Singing From the Inside Out – The Personal, the Public, The Private and The Penal: The Innovation Interview with Julian Arahanga, Ruia Aperahama and Evan Rhys Davies

Innovation and Inspiration can be sought, and found, in some of the most surprising places.  Of course, it will come as no surprise to regular readers of the ‘Capital I’ Innovation Series, that I am a firm believe in the necessity of innovation in all things, be it in art, technology, science, education or social sciences.

I shall be ever grateful to my Kiwi connection, Steve Gray, for introducing me to ‘Songs From the Inside,’ a music therapy programme in New Zealand, which brings established musicians into the Rimutaka and Arohata correction facilities to teach songwriting to prisoners.  Though music therapy is used in correctional facilities worldwide, this  is the first time established musicians have been brought in and the program recorded for public viewing.

Songs From the Inside‘ Artists: Ruia Aperahama, Maisey Rika, Anika Moa and Warren Maxwell,

Screened on Mauri TV, and also available online, ‘Songs From the Inside,’ brilliantly follows  and films musicians Ruia Aperahama, Warren Maxwell (original lead singer with Trinity Roots and founding member of Fat Freddy’s Drop), Anika Moa and  Maisey Rika  along with ten prisoners, through their workshops, challenges and culminating outcomes.

In the thirteenth episode, an hour-long special, songs that the prisoners wrote, sang and recorded will be revealed, with an album released and available to download the next day, June 11.

I have had the immense pleasure to interview the programme director, Julian Arahanga; participating musician, Ruia Aperahama; and the instigator of the  Innovative program, Evan Rhys Davies.  Speaking with each of them was both inspiring, enticing, exciting and deeply moving – I hope you find following our conversations as interesting as did having them.

Songs From the InsideCapital I Interview Series – Number 19 

PART ONE: JULIAN ARAHANGA – DIRECTOR

Congratulations on the project! I just think it’s magnificent work. I can only imagine how proud you must be of it.

Thank you very much. I do feel proud. I always knew that we were doing something good but it turned out quite a bit bigger than what I’d originally envisioned.

I knew there was the possibility of it being a breakthrough type of show… Everybody is always very interested in what goes on inside prisons, and with the quality of the musicians that we had… I always thought that if we were able to weave those elements together we were going to come out with something powerful.

And you did!  One of the things that shines through, along with the quality of the musicians artistry, is their quality as human beings.  The level to which they gave of themselves so generously to the project is extremely beautiful.

That was part of selection criteria that we had.  We didn’t want to select pop stars per say.  The people that we needed, to make show successful, were people who had a social consciousness and who had lived a little; they had some life experiences, and a world view of their own to fall back on.

Maisey Rika

From the very early stages, as a group, we talked about the type of things we were setting out to do.  Everybody knew we were trying to get a little deeper than just the surface.  To do that we needed to reach out and make ourselves vulnerable in order to achieve our goal of getting these people [the prisoners] to open up.

If you were to look at the programme as a journey, was there a place along that road you hoped the prisoners involved would reach?

I think there were a few goals. The first was hinged around the music. With the musicians our goal was to help these people [the prisoners] create and produce music that only they, as individuals, could have made… songs that were written from the heart.

Secondly, it was about showing the human side of the prisoners… Showing that they’re not just stats and numbers but actual human beings who are very much like you and I. They have their ups and downs, but various circumstances and their actions have landed them in this place.

Another goal we had for the project was to show people at home, even if just  subconsciously, how to write their own songs.  I hope that from watching the show people will be able to understand what a hook line is, what a bridge is and why you need one… we gave them the basic tools to be able to create their own song.  Anyone can write a song and everybody has got at least one song in them.

It’s a whole new take on ‘The Voice’ or ‘The Idol’ franchises.  It’s the ultimate reality in reality television.  You’ve brought clarity to a genre that has, at best, been muddied, and that is to be applauded. 

I think that reality TV can be a different experience to how we perceive it currently.

I can only assume that there were many issues you had to deal with due to the fact that your subjects were incarcerated… even such mundane things as having a shortened filming period.  Did these issues necessitate you having to come up with different ways of approaching the production?

Certainly. Every production has its challenges. We just adapted to the playing field that was given to us. If we were filming soldiers in Iraq, we’d be dealing with a whole lot of circumstances there. You’ve just got to evaluate the situation and find the solutions to the parameters you’re given.

The shortened day was a big issue… we only had three or four hours with our students, so that was when the cameras pretty much didn’t stop rolling.  We were constantly evaluating what worked and what didn’t… because if one of the cameras hadn’t got the shot when it happened then we didn’t have it…  it’s not in the show.

The biggest challenge, which was at the heart of the show, was to make a connection with, and gain the trust of, our students.  That was the true challenge because without that connection and trust we really wouldn’t have had a show.

Was there a danger of the artists connecting too much, or being overwhelmed and drowning in the prisoners’ stories and personal dramas?  And, if so, how did you help them to protect themselves from those dangers?

Think that danger was very present.  So, we had mentors… we had Jim Moriarty who has worked in prisons for 25 years.  He has taught male and female prisoners drama – a situation where you really try to evoke  emotions, such as anger – and has worked with both medium and high risk offenders.

During the process of making ‘Songs From the Inside,’ if we felt that anyone was feeling under pressure and in need of assistance the mentors were there for them.

As Maori people we’re very giving and open.  We treated the people that we dealt with in prison like they were our cousin, our brother, uncle, auntie or sister. Once we had met them and begun the process, the barrier perception: “They’re prisoners and they’re bad,” was pretty much nonexistent.

So many of the prisoners are, at least to a certain extent, Maori.  Do you think  that was important in being able to achieve the level of connection you did?  I ask that because I wonder if the programme could be replicated in another part of the world, where that brother/cousin connection is not so strong – if there at all.

I have no doubt that the process can be replicated in any country where there are prisons and people who love music.

I think that, in trying to connect with them, it helped us immensely that our students were Maori.  But I’m hopeful that next year we’ll do another series of ‘Songs From the Inside’ at a different location in New Zealand where we will have a more mixed representation of ethnicities.

I think by the end of that process we will have proven the theory that we have developed: that the process of song writing, and drawing out songs from people’s hearts, can work with anybody in any scenario.

It’s a very inspirational, Innovative process.  Were you looking to make a change within the correction system when you set out to do the project.

Well, you aim high with everything that you do.

I didn’t know how we might be able to affect the Corrections Department in New Zealand but I think that, by getting them involved in the process, we’ve already made some form of change.

Have you had feedback from the correction system?

The Corrections Department is 100% behind the project, and they’re already behind the second series. Their CEO has even used the project in his speeches to prison managers nationally.

Frankly, I’d like to see music departments in every prison in New Zealand.  Long term, on a national scale, I’d like to see music departments, instruments and tutors going in, using song writing, poetry, writing and music.

I don’t like to call it rehabilitation or reforming people. I’m not a criminal psychologist; I don’t know how you determine whether someone is rehabilitated or reformed.   What I do know is that life is about steps and this is one step.

The programme and the people involved had been given a commendation from the New Zealand Parliament, which must be quite marvellous to receive.  Did receiving it come as a surprise to you?

It was a surprise… a very nice surprise that was very welcomed by everybody in the whole production, along with our supporters and our families.

Along with that, the programme is being talked about a lot internationally.  That too may have been something of a surprise as was screened on Maori TV rather than on large, national channel.  Though, I understand it is has large, international online viewer numbers – which is where was able to watch the episodes.

I’m currently close to having a team ready in Ireland.  We’ve got a prison in Dublin that houses male and female prisoners that is interested in replicating the program.   They’ve been able to watch the episodes on the Maori Television website, and they get it. They’re from another culture, and they’ve got different sensibilities, but they get it and they know it would work in Ireland.

We’re also trying to have it made in Australia. We’ve got one correctional facility already on board, we just need to get a female correctional facility and  then I think we can make it there next year.

When you look back I imagine that there are all sorts of memories that jump out.  What are some of your strongest ones?

If I use a timeline as my guide, I think talking with Evan [Rhys Davies] while he was living in Hong Kong… I told him I’d like to make a television series based loosely around the music programme that he ran in Spring Hill Prison in the Waikato.  That’s when I really thought this could work.

There are just so many moments, like the day when I signed all the artists… And they didn’t have to think twice!

