Architectures of Participation (yktm)

In the last year I’ve done a lot of thinking about the open source process and spirit, specifically in terms of applying it to domains other than software. But I always get a bit bogged down by the term ‘Open Source’, as my understanding of its essence is likely different than most people’s understanding. Indeed, the term is strongly associated with software, and anyone who doesn’t actually work with the process in software generally just won’t quite understand what is so amazing about it.

So for the purposes of this blog, I’m going to go with a new term to represent what I mean when I talk of the ‘essence’ of open source, the thing that really excites me about it, and the part I feel is quite transferable to other domains, and indeed already has. Many have written about many parts of this, but none fully gets across what I want to express. The best I’ve heard is ‘Architectures of Participation’. Tim O’reilly coined the term for a speech in 2003, his best explanation of it is here. He focuses on identifying it, with examples of open source software and the world wide web. I will adopt the term, but hope further it by trying to articulate the core ideas, and to examine how we might start to apply the lessons to other domains, what factors are crucial for success.

An Architecture of Participation is both social and technical in nature, and the component parts can not be easily extracted: the social is strongly enabled by the technical, but the technical without the social process is nothing. The architecture leverages the skills and energies of a wide body of users as much as possible to cooperate in building something than any single group of ‘producers’ could alone. The line between producer and user is blurred as everyone participating has something to contribute, and the wide distribution of user/producers contributing incrementally can achieve more than even the most massive top down efforts.

The best articulation of Architectures of Participation is found in Benkler’s Commons-based Peer Production model. If his term were easier to use I would just adopt it, but I find it unwieldy when talking about the ‘thing’ that is utilizing commons-based peer production. There is a commonality between the structures that arise in his described production process, and I use the term Architecture of Participation to refer to that structure. It is both social and technical in nature, as he clearly articulates, it is a group of people who cooperate to build something (peer production). The ‘commons-based’ part I see as a pre-requisite for any Architecture of Participation, contributors must be guaranteed to have access to the results of their work. But he elucidates that all of the successful peer production efforts hinge on lowering the barriers to entry for new users, to make some sort of contribution very easy. He goes in to a lot of depth, theorizing about how to divide up the tasks, how bite sized chunks that are easy for any one to do form the root, gearing up towards larger responsibilities and contributions. I will just point to him, but point that technology can play a large role in making contributions easier. Open Source software has built a variety of technical infrastructures that allow its peer production process to scale up. One of the best examples is the source control management systems like cvs and svn, combined with the innovation of the ‘patch’, a small chunk of code that can be automatically combined with the source tree by someone who has earned the appropriate trust of the project. The technical must enable the social, and often in a novel way in order to bootstrap an effective Architecture of Participation.

In future posts I will attempt to justify and find commonalities between the situations that I would term Architectures of Participation, but for now I will just posit for that the chances of creating a successful architecture, in any domain, rely on one pre-requisite and then maximizing three aspects (though am open to there being more). Much of this can be viewed as bite-sized Benkler, there’s not a ton new here, his work is mostly summarized and put through my filter. I’m mostly writing it so I can refer to it in future posts without having to make people get all the way through Coase’s Penguin.

The prerequisite is that the results of the production process must be available to all contributors. If I put something in, I expect to get something out, and people continue to contribute because they tend to get far more out than what they put in. Often people don’t even mind if their contribution is being used by someone else to make money, as long it continues to provide something useful to them, or if they have a similar opportunity to make money. Sometimes, as in the case of the GPL license in open source software, they want to be guaranteed that if anyone else adds value that it is available to all. But in many situations the strength of the Architecture of Participation is such that it makes economic sense for those deriving value from it to contribute at least the important part of their results back to the community.

There are even cases, such as amazon book reviews, where people continue to contribute even though someone else is making money off of their contributions, and where they are not deriving any economic value. But participating in these architectures is not something that can be measured in mere monetary terms by any means. People who write lots of amazon book reviews enjoy sharing their opinions with others, and it doesn’t matter to them if amazon makes money because of their good review. It’s not like their alternative is to publish in the New York Review of Books. But they definitely want to retain credit for a good review, and enjoy the feedback that others appreciate their views (the ‘was this review useful to you?’). The pre-requisite, however, still holds: they must be able to get out what they put in, and to get out reviews that others put in. If Amazon simply sucked in their reviews and just used them for collaborative filtering and generic blurbs then they’d get a lot less contributions. I plan to write a future post on the interactions of money and Architectures of Participation, as there are a variety of models that sustain the commons in different ways, and indeed I’m sure there are even more innovative business models that will evolve in the future.

Past the pre-requisite, I believe there are three aspects that must be maximised for a successful architecture of participation:

  • Work is done on something immediately useful, or at the very least has the promise of being useful relatively soon.
  • The barriers to contribute are as low as possible.
  • Users are viewed as ‘co-developers’, that is as equal partners in the undertaking, instead of just the consumers.

