer, could even be tagged by your browser (since it just looks at the referrer site to the one you are on). Tagging though still requires your thought and interaction. But what if you created your categories ahead of time? Would that make things easier? I think so. Let me explain.

If you utilized a dragging and dropping method to grab a bookmark and drop it to say a side panel folder (which is always easily accessible), you could actually tag the bookmark while moving it. To do this, you just drag the bookmark and drop it upon the appropriate subfolder to place it within the appropriate category. That’s it. You’ve just sorted and tagged your bookmark by dragging and dropping it in one motion. What if you had multiple sublayers of tags? You could still accomplish this, assuming your folders were spring loaded. You just move the bookmark over the appropriate folder, it opens automatically to view more folders, and then you drop it on the one you want.

I actually wondered if there was another way auto-tagging could be accomplished and I realized that the sites themselves could auto-tag their own site, so that when a person saves the bookmark, those tags go along with it to define it. There is a problem with this approach though. Everyone has their own naming convention for their tags and, even more so, my usage of a site may differ from your usage of it (and therefore the tag could be totally different).

Again, all said and done, the most important thing here is that information should be auto-organizing and auto-tagging as much as possible. The less a person has to do to save a file or open a file, the more productive and focused they can be with their work.

BTW I’ve been utilizing something like what I’ve described above for the past couple of months and I’m enjoying the simplicity of it. I basically have my left 4/5ths of my screen space for where I display my current application in use and the right 1/5th of the screen is where I display folders to my files and information. Therefore, when I download a file, it is immediately accessible from this right side folder. Also whatever I’m currently working on, these files are immediately accessible in this right side folder area as well. I don’t have to go digging for them.

Restructuring for the Second (2.0) Coming

I was just going to do a small bit of restructuring today but when I thought about it, I realized I had to shut down everything to do a complete restructuring of the entire site to rebuild its foundation for the new direction I’d like to go with. What direction is that? Well, that is the problem. I have all the building blocks of this new foundation but I just can’t seem to figure out how best to lay them together to form this foundation. Here’s what I’m talking about.

The Web is the Culture of the World – The Cluetrain gang have already implied this within the Cluetrain Manifesto and David Weinberger has already went into more depth in his book Small Pieces Loosely Joined. The Web is what we care about and what we believe to be important. It is our culture that we are defining on a daily basis. Most importantly of all, its culture is defining us back in return.

A Business with a Web Culture – So if the Web as a culture is defining us, how is it doing it? I starting thinking about what would happen if a business took on the same cultural values as the Web. Interestingly enough, I think there are already companies and organizations out there who are already thinking this way (i.e. small startups and open source organizations are perfect examples of this).

Feeling Connected – While technology can definitely connect us electronically, I kept feeling like something was missing. Every time I got offline and went outside in nature I felt more connected to the entire world than when I was online with millions of people. Why? I realized it was because I didn’t "feel" connected. Feelings relate to our emotions. People always say that the Web is about conversations about what people care about. True but go deeper than that. Yes, people are having conversations and telling stories online about what they care about but it is the emotions that they feel when those stories are told that makes them feel connected. If you tell me you went to the corner store to get some milk today, I could care less. If you told me you lost your dog, narrowly avoided a fatal accident, or can’t take your job anymore than I’m going to connect with you more. That’s because one story is factual (i.e. getting milk) while the others are more emotional. This is why I feel so empty on the Web today because there is a lot of factual information on it but very little emotional information (although the recent Hurricane Katrina disaster changed that quickly).

Cultivating Technology – Therefore, if our emotions make us feel connected to the world then we need to instill that emotion into our technology so that it will in turn not just connect us but make us "feel" connected. How do you go about this though? Do you have to plug wires into your nervous system? No, I don’t think so. I think all we need to do is look at the culture aspects of what makes the Web work and then ensure that same culture is instilled in the technology we create (i.e. connected, open, sharing, reliable, etc) just as I believe that culture should be instilled in our organizations and businesses.