I sent them a few paragraphs about what we wanted to do and they all wrote back saying: “Yes, I want to be a part of this!”  Obviously, the day we got funded which meant it was happening… The first day of filming, when we all came together.

A super highlight was the day we went into the prison.  The amount of emotion in there and the amount of belief, openness, forgiveness and willingness to learn. That was a very special day.

And of course, the recording day, when we recorded everybody’s songs.  That’s the big payoff for everybody who buys into and watches the series.  When you get to episode 13, you get paid off for your loyalty; I think that’s going be really rewarding for viewers.

I’m told there are some very beautiful songs well worth watching for and I’m very much looking forward to their release. 

Prior to speaking to you, I did a small, online search of songs either written about, from, or just after release from prison.  Many of them gave me goosebumps.  They were very different pieces…  be it the Ska of ‘54-46 That’s My Number’ or the rockabilly-blues of ‘Folsom Prison Blues‘ for instance.  And yet there was a reality – a truth – that they shared. 

Some of the songs are so personal, nobody else could have written them.

It’s not the kind of album that you’re going to be having a party to.  It’s the kind you set aside some time in your day to sit down and listen to.  You can pull out the booklet, read the lyrics as it’s all going down, and enjoy the whole experience.  If you watched the TV series, you can relive the experience in a new way.

When is the album going to be released?

The 13th episode is on the June 10th and the album will be in stores on the 11th.  It will be downloadable from iTunes at midnight (NZST).

How exciting!  I can hear from you voice that it means a great deal to you.  Do you feel that being involved with the programme has changed you in some way?

Definitely.  This particular project has shown me the value in people… in lifting others up,  trying to enhance their lives and give them opportunity

I’ve been involved with a lot of projects and generally every one changes you in some way, but I feel like this project has given me the clarity to know what I want to do with my life.  I’m going to focus a lot more on projects that deal with social issues… Not just for Maori people but for all people, particularly in New Zealand, but on a global scale as well.

It’s a great culmination and conjoining of both artistry and activism; it’s Innovative and Inspiring!

You know what the good thing is?  We’re ‘good’ from both sides!

The Corrections [department] love us.  We’re the best thing that’s happened to them in years because, lets face it, they don’t get a lot of good press.  Even the Sensible Sentencing Trust haven’t slammed the project, and they’re about as right-wing as you can get in terms of recognised groups with a media voice.

Maybe it’s because the project is so sincere and honest. It’s people talking about their lives and trying to help one another.  And it goes both ways – the musicians get an amazing life experience; they’re being challenged in all kinds of ways, so everybody is growing together.

PART TWO: EVAN RHYS DAVIES – INSTIGATOR

Songs From the Inside seems a perfect synthesis of your talents as a teacher, musician and activist.

First and foremost I’m interested in people. My motivation comes from believing that people have an intrinsic value and we need to find a way to let people know that.  For me that connection with, and working with, the prisoners was an extension of what I feel passionately about: connecting with people and helping them find their place in the world.

‘Songs From the Inside’ is based on a programme you devised earlier.   What was your impetus for beginning it; was there something that happened, something you saw or heard that made you think this was a necessary thing to do?

I got a call from a friend saying: “We’ve got this pilot programme at Spring Hill prison… Would you be interested in teaching creative writing and maybe branch into song writing? You can pretty well write the programme. What do you think?”  I thought: Yes!

In the first class there were about 20 guys and a lot of them had issues with writing in general. In the second there were eight to ten guys and they just rocked up to class; there’d be eight guys and three guitars.  They’d heard the words ‘song writing’ and missed the creative writing part, so straight away I was getting these guys offering me songs.

The first song one of the guys played had the lyrics “It’s your birthday today and I’m not with you.” It was to his two year old daughter, and I just thought, what a start to a song!  No one else is going to come up with a lyric like that.

In the first class we mainly focused on developing technical skills the guys could take away to use to express themselves better.   We focused the second class more on song writing.  One guy, who had barely said a word for seven weeks agreed to share a song one day. When he did, he sounded like Jack Johnson; he had an amazing voice and it was a beautiful song about saying sorry.  That’s when I knew we had to record the songs.

At first the idea raised a few eyebrows, but eventually the officials gave me clearance for my gear.  I took in an engineer and we did it.  We called the album “If These Walls Could Speak – Live Recordings from Spring Hill Prison.”  One of the guys made it pretty clear when he said, “Next to having kids this is the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”

Then a few months later I got a call from Awa, the Songs From the Inside production company, who said: “We were really moved by the project.  We’re not quite sure what format we’re looking at but we’re keen to discuss a television show or film.”

What was your goal for the project?  Was it mainly to fill the prisoners’ time and bring them some peace while they’re inside, or was there a view to them being able to use these skills in some way once they get outside?

I know that the ‘Songs From the Inside’ production team would say that they aren’t trying to reduce the crime rate dramatically in New Zealand.  The idea is that we’re trying to give people tools and one of the most powerful tools is self-expression.

I’m sure anyone would recognise that if you can express yourself well… if you can understand how to say what you want to say – what you need to say! –  then you’re going to be a lot healthier on the inside.  You’re a lot likelier to get along with people rather, than getting on top of them, and a lot less likely to get yourself in situations where you express yourself through other [more aggressive] means.

How important has it been to have Julian Arahanga involved?

He is obviously a very talented director but, more importantly, he’s a guy who is more interested in the welfare of the prisoners than making his television show.  Of course he is an incredible professional and he’s doing a great job on the TV show, but the way he handles and respects people has really blown me away.

Throughout the programme Maori was being spoken and, as a viewer, I revelled in how beautiful and musical that language is.  That must have been interesting to you, due to your love of language and music.

Ruia Aperahama, one of the musicians involved in the project, is an incredible guy… An amazing storyteller, and an incredible linguist as well.  He speaks fluent French and Maori as well as English.

One minute he’d be talking to us in English, then get a call from someone in New Caledonia about music and he’d switch to French, then turn to his eight year old son and talk to him in Maori. He’s very interested in language and the musicality of it.

Through the series you see that he’s an incredible orator and communicator.  He really engages with language and helps other people to do so as well.

And he’s also incredibly talented in the use of body language.

Very much so.  You have to see the last episode… I was crying like a baby because it was just beautiful, there were so many amazing moments.

Ruia came to these occasions with a heart for the people, especially for the Maori, who were inside the prisons.  Because, let’s be honest, we need to look at other ways of trying to restore faith and confidence in a lot of disenfranchised Maori people who’ve ended up in prison.  That’s not a generalisation – that’s a fact.

PART THREE: RUIA APERAHAMA – ARTIST

‘Songs From the Inside,’ which is such a success, seems to reflect something of New Zealand culture – and  certainly of Maori culture – in that it celebrates and honours coming together as a community.  Was that part of what led you to get involved in the project, and did that affect how you approached it?

I come from a strong Maori community, from a Marae which has significance in New Zealand history.  And, I’ve had some previous experience in prisons, and other places, helping out second chance seekers.

To do a project of this nature… To go in with a teaching angle – sharing, facilitating and creating opportunities – while working with other high-profile artists, for me was a once in a lifetime experience.  Though, I hope that we might be able to do something similar again.

We all knew it was going to have some impact on our lives…  And not just for us, not just for the inmates but for everyone that worked on the project.

As well as being a gifted musician I understand that you trained as a teacher. The project must have been a quite serendipitous melding of the two paths in your life.

I trained at teachers college in the eighties, so when Julian asked me if I wanted to do this project and described what we would be doing, I jumped at it very quickly.

I was honoured to be asked to go into the prison because most of our [New Zealand] prison population is made up of our [Maori] people.  I’ve got relations and family who are either in the system as prison officers, administrators or in  some kind of government departments; but they’re also somehow related to and connected to inmates. So, at the end of the day, it was a blessing to be asked to share that environment with our relations.

When you began the project were you able to walk in clean and clear without any assumptions about potential outcomes?

There were some anxieties about the unknown, but that’s part of taking risks and not having much control over the environment we were going into.

We were pretty limited in what we could shoot, so we had to create opportunities, while we were challenged with the concept of having to deliver almost a ‘wonderful world of rehabilitation’ type of programme.

