The remarkable thing about the data revolution is not that it has changed our lives so much, it is that it hasn’t changed it enough. The technologies now available to us could revolutionise not just how we communicate with each other, but who does the communicating. It will change the nature of the global debate and allow voices to be heard which have never been heard before.
If you think that is already happening, well you haven’t seen anything yet.
Wikipedia is a great example of how technologies enable a new type of work. Wikipedia is a freely licensed encyclopaedia written by thousands of volunteers in many languages. It began as a peer reviewed formal resource which was run along traditional organisational lines in which editors approved or rejected articles and shaped the encyclopaedia as if was a book being printed by a publisher. The project failed. It wasn’t until they allowed everyone to write whatever they wanted, until they created a system in which there were no bosses, no voices more important than any other, that the Wikipedia project really took off.
Technology changed the nature of the discussion. Contributors could write something that was inaccurate or even scurrilous and purposefully wrong – it would all be published. However others would then be free to correct it.. The success of the Wikipedia project depended on the wisdom of the crowd. In other words it depended on the fact that there were more sensible people than idiots who wanted to take part and wanted the project to succeed.
I went to meet the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales at the London Library – a wooden shelved old fashioned building that could be the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie. The old and the new came together at a meeting that excited both Jimmy and the staff at the London Library.
Wales talked not just of the collaborative effort which distinguishes Wikipedia but how it is changing the nature of global debate.
The richer countries tend to develop products and they determine who can use it and what it says and does. Wales talks about how today on the pages of Wikipedia, a voice in a remote village in Africa is given equal billing to one in the centre of New York. Up until now we in the richer parts of the world have created content and voiced concerns that has been listened to elsewhere. The new technologies may begin to allow a more democratic platform for all voices – where the rich listen as much as they talk.
The surprise, as I said, is not the often quoted litany of extraordinary advances technology and data collection and analysis has already achieved. It is that these new tools are still only being used in examples like a free on-line encyclopaedia.
In the future they might bring together professional and amateur medical researchers to work collaboratively on projects. They might enable companies to write employment policies not from the office of human resources but by the collective intelligence and contribution of the whole work force. They might enable a global collaboration on all the challenges facing the world. That will be when the new data and technology revolution will really show us its value.