Let’s take each of these on their own.

Work is done on something immediately useful, or at the very least has the promise of being useful relatively soon. Most people are not going to contribute to something that is going to take years before it can be used. That’s not to say that it needs to be ‘done’ relatively soon, it just has to be useful. Indeed many of the best architectures of participation are around things that will never be ‘done’. The wikipedia is a good example, it will never be complete, as there is always new knowledge generated. But even from the first day it was useful to have a place online to look up encyclopedic knowledge. If there are only four articles, those four articles are still useful to someone. Contributing just becomes a process of adding more things that are more useful. The ebay seller trust mechanism is another example. Though it’s not immediately useful for a buyer to rate a seller, as it does little for the seller, the whole system of buyer and seller ratings is useful. And it can easily be seen that by contributing, one is contributing to something that is useful. The term ‘useful’ is also important. The work must be perceived as valuable by a significant group. If only the initial core group thinks it is useful, then an Architecture of Participation will have no chance of forming around their effort.

The barriers to contribute are as low as possible. And as low as possible often means doing exactly nothing more than what users are doing anyways. My favorite name for this is Paul Kedrosky’s term Drive-By Data. Tim O’Reilly’s Architecture of Paricipation term focuses pretty much on this facet of the architecture exclusively, so contribution is a natural side effect of users pursuing their own goals. Examples of this are napster, where sharing your music is a side effect of using the system,or del.icio.us, where just making your bookmarks feeds in to the value of the whole system. I would argue that this fact in and of itself is not the only factor in making what I call an architecture of participation. It’s certainly a factor in Open Source Software, as when someone fixes a bug and makes it available to all. But it’s not sufficient to fully explain everything, especially why a OSS project comes into existence in the first place, how the initial Architecture of Participation is formed. NASA Clickworkers is another. If other factors are right then contributions can take a bit more involvement. But it should still be trivially easy – editing the wikipedia does not require you to know html, and it doesn’t even require you to create a log-in. This is a great example where the technology enables the social, the ‘wiki’ managed to go one better than html for ease of use. Indeed the original vision of the web was to be read and write, but even though html is quite easy, it still involved a bigger learning curve than most people were willing to take. One could not just look at the ‘source code’ and just start writing, in the way one can with wiki markup. The technical infrastructure must be set up to allow small contributions to happen very easily, or the project will have a much harder time turning into a true Architecture of Participation.

Users are viewed as ‘co-developers’, that is as equal partners in the undertaking, instead of just the consumers. This comes straight from open source development, perfected by Linus and made famous by The Cathedral and the Bazaar. But I firmly believe it is widely applicable. If you treat your users as your most valuable resource, they will become it. To some extent this is an intersection of post on You can change the world and parts of Open Source: Beyond Software. If you are to view your users as mere consumers, that you are the producer and are just providing things to them which they pay you for, then they will remain consumers. But if you view them as equal partners in building something of value, some will become exactly that. And some will have amazing ideas and energy that can build it into something bigger than you alone could have imagined. But it is only by seeing others with that potential, and then giving them the responsibility to make it so, that it will come to pass.

It may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but giving people responsibility is one of the greatest rewards that Architectures of Participation have. Enabling low level contributions is important, but projects really take off because a core group of people devote themselves to it. And they are only going to do so if they truly get a say in the direction, if they have responsibility for the success, and also get credit for it. But the key for me is that you can give responsibility to those who have never had it before, and often they will become the most passionate and hard working contributors. It is incredibly empowering to feel like you can change the world, like you make a difference, even in a very small part of it, since so much of world seems devoted to the message that you are powerless. Successful Architectures of Participation that are structured to not only allow but encourage one to go from a lowly user to a leader of the project are more likely to have success than those that don’t.

Ok, this is getting long, and overdue. Apologies for the lack of examples, some of this stuff may seem a bit too abstract, not firmly grounded. I don’t feel I totally hit what I wanted to, but hey, I’m just applying open source principles to more than just software: release early and often. In the future I’ll attempt to run through many more examples, which should start to elucidate what I feel constitutes an Architecture of Participation.

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Location Matters

So I came into Geographical Information Systems (GIS), in a rather backwards way. I started working for the The Open Planning Project (TOPP), based on three (four) words in the job posting: ‘open source’, ‘non-profit’, and ‘java’. The first two for their deeper importance to me, the latter because the word was on my resume. The fact that it was a GIS server was of practically no importance to me, and that it was urban planning related was just a nice little bonus.

I programmed away, happily releasing all my code as open source. But the more that I thought about it, the more that I realized how important the stuff could be. I had vague hints, but it really all crystallized on reading the headmap manifesto. Which everyone should read, it’s absolutely incredible, and has implications far beyond location. Interestingly the last year or so has seen mapping explode into the mainstream, and I believe we’re only starting to see its importance.