When I say rehabilitation, I mean that there are components for inmates not only  to learn about constructing and creating songs, but also to learn how to conduct  their life. When you’re composing songs you have to do a lot of collaborating and with collaborating you have to learn to compromise.  You have to learn how to share and when to step back.  You learn that it’s not just about the artist or the singer; it’s an industry. You’ve got directors producers, engineers, technicians, programme managers… There are a whole lot of people in the industry.

If they wanted, the inmates can explore this further. We’ve just given them a taste of an alternative lifestyle; an option outside of the prison and outside of gangs. Hopefully at the end of the day we gave them an insight, just as the programme gives the New Zealand public an insight into prison culture.

They [the prisoners] have made mistakes – that’s why they’re in prison and paying for their crime.  In my opinion, the programme not only shows some different options and alternative lifestyles that inmates might choose outside of prison, but it also helps to humanise the inmate.

I don’t think that after seeing the programme you can generalise any longer about ‘them and us’.

One of my strongest memories from the programme is in the initial episode when you acknowledged everyone within a speaking circle.  It seemed to be incredibly important in building the initial bridge between the project makers and the inmates. Is that something that you set out to do consciously or was that just a natural thing that happened?

That’s the opportunity I think that our culture and our customs provide.  In our  [Maori] culture, through our customs and rituals, the art of oratory speech making has an obligation to create and an opportunity to acknowledge things that should be acknowledged.

For me it reminds us how important our humanness is.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re an inmate, a high-profile musician, an administrator, a prison officer or anybody else involved in the justice system.  What’s important is to reconnect to being human.

I wanted to challenge the stereotypes of prison inmates and prison guards. I certainly saw not only the opportunity and the willingness to change in the inmates, but I also saw the human side of the prison guards every time we came through security. It is very important to make all people feel valued.

You were able to empower the prisoners to give expression to their feelings, hopes and fears in ways that, perhaps, they’ve never done before – or at least had never been acknowledged for doing so before.

I know many males find it very difficult connecting with, for lack of a better word, their feminine side… To connect to feelings instead of lashing out, using verbal abuse or other forms of violence, like the ones that put them in prison in the first place.

Instead of using those tactics in communicating they had to learn that vulnerability is the first thing to transform your life.   We showed that only when you’re vulnerable can you surrender; only when you surrender can you make transformation and change in your life, so you can make different choices. Otherwise you just become part of the high statistics and vicious cycle of  reoffending.

Personal Innovation, at a very deep, core level, can touch anyone anywhere.

I agree.

Reaching back to my culture and upbringing on the Marae… It’s not an excuse, but the history and colonisation that happened in our country, for me, has contributed to the large percent of Maori making up our prison population. For me that’s a driving factor to make a change – to make a difference.

As I understand it, a Marae is a sacred meeting place.  Is that correct?

It’s the central point of our community.  It’s represented by a tribal house, which is the focal point, and would usually be the main ancestor of the region that the Marae stands on.  Through that, through the genealogical line of that ancestor, you can connect to members of different communities.

Is it possible to carry a Marae with you?  The reason I ask is, it seems to me that in some way you brought the spirit and strength of your Marae with you into the prison.  

I understand, and yeah, I agree.

A Marae isn’t just a physical location. Marae is a lifestyle, its how we choose to live  our lives and interact with each other.

You bring a deep, palpable level of emotional strength to the programme, which is very inspiring. 

Without getting too profound, in our vulnerability and humanness there are lot of exciting things we can share and give one another whether we are inmates, rich,  poor, celebrity or not.  There are wonderful moments that we can give one another and, certainly in ‘Songs From the Inside,’ there were a lot of those moments that  will continue to help me on my journey.

What are your strongest memories of the project?

The strongest memories would be the connecting and the humanness, the breaking down of barriers and stereotypes; and there are a lot of stereotypes out there about prisons.

The hardest time was having to leave every day; going back to our families, to our sense of freedom and the normality in our lives after having spent a day taking on board the things that the guys needed to talk about.  We’d have touched on  vulnerability and surrendering and that’s not easy for anybody… admitting that you’re wrong or you have things you need to improve on.

Of course if you want to sing from the inside, from your heart and soul, you have to break down all of your stereotypes and your barriers so that you can connect and access what you want to say and how you want to say it. The crafting of that, and helping to develop people’s personality and characters, was a wonderful experience.

If it was difficult to leave at the end of each day’s filming, how was it to leave on the final day? That must have been particularly emotive. 

For me, the last episode was reaching a milestone.  It was a time to summarise everything:  Did we achieve what we set out to do? Did we make an impact and change in somebody’s life somehow?

I was really excited because I could see how hard the inmates had worked and how far they had come!  The result of having produced and recorded a song, in allowing  and admitting their vulnerabilities – and our vulnerabilities – created a collective strength.  The programme and album is, I suppose, a montage of that journey.

To be a part of that, to celebrate people’s successes and the changes that they’ve made, is not only an honour but, to be able to help, them along the journey… that’s   an even greater blessing.

Have you been changed by the project?

It’s certainly helped me to have more gratitude about what I have in my life.  It helped me reconnect and see how important it is to reach out and be a part of people’s lives… networking, growing and learning something every day.

But, most of all, I think the whole experience is about humanness.  It underlined how it is in our humanness that we are all vulnerable, and when we are all being vulnerable we are all equal.

Kim, Julian, Evan and Ruia Skyped from their homes in Sydney and New Zealand.

Songs From the Inside is available for download purchase from iTunes; the CD and DVD can be purchased from Amplifier.

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This is the final interview in the ‘Capital I’ Innovation Interview Series, as the series is on hiatus in preparation for the new book, !nnovators: How They Rocked Their Role (to be published by Kogan Page in 2013), which was inspired by the series and its popularity.

!nnovators: How They Rocked Their Role will introduce readers to a select number of pioneers who have broken the mould, led the pack, and moved their own particular mountains in a wide range of fields (including business, technology and travel, engineering and energy, government and social policy, the arts and advertising, media, medicine and more). The enhanced eBook and online ecosystem will be using cutting edge technology, including Web 3.0, Semantic and html5, along with our own ‘FlatWorld secret sauce’.

I’d like to thank the many thousands of series fans and readers, who have been integral in making the book (to be released in print, eBook, and enhanced eBook/online ecosystem formats) and its publication possible!

WATCH THIS SPACE FOR DETAILS SUCH AS THE PUBLICATION DATE.

UNTIL THEN, I WISH YOU ALL NOTHING BUT THE BEST INNOVATION IN EVERYTHING YOU DO!!

Dishing up Science to the Public, One Project at a Time: The Innovation Interview with PetriDish.org’s Matt Salzberg

If you had been given an opportunity to be part, in some small way, of the Apollo Missions, would you have jumped at the chance?  Personally, I’d have been over the moon!  

Unfortunately, it has been rare indeed for the general public to be invited to become involved in scientific research.  That has now changed with the launch of PetriDish.org, a website designed to crowdsource funding for scientific research projects. 

A true Innovation in funding scientific research I recently spoke to PetriDish.org founder Matt Salzberg about the passion, potential and possibilities that PetriDish encompasses.

Matt SalzbergCapital I Interview Series – Number 17

Your path to this crowdfunding project is not necessarily a standard one.  How did you get involved with PetriDish?

I used to work at the Blackstone Group doing large media and software buyouts. Then I went to Harvard Business School as I really wanted to do something more creative, more innovative with my career.  I explored a couple of different business ideas and decided that the best way for me to get a good overview of the technology world, and what’s going on in innovation, was to join a venture capital firm. So, I joined Bessemer Venture Partners, which is a big international venture capital firm.

For about a year and a half I worked on investments in mobile digital media, the internet, etc.  And one of the things I observed there was that a lot of really, really transformative businesses were being created using the internet as a reach medium to pool the collective actions of many small people to make bigger things happen.

There are a couple of examples of this.  Groupon is an innovative company that pools the collective buying power of people to get deals on stuff.  Kiva is a good example of a company that’s pooled the collective actions of small people to microfinance in the developing world.  DonorsChoose is another example of an innovative company that has pooled collective resource to help fund classroom projects.

There had been nothing really done applying this to science and research; and they’re obviously areas that dramatically need greater funding. Science and research fuel future innovation; the advancement of society is very dependent upon new discoveries and advances in a variety of fields.

This has always been a passion area of mine.  I wanted to take this business model, which I had sort of seen being applied in other areas, and use it to transform the way that research and science is funded.