Using Technology To Help The World – With the horrors of the Hurricane Katrina disaster still not over, I kept feeling more than anything frustrated and helpless because I was finding that our current technology, which everyone raves about as being so great, was and still is actually quite pathetic and useless during this crisis. Yes, certain blogs were spreading the word of what was going on down there and others were raising awareness to get donations going but that didn’t help the people in immediate need down there. Tons of people were posting information such as "needing to find a person" to "needing help to get picked up from my home in New Orleans". And yet the information was spread out everywhere and there was no way to easily aggregate it all for easy viewing. In other words, we had all this amazing technology yet people still had to manually gather the information to make is usable and useful. It’s crazy and we need to find a better way. Thankfully Jeff Jarvis has spearheaded a new project called Recovery 2.0 which matches my own thoughts and will hopefully bring more awareness to this issue and get people working together so that the next time this happens the technology (i.e. Web 2.0) will be there for us to use.

Small Pieces Loosely Joined – Finally I kept coming back again and again to David Weinberger’s book title. To me those four words have so much meaning to them, it is really quite amazing, as they can be applied to so many things in our world today. For example, nature is a perfect example of small pieces loosely joined. No one system controls everything, yet all of them are equally important. Instead it is a collaboration of separate systems that all work together to create something amazing. I have this very strange feeling that small pieces loosely joined is also a perfect example of how the world can collaborate together and even more so how businesses, organizations, and even countries should be run, as many of them are getting too big and getting disconnected from what is happening on a local level. Smaller is better because it allows us to work more effectively on larger projects or goals.

Anyways, those are the building blocks of what I would like to do. As I said, I now have to figure out how they go together, so I’m looking for a single thread that somehow interconnects them all.

Web2OS + Browser PC = Accessible Computing

While reading a post by Jake Tracey, in which he talks about his involvement with Chalk, a sudden thought popped into my head. With all these new Web 2.0 applications emerging, we are seeing a push more and more away from the dependency of the operating system to drive our applications to instead towards applications that can theoretically work on any computer. This is because all you should hopefully need in the future is a web browser which will become your portal to your Web Operating System which is where these applications will reside.

Now why I thought this was interesting was because I was reminded of a story earlier this year about Nicolas Negroponte and MIT working on a $100 laptop which would be given to children to use within the developing parts of the world. Now if you used the Web as the "operating system" for this $100 laptop wouldn’t it be almost possible to ditch the hard drive in it because you would only need enough flash memory space to boot up a browser (not to mention the system would boot almost instantly)?

If this is possible then basically you have a cheap inexpensive laptop that could participate, collaborate, and share on the Web like any other computer. If you plug USB devices into it such as a camera, then anything that is transferred to the laptop is actually being uploaded directly to this WebOS where all the person’s data resides. The end result is that you have a computing environment that would be pretty much accessible to almost anyone in the world. Even more so, as children are children, if one of these devices got damaged or destroyed then the child doesn’t lose anything because their files are stored online.

In addition, especially considering the frustrating Hurricane Katrina disaster situation right now in New Orleans, imagine how devices such as these would help relay information in disaster situations around the world? Once a WiFi emergency networking station is established, these $100 laptops could be given out to law enforcement officials and rescue workers to coordinate and relay critical situational awareness information that is needed to collaborate on such a huge undertaking. They could even setup these devices in various neighborhoods to give the local citizens a chance to talk to friends and family members in the rest of the world to let them know how they are doing.

Pushing this to the extreme, if these laptops (along with a cheap photo device) were given to the right citizens within such a disaster area (those who want to take charge of the situation and do some good), then these people could become the eyes and ears for the entire world relaying information on an ongoing basis to give everyone access to what is really going on and more importantly what needs to be done to alleviate the situation. As I mentioned before in my last post about the disaster, information is power. The more useful information that can be relayed from different areas of the disaster, the more that people can collaborate and help each other out. As many are seeing from the Hurricane Katrina disaster, a lack of information can have devastating effects which can result in men, women, and children losing their lives unnecessarily.

I Want To Save The World

I’m feeling frustrated today. Why? Because I want to save the world but I feel so helpless. With Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath getting worse and not better, I’m reminded again by something that has been nagging at me for a very long time relating to the subject of technology. Basically I’m sick of people talking about how technology is making it an exciting time to be alive because it is making the world better (especially now that we have 65-inch Plasma TV’s). Well if technology is so great why do I feel like I can’t do that much with it to help these people?

Don’t get me wrong though, as technology is helping out to some degree (or maybe it is more of a change of culture). Due to the severity of the events, more and more organizations switched to blogging/human mode (instead of the typical edited news or formated press releases) so that they could get information out faster to others. Yet why I’m so frustrated is because after disasters such as these strike, technology still doesn’t appear to be doing much to effectively mobilize and organize the masses to the degree I would like to see it. Yes, people are donating in droves (so much so that donation sites are being overloaded) but what else are we doing to directly help those in need besides monetary assistance. If they say information is power, what the hell are we doing to pass on information to assist and empower the people on the ground in Katrina’s wake?