The big thing for me, however, does not involve targeting advertising and search (uh, duh). It’s the potential of location to bring the internet out of the virtual and into reality. The reason for my hope in technology is in its ability to bring people together, and by combining awareness of location with the interconnection that the Internet has brought us, there’s a huge potential for something incredible.

The Internet has been amazing in its ability to connect people in distant places over things they have in common. From its earliest days, with bbs communities forming around interests, right up to social networks and blogospheres, the net has been about bringing people together. But the logical extension of this is that we spend all our days plugged in, starting at computer screens. I fear that mediated interactions online start to replace the real stuff of human contact. There is something about being able to talk to someone in person that no amount of email, instant messaging and online game playing can begin to touch. There can only be but a partial view online, as people consciously or unconsciously represent themselves as other than they are. This can be liberating, but I feel it is ultimately self defeating – instead of encouraging us to develop our selves more fully, it can encourage further retreat and covering up of the parts that need the most work. By far the most satisfying online communities that I’ve been a part of have been based in physical connection, and online interaction allows us to extend and further the basis created in person. But there’s no way I’d let anyone into that online community who I hadn’t met and shared a beer and a long conversation with.

So for me the big potential of location is to bring us closer together. To allow these online communities to grow legs and exist in reality. Online social networks are nice, but the majority of people stick with them for all of two weeks, before losing interest. Meanwhile our real social networks can last a lifetime. What I’d like to be able to do is to walk to central park with a frisbee, turn on my location aware pda, and be informed that a friend of Ank’s is reading near the great lawn and could be convinced to play. If I have an interest in writing Situationist cookbooks, then by god I want to know anytime I’m walking down the street or in a cafe if someone else is also interesting in such things. I’d like to be able to walk down the street of a new city, and get recommendations on restaurants that are within 5 blocks, from a network of trusted people.

I want location technology to help turn chance encounters into more lasting connections. I’d like it to help people get past our protective exteriors, to figure out what we do have in common. I’d like online meetings to lead to physical meetings, and I’d like the virtual connections to start to change our physical world. This is starting to emerge, as activists use meet-up, text messages, blogs and email lists to effect action in the real world. I think it’s only going to grow as our location technology gets better, as people gain the ability to leave their own virtual touches on the geography, for as specific or as wide an audience as they choose. See the headmap manifesto for an amazingly rich treatment of the ideas just alluded to here.

The second reason I am excited about location and mapping is the inherent power contained in maps, and exploring how to give everyone the ability to make their own maps. Maps present themselves as objective reality, yet every single map contains a huge number of biases. They flatten the world (literally) to a single representation. Maps are used like statistics, as a seemingly objective reality that can be twisted to further one’s ends. A simple example of this is the use of mapping projections. A projection is the way in which the 3d globe is representing in two dimensions. Map makers have a number they can use, which will all give the land viewed at least a slightly different appearance. During the cold war all maps from the US would use a projection that greatly increased the size of land closer to the poles, especially the north pole. This gave the Soviet Union the appearance of looming over and threatening the whole world. And it would generally be drawn in an aggressive color, like red. One could not help looking at a map of the world and thinking at some level about how the USSR was out to take over everything.

I’d like to bring people the ability to remix the ‘official’ maps, to color them and project them to their own purposes, to exploit the assumptions inscribed by dominant elites. And beyond that, I’d like to enable a new form of maps, that draw on the wealth of individual human experiences, instead of flattening it all into an official story. No, I’m not some post-modern extremist who believes everything is completely relative. There should be base maps that we all agree upon. But on top of that creativity in how we represent and interpret the world should flow. If one looks at maps from medieval times, they are covered with subjective experiences, of how an individual saw the world. They make no sense from a linear rational perspective, they work poorly for figuring out an objective path, but they closely connect you with how the mapmaker saw the world. I’d like maps where we are aware of the map maker’s finger prints, and celebrate the uniqueness of those fingerprints, and what they say about the world and the time.

The final reason one could term environmental. This is the least thought out for me, but something I hope to explore more in the future. But we as a human race need to figure out how to manage our resources. I admit it, I am scared by this talk of peak oil, and that we could be plunged into an era of war and scarcity. Our planet has more than enough resources to support us, we just need to figure out how to use and manage them correctly. It is only collectively that we will achieve this, and I believe maps and earth imagery hold a key to allowing us to understand the global impact of what we do. If we just take a short sighted view and follow our leaders into wars and conflicts, if we just use maps to figure out how to bomb people, then I fear for our future as a race. If we can easily find diverse sources of spatial information, combine it in various ways, and run models and simulations that can in turn be shared with others, in short if we take an open source approach to resource management and planning our future, then we’re starting in the right direction.