Do you see it as a business model that is focussed on profits or is it something that you’re doing from a position of altruism?

It’s somewhat a combination of both.

We’re a very small, lean team at the moment, with a small group of investors. We just launched at the end of February, so we’re still putting a lot of the pieces in place to continue to scale up quite frankly.

We wanted to create a sustainable organisation and we think the for-profit model, for this particular business, is the right one because it allows us to take on investors and be self-sustainable over time.

But, the reason we’re doing it is because of the mission, which is to help accelerate the pace of innovation by making the funding process more researcher-friendly.  Right now to get funding is a very long, bureaucratic and difficult process.

Isn’t it just.

It could take as much as a year and for many reasons, including political ones, certain areas of science don’t get funded as they should.

The public is very interested in these things; there is an educational component wherein the public can get involved and learn about science and be involved in new discoveries.  We’re very mission-focused in that sense. Our goal is to really transform the way science is funded in order to accelerate innovation.  We chose the for-profit model because we think it’s the right way to bring the proper resources to bear.

We take a five percent share of the money being raised to help fund our ongoing operations.  That’s in comparison to a typical charity, which  takes 20 percent or more in terms of overhead because of all the inefficiencies that exist within a non-profit infrastructure.  We are able to attract more talent and more resources and then allow more money to go to the end researcher.

You mentioned politics and it brought to mind that there are groups within America, where you are based, that bring to bear their own beliefs, be it religious or political, in determining what research can and cannot be funded – stem cell research comes to mind.  Is that something that you are going to have to deal with?

I think that’s one of the inefficiencies that exist in the current funding process.  I think stem cell research is one example of a really interesting area of science that is underfunded because of political reasons. And that’s okay.  I think it’s totally acceptable for a government that has multiple agendas to not fund science that, for one reason or the other, they aren’t a good fit for.

That just means there is an opportunity to pick up the slack there, and we’re trying to facilitate that for the private individuals who do want to see stem cell research. Though we haven’t done a stem cell research project yet, we would.

There are other areas as well, like certain kinds of areas of social science or climate change research or ecology, which are relatively underfunded areas.  The government has, in some cases, very different priorities than individuals may or may not have depending on the project at hand.  We’re here to democratise that decision where individuals can step up and say: “I want to see this project happen.”  We provide an avenue to make that happen.

You’ve already got some extremely reputable institutions onboard, such as NASA and Stanford.  How did you involve them so early on?

We appealed directly to the researchers.  As we bring the researchers directly to donors, we don’t have to go through a process of specifically working out of partnership with the whole organisation or institution.  We post the project and if people want to connect directly with the researchers, they can; it allows us to do it much faster that way quite frankly.

What is the average age of your research participants? Are they very established researchers or are they students?

It’s a big range. We have projects from very established tenured professors who are somewhat older to graduate students, and we have everything in between. We have post-docs, young professors, full tenured professors, all across the board. And everyone comes to us for different reasons.

Some come to us because they are a grad students and they want to raise a small amount of money to do something and they don’t have access to capital.  Or  they’re a tenured professor, and already have funding, but they want to do an incremental piece of work that their current funding doesn’t allow for, or they want to share their research with the public and get the public involved.  There’s a ton of reasons why people do it.

How do you look to involve the public; for instance, would you look to connect with schools?

We’re trying to get the public involved in a variety of different ways. Right now our awareness efforts are mostly focused in the online sphere, thanks to people like you who are helping us get the word out there.

Via a variety of other channels such as the press, online social media and other kinds of marketing we’re getting the word out.  In the future we expect to be doing organisational partnerships and maybe even some partnerships with schools, as you suggest.  But right now we’re very focused on press, social media and online marketing.

And how do you envisage funders getting involved? 

There are a lot of things that the backers get. In the minimum they receive updates and information on the research over time, so they can hear about the latest discoveries and interesting things happening there.  That’s a cool experience in itself.

Then there are different rewards that they can get for backing projects at different levels.   They might get naming rights to a new species of animal… we had people do that on our site.  We had one project, which was a Harvard astronomer [Dave Kipping] doing a search for an exomoon  outside the Solar system.

The person who backed his project [Mike Dodds] at the highest level was able to name the supercomputer Dave bought.

We have another researcher who is doing research on the size and composition of algae spore structures, and if you back his project he’ll do a pressing of a dried algae specimen for you to hang up in your apartment or your house. The public gets all sorts of things.

And there is a field component too, if the public wants.  If a researcher is able to offer in-person lectures or a trip into the field with a researcher, the public can get involved that way as well.  There are a lot of different interesting things there.

I can imagine people getting very excited about things like that.  Do you think at some point it would be possible for people who are supporting PetriDish projects to nominate research projects that they think would be of interest?

Absolutely.  We’ve already had people suggest projects to us they think we should work with.  If the public has a research project they’re aware of, we’d love to hear about it; we’re very open to that.

I know that you recently launched some new projects covering such varied areas of research as the redrawing of an ancient supercontinent, decoding hyena calls in the Maasai Mara, saving Nicaragua’s last population of jaguars, and investigating estrogen levels in back yards. How do you choose which projects you get involved with?

Fundamentally we want to be a place where the public can decide what project they want to see happen.  Our fundamental philosophy is one of the democratisation.  However, we do screen projects to some extent and the projects we choose, we choose on basis of a couple of things.

First, the affiliation and quality of the researcher, they have to be from a reputable university or institution.  The second screening is on the project itself.  Is this project interesting?  Is it meaningful science?  Is it accessible to the public, so that they can understand it well enough to decide if they want to get involved?  And thirdly, we do a little bit of screen when we weed out obvious junk science: things like perpetual motion machines or paranormal activity.  But, aside from that, we really want to be a place where the public acumen finds interesting projects and decides what they want to see happen.

Do you have a pet project? Something that you personally would like to see funded?

Well, there are tons of them. I’d rather not name one of them at the risk of eliminating someone else.

You don’t want to admit to having a favourite child.

Exactly.  But in many ways some of the projects are a little bit of a reflection of the areas that I personally am very interested in.  We focus on field work, astronomy, biology, ecology, archaeology…. we have some very cool archaeology projects coming up.  We’re going to have some medical and biotech projects coming up, too.

Were you a science geek in school?

I was.  I wasn’t a scientist but I was definitely very interested in doing research.  I was an economics major and did a lot of economics research when I was an undergrad.  I’ve always been personally passionate about science.  I’m the kind of person that consumes a lot of content, I always loved reading about the latest discoveries.

Can I assume it’s not important for these projects to have the potential to become profit-making enterprises?

It’s not important at all for us.  In fact most of the projects are not going to be profit-making enterprises at all.  People back the projects so that they can be a part of the story, learn about the research and feel like they’ve helped make a new discovery happen.

So the funders are, in essence, patrons of science rather than investors.

Right.  Our backers don’t get equity in the projects.  They get an affiliation with them, a reward and a great story out of it.

Is there a minimum or maximum amount of funds that you’re generally seeking?

There’s no minimum for PetriDish projects and technically there won’t be a maximum, but we don’t allow projects that are so large that we don’t think they will get funded because of their size.

If someone came to us and said, “I need 100 million dollars to build a particle collider,” we’d say “This is not the right place to raise that money.”  Right now we’re focusing on projects that are less than $15,000.  Although if a project comes to us that  we think is so exciting, and the people behind it really understand this medium and how to raise awareness… We actually have a couple of projects we’re going to take a little bit higher.

How do you measure success for a project? 

Well, there’s a timeline.  At the outset, the project creator sets a timeframe and the goal they have to hit.  If they hit the goal by the end of the time, then the project gets funded; if they don’t, it doesn’t.  That’s a very clear metric of success.

So you see a successful endeavour as getting the project funded rather than measuring on the successful conclusion of the project itself?

Well, there are two components.  We’re trying to help these projects get funded and get off the ground.   We don’t get involved after the projects are funded in terms of doing the science.  Though, of course we would love to see the science find useful and interesting results and great discoveries.  That would certainly be another element of success… that would be wonderful!

Are you involved in building an ecosystem around the project?

Once we, hopefully, get the projects funded, we don’t step away.  We’ve built this community around the projects, where project creators can provide updates and people can learn about the results over time.

On the PetriDish website.

We stay involved, but we don’t contribute to doing the science per se.  Perhaps the community we’re building can help in some ways.