A perfect example of this is the frustration of a mechanical engineer who wants to help on the ground but can’t seem to contact anyone via the Red Cross or Salvation Army. Yes obviously there are communication problems going on but even if the lines were open would it make much difference? What the hell I am getting at here is the difficulty of trying to grasp what the hell is going on down there (i.e. lack of information) and also how to coordinate such a large scale recovery operation (i.e. project planning complexities)? And yet don’t diverse groups of people from all around the world collaborate on large projects, sharing tons of information, on the Web everyday? If so, what the hell is stopping us from getting together and collaborating on such a vital project such as this? Remember, the beauty of the Web is about everyone doing their own small piece in small groups to collectively help the overall greater effort because, when disasters of this magnitude strike, having a centralized command site to control and organize everything can actually slow things down instead of speeding them up.

So this is what I’m wondering (and I just posted this as a comment on David Weinberger’s blog). What would happen if groups of people starting getting together into "cells" (i.e. like a "terrorist cell") to do good (like the cells that comprise your body’s immune system)? Imagine samaritan cells of small groups of people working together with other cells to help people in the wake of the Katrina disaster? What would these people need to work autonomously instead of through a central command center? I’m assuming a communications network (i.e. the Web) that would provide them with information and lots of it. More importantly, they would need the ability to gather this information from different sources (i.e. web services) as well as filter the vast amount of information so that it could be usable to their locality (even down to their neighborhood).

The question I’m pondering today is do we have the technology to do this? If so, why isn’t anybody doing this? Is it because no one has had the idea to utilize the existing web services (i.e. Flickr, Google Maps, Technorati, etc) in this way yet (i.e. tagging real life objects and locations, such as a neighborhood or quarter of a city)? If we don’t have the technology today to do this effectively, will the Web 2.0 architecture give us this ability in the future?

I know one things for sure, I’d rather see more people working on technology that enables small groups of people to collaborate collectively with other small groups on a world cause or project than see people working on the next generation Uber 100-inch Plasma TV set that will make my life "so much better" and make me feel "excited to be alive".

Topic Aggregator?

The words "Web Neighborhood" in one of Jason Kottke’s posts got me thinking. David Weinberger posted the other day an apology to his friends because he was "unable to read all of their posts". I thought this was strange because he obviously would like to keep on top of everything his friends (in his "Web neighborhood") talk about but he can’t because he doesn’t have time to read all of their sites or RSS feeds. Yet I’m sure he would love to hear what they are talking about, especially if it relates to something he is talking about on his site.

So it dawned on me, why hasn’t anyone created a news aggregator that collates and groups news feeds based upon topics in the newsfeeds (I’m assuming determined by grabbing the keywords from the title or tags from the post or maybe even by looking at the links the post is pointing at like Technorati does?). For example, if there were a bunch of posts that had the word "Google OS" in them, couldn’t an aggregator gather those all under a similar heading? And even more so shouldn’t the aggregator be able to list these groupings in order from most items grouped to least so that in effect you get a  "most talked about headlines of the day" at the top to "side stories of the day" at the bottom, almost like you get in a newspaper? I mean you could go farther from there even. If you had a lot of items under one grouping, couldn’t the aggregator grab the PageRank of the site for each post within that group and list them from highest to lowest, so theoretically you are seeing the best site for the topic listed first while the others are listed below (which of course may not always be the case and maybe you could sort the list in other different ways)?

What do you think of this? I mean I know aggregators can do this do somewhat right now in that you can put in your own tags to search for specific things from your feeds but why not let the feeds sort themselves out instead of having to manually enter and look for specific topic keywords? I mean wouldn’t it solves "David’s Dilemma" because then he could just look at the topics / headlines of the day in his RSS news/topic/tag aggregator and easily see if any of his friends in his "Web neighborhood" are talking about the same thing he is? Or is there a news aggregator that does this already that I’m not aware of?

Actually taking this to the next level would be actually embedding this topic feed list below a post on your own site. So if you were talking about "Web OS" then below your post would be a "Related Feeds" list of all the other people on your feed list talking about "Web OS" as well. That way as soon as you finished adding your post, it would immediately show who else was talking about the same topic as you in your "Web Neighborhood"!