And the website enables people to keep up to date with the projects and see how they’re moving forward.

Yeah.

If intellectual property is created during the project, is that solely owned by the researchers, or the organisation that they’re working with?

Yes.  Backers don’t get any intellectual property. It stays with the existing structure.

And nor does PetriDish?

We don’t either.

That’s very altruistic of you. 

How would you characterise the people you think will get involved in the funding, as I think they may be somewhat different to typical investors.

The kind of people that back our projects are the ones that get excited about being part of new discoveries, that want to build relationships with researchers.  They’re your typical viewer of National Geographic or Discovery Channel and ScienceMedia.

You’re buying an experience by being a part of the research in action and in many case you’re getting tangible rewards.  Those are the kind of people who back stuff on our site.

PetriDish may also be the thing that begins to make science sexy again.  It’s been a long time since science was something that students yearned to get into.

Absolutely; that’s part of the hope.

You’re based in the US, but will you be looking at funding international project as well as US-based projects?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, researchers from around the world can connect with you?

Yes. We’ve already talked with many of them who reached out to us and we have a couple of international projects in the pipeline.

What is going to define success with regards to PetriDish for you personally?

My hope is that over time we transform the way science is funded and allow new capital to come in, which enables new discoveries to happen that otherwise wouldn’t be. We’re raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for science and research projects.

You can learn more about, and get involved with, PetriDish.org and their many research projects via their website and follow Matt on his Twitter account.  

[Kim and Matt Skyped from their homes in Sydney and New York.]

—  MORE —

Curious about some of the researchers? Well I had an opportunity to ask a few of them some questions:

JOHN VUCETICH: Associate Professor at Michigan Technological University, John is working with the wolves of Isle Royale National Park

With the Wolves of Isle Royale in an extremely precarious position, how important is a successful Petridish round of fundraising to the your project?

The wolves of Isle Royale have never disappointed – when we observe them carefully they always teach something valuable.  In the past, these wolves and their DNA taught us about “the old grey guy,”  – a wolf that had immigrated from Canada in 1997, when it crossed an ice bridge that had formed that year.  The old grey guy – and his infusion of new genes g the population with of new genes – changed the history of wolves on Isle Royale.  The details of that finding contained insight that has been of valuable for the conservation of many endangered species.

Isle Royale wolves have survived many tough times.  And when they survive this threat it will almost certainly involve a great comeback.  And DNA from wolf scats will be the only way to know the details of that comeback.  Help us be a part of discovering what happens next to this historically and scientifically important population of wolves.

This project will either be a remarkably detailed case study of how a population goes extinct (if that’s what happens), or it will be a remarkably detailed case study of how a scientifically and culturally important wolf population comes back from the edge of extinction.”   Either outcome is scientifically important

RACHEL ARONSON:  Master’s Candidate at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington and currently a Science Writing Fellow at Washington Sea Grant

I believe that your project, ‘Climate Refugees: Don’t let their culture melt away‘ will resonate with people from all over the globe.  Along with funding, how else could people assist you with your research? Would you be interested in hearing from Climate Refugees from around the world?

I am actually in Iceland for a seminar on Inuit sovereignty, writing a paper on Inuit-led education reform as an adaptation to climate change. So I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my petridish project!

Shishmaref (Alaska) Graveyard

Climate change is a global issue that affects every living being. “Climate refugees” are just some of the first people to experience some of the worst effects of climate change, the physical loss of their home places. Through accidents of geography, economics and culture, it could really be any of us.

I think every person on the planet has a valid story to tell about the effect of climate change on their lives. I would love it if people sent me their stories (great idea!), especially since I plan to use interviewing as my primary research technique for this project. Right now, I think I’m the only Petridish researcher in the social sciences, and I really want to explore what that means over the next month of funding time– maybe I can share climate stories from people around the world!

GEOFF GILLER: Graduate student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Funding for your project ‘Are there Estrogens in Your Backyard‘ is progressing very quickly – over half way there in only four days! – and you’re welcoming donations ranging anywhere from $1 – $1,000.  For $1,000 donors are invited to come and spend a day in the field, “flipping logs and getting muddy” with you and your team. How important is the PetriDish funding to your research?

We’re thrilled by the rapidity of our fund-raising. Part of the reason is where the donations are coming from; naturally, the first people to hear about this project are our family and friends, who are more likely to donate because they know us personally. But as the project gets re-posted and re-Tweeted and forwarded, the circle of supporters has expanded; there are several donors on the page that none of us knows. That’s one of the great things about this site: on top of raising funds, we’re also raising awareness about our topic of research. Since we’re dealing with contamination in residential areas, it’s something that is pretty universally relevant.

Taricha rivularis and researcher Max Lambert

For our project, this money is extremely important.  Water testing for chemicals like these is extremely expensive. We’ll be purchasing specialized devices that are designed to be used in situations like these, when the concentrations of the chemicals in question are quite small. The devices remain in the bodies of water for extended periods of time, which concentrates the chemicals we’re looking for and increases the likelihood of their detection. The problem with these chemicals is that they can have health impacts at very low concentrations, so we need more specialized equipment to detect them; typical water sampling might not detect them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not present or causing health problems for humans and wildlife.

Golden Nuggets: The ‘Mini Inny’* Innovation Interview with Howard Rheingold

The life and times of Howard Rheingold encapsulate so much of our technological, online world, that at times it seems simpler to list what he hasn’t done, rather than attempt to encapsulate all that he has. That said, I shall attempt to corral a part of his wild ride into a few sentences.

To say that Howard is a freelance journalist is like saying that Steve Jobs sold computers.  Yes, he is, but that goes nowhere near encapsulating his influence over defining social media and virtual communities, which he began detailing in his 1985 work Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind Expanding Technology (revised in 2000) and 1993’s  The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.

Howard’s influence and enthusiasm have not slackened, and his writing continues to interest and inform.  This writer, teacher, artist and critic was one of the first to understand and explain the potential of an online and engaged community, in his use of San Francisco’s Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) in 1993.   [The WELL is one of the oldest, continually running online communities.  Founded by Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand (of Whole Earth Catalog fame), The WELL is currently owned by Salon.com.  An early site for the merging of online and counter culture, WELL was a well known meeting place for fans of the Grateful Dead - Deadheads - in the 1980s and 1990s.]

Howard has continued to be a thought leader in the technology, mobile tech in particular, and what effects it will have on society and individuals.  Net Smart: How to Thrive Online is Howard’s most recent publication [2012].  Within its pages, he shares the answers he has gleaned to questions he has been asking for many years: “how to use social media intelligently, humanely, and above all mindfully.”

Howard RheingoldCapital I Interview Series – Number 16 (A ‘Mini Inny’ Interview)

Among many things, ‘Net Smart: How to Thrive Online’ looks to enable and empower us to manage our social media, rather than allow it to manage us.  How do you manage your social media?

I manage my attention. At the beginning of each day, I write down in a few words my two or three goals for the day — what I want or need to get accomplished. I put the piece of paper on my desk at the periphery of my vision. When my eye catches sight of the paper, later in the day, I ask myself where my attention is pointing and whether the way I am deploying my attention at the moment is helping me achieve my own goals.

At first, the exercise is nothing more than that — training myself to ask myself what I am paying attention to and comparing it to what I have decided I need to pay attention to. Repetition of this process grows a new habit of being self-aware of how I am using online media — mindfulness or metacognition. The best news about information-attention (infotention) training is that any amount of self-awareness of your media practices at all is far better than no awareness of how media are dragging your mind from place to place.

Will our learning to manage our digital presence enable Innovation in digital technology. And if so, how do you see this evolving?

Doug Engelbart, who invented much of personal computing and digital networks, wrote in his 1962 paper “Augmenting Human Intellect,” that humans are self-reprogramming, self-amplifying innovators through our use of “artifacts, methodology, and training.”

The artifacts (personal computers, communication media) have evolved multi-billion-fold since Engelbart’s time, but the language, methodology, and training — the literacy of using these media by billions of people — is evolving more slowly.

Doug Engelbart (image courtesy of New Media Consortium - nme.org)

With virtual communities, smart mobs, and collective intelligence, we’re seeing the beginning of what people are learning to do with our new technologies. Most important is the lowering of barriers to collective action of all kinds: people will be able to organize and act together with others socially, politically, economically in ways, on scales, and in places never before possible.

Will true mastery of our digital presence require an Innovation of our neural networks be it within the context of dreams, meditation, and or awareness?

Dreams and meditation ARE forms of awareness. Knowing how to read and right is a highly trained synchroniztion of different cognitive capabilities. A similar highly trained synchronization of human minds, media, and social objectives requires a more widespread and sophisticated individual awareness of  how minds and media interact. From that awareness, innovations will emerge, just as they did after the literacies of writing, the alphabet, and print spread.

You can learn more about Howard via his website, Tweets and the Rheingold U site.  You can download an introduction to Net Smart here, and purchase a copy on Amazon.

*Mini Innys (mini interviews) are bite-sized interview-lettes.

Reaching Beyond the Sky: Talking Innovation and Tablets with Suneet Tuli

As an advocate for technology users and affordable, Innovative technology for all, I was extremely excited to discover a passion for providing simple internet technology to the billions of people currently unable to afford it, in Suneet Tuli.  Suneet is President and CEO of DataWind, which launched the Aakash low-cost tablet computer in October 2011 in New Delhi.

Dubbed the world’s least expensive tablet, and designed to be provided free of charge to Indian university students, the Aaksash was developed to link India’s  many thousands of colleges and universities in an innovative e-learning program.  I spoke with Suneet just prior to their launch of UbiSlate, the commercial version of their tablet technology.

Suneet Tuli: Capital I Interview Series – Number 15

Firstly, congratulations Suneet.  I think the Aakash initiative is wonderful.

Thank you, we’re having some fun, and it’s an interesting kind of ride.  The requirements, demand and need is huge, and we think that we –  though not just us, but also others who play in the field – are going to end up changing the world for the better.

I wish you much success with that goal!  That certainly was our impetus for starting KimmiC.   I’m the first to admit that it does sound audacious, but I think that audacity is quite necessary when you take on challenges like this.

It really is.   When I talked about it six months ago and said, “this is technology to bring the next billion people on board,” I was seen as being audacious, or ‘reaching a little bit.‘   Today I’m seen a little differently.  It [Aakash] is endorsed by many others now, such as Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos [where Suneet spoke in October 2011] they had a huge billboard of our device and a discussion forum on the impact of it on the world.  I truly believe that not only is ‘internet for the billions’ coming, but it really is going to change the world.

This is a project that started in India, and now there are countries around the world that are implementing similar projects.  In India alone they have put together a Mission Statement saying that they’d like to equip all 220 million students in the country with low cost internet devices.

Apart from India, if you look at the countries that have invited us to talk, and that are looking to put together similar projects, that’s over a 100 million units.  That’s not to say that we would necessarily win all of the projects, but we think that its the dream that’s important.  That, and the fact that governments are implementing this aggressively, will have a snowball effect.

When you say ‘we’, I take it you are referencing your brother Raja and yourself, is that correct?

Yes, this is the third venture he and I have done together.   In each one Raja runs the technology, R&D and manufacturing teams and I look after the sales, marketing and operations.

Raja Singh Tuli

What was you impetus for beginning the project?

We had created a technology that reduces bandwidth consumption and consumption of the internet on standard GPRS mobile networks.  Today there are six billion mobile phone connections and 2 billion internet users – the billions of people within that gap don’t have access to any kind of broadband infrastructure, the only access they have is via standard GPRS mobile networks.

We created a technology, for which we received 18 US patents, that allows us to deliver the internet on those [GPRS] networks.   We can deliver this network with no new infrastructure and for a very low monthly cost – potentially even for free.  This technology is really applicable to our market segment, and gives us the opportunity to pursue our personal mission.

Even though we grew up in Canada, coming from India and seeing what is happening in those markets, we know the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is the digital divide and the quality of education.  Our belief is that the best way to power a better quality of education is through computers and the internet.

Places like India and Africa will not, in a reasonable period of time, be able to teach enough teachers and professors, and build enough ‘brick and mortar’ universities, to impact enough of the population.  For instance, there’s 350 million people in India that cannot read or write.  Its an outrageously large number, and yet, its so easily solved – at least a dent can be made in it through technology.

Technology has changed so significantly, not just in the last five or ten years, but in the last two years.  Look at products like the iPad.  This is a product that comes without a User Manual.  You take it out of the box and are expected to know that the only button you’re going to press is the one that’s on the device.

Three and four year olds today utilise these kinds of products and play simple games.  Touch screens and graphical interfaces are so powerful, we think that they can really make an impact on delivering a better quality of education.  Based on the technology we’ve created and our personal goals, that better quality of education is something that we can help achieve.

For a number of years I’ve been involved with a charity called Room to Read which builds schools and libraries in the developing world.  The main reason I got involved with it is I truly believe that the best way to create a safer world is to educate people, and empower education and educators. 

I agree with you.  I think that education really can solve all kinds of issues.  I get people who criticise this idea, saying, “Yeah, but in India where so many don’t have access to clean drinking water, isn’t this [focus on education] a waste?”  My response is:  THIS is what is going to help bring clean drinking water.

Education is what is going to enable and empower an individual to bring clean drinking water to his or her village or community.  And, why not other world changing Innovation as well?!

Oh yeah.   Any issue that you can think of I can talk back towards education.

It seems that, along with education, your product is about empowering the user, which I believe is integral to the next jump in technology. 

And it involves the whole ecosystem; for instance, its not just the device, you’ve also got to have  anytime/anywhere internet access.  This is why mobile phone, cellular connectivity is very important.  As well, the technology has got to be affordable and its got to have an open ecosystem for content and apps.

We’ve launched scholarships and competitions in India around content and apps to help encourage students, and others, to create apps and even start their own entrepreneurial journey.  This creates localised innovation.

In every single country we’re working in, we’re pushing for domestic manufacture, because you can’t expect to solve problems if you don’t manufacture locally.  You can’t expect to understand what the problems and solutions are, and drive local innovation, if you’re just going to get cartons full of boxes from somewhere else.  Sitting in Canada and the US we see it – the manufacturing industries here have been devastated, and the skill-set is no longer here.

You mentioned apps and, in one of the pieces I read while doing my research for our chat, I understood that users were not able to load free software onto the tablet.  Was that a correct interpretation?

That’s a common misunderstanding, but one that is not correct at all.  What we’ve done is, instead of using the Google/Android marketplace we’ve used Getjar.  We chose Getjar because it forces all the apps to be free and all active operators to make money purely off of advertising.

This is essential in India since, for instance, on the the Android market, while 80% of the apps are free, 20% of the useful apps are actually paid [for].  Even though its only 99 cents, the problem for my customer is that they have no ability to make online payments.

As an open source operating system, we don’t restrict anyone from installing any apps.  However, we obviously pre-burn in certain apps, from which we generate advertising revenue.  This is important to our full service ecosystem of revenue streams to help drive the cost of hardware down. But, it doesn’t mean you can’t install apps.

So you’re not trying to control the economic and application ecosystem. 

We don’t control it, but we want to earn revenue from it – those are two different concepts.  It’s an open source platform so you can install whatever you want, but we will have five stores on the site – we will have eBook, multimedia, game, apps and educational content stores.  You can go to Getjar and independently load your apps, but we’re going to encourage certain apps and certain environments, which we think are important for our customer base, as we’re positioning the product towards education.  We understand a lot of our devices will end up there, so we need to have an educational app store that can promote educational content.

Building an ecosystem doesn’t mean that we’re restricting open access to it.  We will have a monetary and strategic interest in the apps we promote because they’re in line with how we want our product to be perceived.

I downloaded some slides from a presentation you made last year, and in them you mention your carrier class technology.  Does this tech essentially create and control distribution and interaction with the tablet?

There are two browsers on the device.  One is the standard Android browser, but the difficulty and problem with it is its data consumption.  In the Indian environment this will result in an average of 400 – 500 rupees per month ($10 dollars per month) in data costs.  That is one problem, the second is the slow experience due to how congested the networks are.

On the other side is our browser, which uses our backend proxy acceleration system.  On that system we’re able to deliver the equivalent of unlimited internet access for about $2 dollars [per month] and its significantly faster than what you’d get without it.  The user has a choice of using either one of those solutions, but we believe they’ll choose ours because of the speed and lower amounts of data consumption.

And if they choose to use yours, its your servers that do the actual ‘grunt work’ therefore saving energy – the consumption of energy is by the server rather than the device.

Right.  The result is that you consume a lot less bandwidth, the costs go down, and it’s faster.  We shift the burden away from the client device onto our servers, but again, its their choice which browser they use.

Speaking of choice, why was the name Aakash chosen for the tablet?

The name was chosen by the Indian Human Resources Development Minister, Kapil Sibal, who has education as part of his portfolio.  Aakash means Sky in Hindi, and I believe he meant it in reference to the fact that he wants kids to reach for the sky.

The product that we will launch commercially will be called the UbiSlate and the key differentiator between the two is the mobile network connectivity.  The version the government ordered was built to their tight specifications, which only has wifi connectivity.  Their thinking was that, because they [the government] were providing access on their [college] campuses, that that should be sufficient.

We believe that isn’t’ sufficient, and that you want access everywhere.  You need access beyond the campus, which you will have with the commercial UbiSlate.

So those articles written after that initial testing process of the Aakash, which had somewhat negative responses from the beta users, were judging the technology on a somewhat unfinished, or less than perfect, product.

I think that they were judging us on the specs that IIT-Rajasthan set.  We won a tender that they put out and built [the technology] to the specs that they wanted.  We’ve proposed a different spec product to the government, which now they’ve agreed to conceptually, for the Aakash 2.

The issues they ran into were a lot more than just specs. The National Mission for Education for ICT (NMEICT) has made a great deal of effort over the last few years to create a lot of great digital content – tens of thousands of eBooks, online lectures and virtual labs and things of that nature.  Unfortunately, for the purposes of the trial, that content wan’t integrated into the devices.

The trial was conducted with college and university students in India whose tuition is higher than what we pay in Canada.  So, you know, when the first five hundred [students] walked in to receive their devices, two out of three of them had iPads under their arms.  Now you’re going to give these kids sub-$50 devices without their curriculum integrated onto it… and you’re going to ask their opinions on it…

The feedback we got [from the students] wasn’t a surprise: “its not as fast as playing games on the iPad; its not as cool as the iPad; the network connectivity is spotty, at best, using the university wifi, and it doesn’t have any connectivity beyond that.”  It was a learning curve for all parties.  But, our role was to deliver the product that they [the government] required.

The focus for the government was cost and we were able to deliver to them a cost breakthrough that literally had people’s jaws drop.

It’s not, as I said, the UbiSlate that we’re about to launch.  I believe our performance can, and will, be better judged when we launch that commercially.

UbiSlate

Do you think it fair that your tablets will be judged against products, such as the iPad, which has unlimited budgets and high prices?  And, noting that people may often purchase Apple products due to the cachet of their brand, how valuable do you want your own brand to be?

I don’t want people to have to pay a premium because of a perceived brand.  I want to make our products viable for a person on a $100 per month salary.

While in the West we’ve become accustomed to product positioning where you’ll pay a premium for a brand, in our scenario we’re not looking to maximise price, we’re trying to maximise customers.  In our business model we focus away from hardware margins.  Hardware is the customer acquisition tool, and our intent is to drive hardware costs down as low as we can and, instead, try to generate revenue from network services costs and advertising.  We believe that has the potential to get those billions of people on board.

Have you plans on how are you going to differentiate your tablets from competitors, such as BSNL, who have recently come on the scene?

The big differentiator is the connectivity.   We think that the fatal flaw with a [BSNL] product of that nature is that it doesn’t have mobile connectivity.  And compare [our] 2,500 rupees vs [their] 3,200 rupees [price], not only is [theirs] 30% higher in cost, but its only wifi enabled.

If you look at the Indian environment there are 18 million broadband connections serving only those people that have wifi – and those 18 million are probably the wealthiest people in India.

And they probably have an iPad.

They have.  And, they can afford wifi and products which are at a multiple of this price.  They’re not going to purchase these [low cost] products.  The question is what connectivity does the guy who can afford only 2,500 rupees have?  The only connectivity he can afford is often a mobile network.  BSNL has launched three devices, and the only one with mobile connectivity is three times the price.

And finally, are you looking to partner/joint venture with anyone to broaden the capability of your tablets?

We are.  We have a number of deals done which we’ll be announcing them once we are ready to launch the product commercially.

[Kim and Suneet Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Toronto.]


Speaking to the Future: What Got Caught in the Safer Internet?

[I've recently been asked by several readers to share a piece I initially wrote, for young teen readers, to commemorate and celebrate Safer Internet Day 2012.  This piece was written with a view to instigate and enable conversations between young people and adults, parents and children, about the problems and potential solutions surrounding internet safety.  Here is that piece, which is not part of the 'Capital I' Innovation Interview Series:]

When I was asked to write a piece about the future of internet safety, I realized that I am not generally one to give my opinion – on paper at least.  Generally, my job is to interview people and note their opinions.  With that in mind, I decided to interview the future me, the me of 2022, ten years hence, and hear her opinions about the then, current, state of security on the net.

An interview with Kim Chandler McDonald, Executive Vice President and Co-Founder of KimmiC, futurist and hyper-technology expert: February 8, 2022 – Sydney, Australia

Kim Chandler McDonald (as she hopes to look in 2022)

What led you to become involved with Safer Internet Day?

I first became involved over ten years ago when I was asked to write a piece about my views on the future of internet safety, a subject I was, and still am very interested in.

Why the interest?  Surely now, after ten years, the internet is much safer.

Oh yes, certainly compared to 2012 the difference is quite striking – especially when it comes to personal data. When I first became involved with Safer Internet Day, the internet was a place with few ‘walls’ and almost no one was able to ‘lock the door’ to their data.

Very few people were aware that they owned their own data. Though the data wasn’t owned by social media sites, they did borrow it – often without permission – and they made money from it, either by selling the data itself, or by using it to sell us things.

That borrowing often led to random strangers being able to access information about us which they shouldn’t have been able to get to.

You make it sound a little like stealing.

I wouldn’t go that far, but… well, lets just say that I’m very glad we now have the power, the the responsibility, to guard our ‘property’ – the place we live on the net – and the stuff we have there… our data.

How did that happen?

It started with IdentityTech authentication protocols.  Once authentication of parties involved in a communication stream became necessary, and individuals were able to control this process themselves – i.e. you decided who had permission to contact you, be it individuals or companies – the common ‘phishing’ communications (or spam) of the first 10-15 years of this century soon dried up.

It’s funny, because we now look back at that time, without permission based contact and authentication, as anarchy.

Was it really that bad?

In some ways, worse than bad.  Lets look at it this way, IdentityTech gave us the power to protect ourselves and our property, so that strangers couldn’t get at it. Lets think of the internet like a house – your online house.  Can you imagine someone you don’t know wandering into your house and rummaging through your things?  Essentially, that’s what was happening on the internet.

IdentityTech gave you a lock and key to your online house.  Now strangers can’t barge into your house and start looking at your pictures and reading your diary.  Anyone who wants to do that has to have your permission. Its sounds like a small change but it actually had a very big effect, on individuals and on some very large companies and industries as well.

How did it change things for individuals?

I’m sure there are countless ways, but a few that come to mind are things like the reduction in online predators (people preying on the vulnerable or less experienced), cyber-bullying, identity theft, and the reduced proliferation of violent/hate sites.  All these things had a huge effect, not just for individuals, but for communities as well.

A safer internet seemed to spread out and be reflected in safer neighbourhoods, town, cities and countries.  I think that’s part and parcel of us deciding to take more responsibility for what we allowed in our lives via the net.

You mentioned changes to companies and industries as a a result of this IdentityTech, can you give me an example?

Well, lets take social media as an example.  Certainly there was a time when social media companies would collect and use information about people.

You make it sound like something out of a spy novel.

That’s funny.  No, that’s not what I meant.  But, it is true that these companies took your data and used it to make money for themselves – they acted like they owned it.  I guess we, the public, didn’t know better at that time… and maybe we were a bit lazy too.  But this changed as the new digital economy matured.  That was already beginning to happen by mid-2012.

One of the consequences of the new digital economy, which IdentityTech enabled, was the realization by individuals – people like you and me – that our data is just that, OUR data.  It didn’t belong to anyone else, and it certainly couldn’t be used, or sold, by anyone else without our permission.

Once people realized that they owned their data, that it had value, and that they could have control over who, when and where this information was provided to other parties, things began to change rapidly.  Data was acknowledged to be a unit of the connected economy, and though it could be available 24/7, it had to be done so in a universally secure and non-proprietorial way – hyper tech enabled that.

But social media companies are still here, and some are still flourishing.

Of course they are, but now they have to share revenue from any profits they make from using our data.

Okay, I don’t get a personal cheque from them each month, but I am pleased that they have to deposit ‘our’ money into trusts, which have been set up to put money back into the public domain and pay for things like the free broadband connectivity which everyone enjoys today.

Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 3)

In parts one and two of our chat with  software star Grady Booch, we discussed his magnum opus project  COMPUTING: The Human Experience, Innovation, the Computer History Museum and the possible changing brain structure of Millennials, among many other things.

In this, the final segment of our discussion with him, we look at software – and software architecture – in general, Grady’s relationship with it in particular, the troubles facing Google and Facebook, the web, and his views on the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA bills.

To view the full introduction to this multi-part interview with Grady: Click here

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

[This was a joint conversation between Grady, Michael and myself. I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us - though, I think it will become obvious as you read - lol!]

Grady, You are credited with the building, writing and architecting of so much technology;  of all of those things, what is it that you are most proud of?

There are three things.  The first one is very personal.  My godson – he would have been eight or nine at the time –  was given a task at his school to write about a hero, and he wrote about me.  That was pretty cool!  Everything else is details, but I’m really proud of that one.

On a technical basis, I’m pleased with the creation of the UML, not just because of the thing we created, but the whole idea and industry around it that being able to visualise and reason about software-intensive systems in this way is a good thing. So, I think we lifted the tide for a lot of folks.

UML Diagrams

I contributed to the notion of architecture and looking at it from multiple views, and how to represent it.  I feel good about the whole thing around modelling and architecture and abstraction.  I think I helped people and I feel good about that.

UML was certainly a game changer.  I remember when it came in, before you got bought up by IBM.  It was like a wave going across the globe.  It made a profound difference.

And it’s different now because it’s part of the oxygen.  Not everybody is using it, that’s okay – not everybody is using C++ or Java and that’s fine – but I think we changed the way people think.

Our estimates are that UML has a penetration of somewhere around 15 to 20 percent of the marketplace.  That’s a nice number.  We’ve changed the way people build things.

Absolutely, especially at the big end of the market.

Yeah.  I wrote an article in my architecture column, that tells the story of when I was dealing with my aneurysm.  I was laying in a CT scan machine in the Mayo Clinic, looking up and saying: “My gosh, I know the people who wrote the software for this, and they’ve used my methods.”  That’s a very humbling concept.

It’s a pretty much a pretty good Acid test, isn’t it.

Yes, it is.

And your work is continuing in architecture…

Correct. I continue on with the handbook of software architecture, and a lot of what I do, in both the research side and with customers, is to help them in the transformation of their architectures.

For IBM the last nine months or so I’ve been working with the Watson team – the Jeopardy playing game – and helping the teams that are commercialising their technology.

How do you take this two-million line code base, built by 25 men and women, drop it in another domain and give it to a set of people who know nothing about that system.  This is exactly the kind of stuff that I do for customers, and I’ve been helping IBM in that regard.

That would be very challenging.  You’d need somebody with your brain power to actually manage that, I imagine.

Well, it’s not an issue of brain power, it’s an issue of: how does one look at systems like this and reason about them in a meaningful way.  And after the UML comes in – because it allows us to visualise it and the whole notion of architecture as used from multiple dimensions – all these things come together.  That make a two million line code base understandable to the point where I can know where the load-bearing walls are and I can manipulate them.

That is pretty impressive!  You’ve found a way of managing the slicing and dicing of the codebase.

That’s a problem that every organisation faces.  I have an article that talks about the challenges Facebook is going to have.  Because they…. every software-intensive system is a legacy system.  The moment I write a line of code, it becomes part of my legacy…

Especially if you’re successful upfront and gets massive growth, like they did.

Yes, and having large piles of money in your revenue stream often masks the ills of your development process.

Absolutely.

Google’s faced that, Facebook is facing that.  They have about a million lines of [the programming language] PHP that drives the core Facebook.com system – which is really not a lot of code – still built on top of MySQL, and it’s grown and grown over time.

I think, as they split to develop across the coast – because they’re opening up a big office in New York City – that very activity changes the game.  No longer will all of the developers fit within one building, so the social dynamics change.

Inside Facebook's Madison Avenue Offices

Ultimately, what fascinates me about the whole architecture side of it is that it is a problem that lies on the cusp of technology and society.  It’s a technical problem on the one hand – so there are days I’ll show up as an uber geek – and on the other hand, it’s a problem that’s intensely social in nature, so I’ll show up as a ‘Doctor Phil’.

To follow-up on one of Kim’s questions: if you look at the backlog of IT, I think every company of moderate size is still struggling to deliver on business demands. Do you think that architecture helps or, does it actually contributes to the problem?

Architecture can help in two ways.

I’ll give you one good example.  There is a company called OOCL (Orient Overseas Container Line) that I worked with some years ago to help them devise an architecture for their system that tracks containers and all these kind of things.  Their CEO had this brilliant notion: what would happen if we were to take this system and extract all of the domain-specific bits of it and then sell that platform?

By having a focused-upon architecture, they were able to devise a platform – this is a decade before Salesforce.com and these kind of things – and they could then go into a completely new business and dominate that side of the marketplace.   Here is an example where a focused-upon architecture has a real, material, strategic business implication.

The other thing focused-upon architecture offers is, it  is allows you to capture the institutional memory of a piece of software.  The code is the truth, but the code is not the whole truth.  So, in so far as we can retain the tribal memory of why things are the way they are, it helps you preserve the investment you made in building that software in the first place.

What sort of size company are you talking about?  It sounds like the telco space… large Tier 1 and  Tier 2 companies. 

It could be anybody that wants to dominate a particular business.  Salesforce.com built a platform in that space.  Look at Autostar as another example.  Autostar was an attempt by BMW, and others, to define a common architectural platform, hardware and software, for in-car electronics.  By virtue of having that focused-upon architecture, all of a sudden you have unified the marketplace and made the marketplace bigger, because now it’s a platform against which others can plug and play.

There is a similar effort  with MARSSA, which is an attempt to develop a common architectural platform for electronics for boats and yachts.  Again, it eliminates the competition of the marketplace by having a set of standards against which, people can play well together.  In the end, you’ve made the marketplace bigger because it’s now more stable.

I agree. Also, an architectural approach separates the data from an application specific way of looking at things.

It used to be the case that we’d have fierce discussions about operating systems.  Operating systems are part of the plumbing; I don’t care about them that much anymore.  But, what I do care about is the level of plumbing above that.

My observations of what’s happening is that you see domain-specific architectures popping up that provide islands against which people can build things.  Amazon is a good example of such a platform.  Facebook could become that, if they figure out how to do it right – but they haven’t gotten there yet.  I think that’s one of the weaknesses and blind spots Facebook has.

I also think that they are, to a certain extent, a first generation.  I think the web, in terms of connectivity, is not being utilised to its fullest potential.  I don’t see any reason why, for example, any form of smart device shouldn’t be viewed as being a data source that should be able to plug in to these architectures.

Exactly!

Would that be an example of a collaborative development environment?

Well, that’s a different beast altogether.

With regards to collaborative development environments, what led me to interest in that space is emphasising the social side of architecture.  Alan Brown [IBM engineer and rational expert] and I wrote a paper on collaborative environments  almost ten years ago, so it was kind of ahead of its time.

Alan Brown

The reason my thinking was in that space was extrapolating the problem of large-scale software development, as we’re becoming more and more distributed, to just how does one attend to the social problems therein.  If I can’t fit everybody in the same room, which is ideal, then what are the kinds of things that I do that can help me build systems.

I’ve observed two things that are fundamental to crack to make this successful.  The first is the notion of trust: in so far as I can work well with someone, it’s because I trust them.  You, Kim, trust your husband Michael, and therefore there is this unspoken language between the two of you that allows you to do things that no other two people can do together.

Now, move that up to a development team, where you work and labour together in a room, where you understand one another well.  The problem comes – like with Facebook, and what we’ve done in outsourcing – when you break apart your teams (for financial reasons) across the country or across the world.  Then, all of a sudden, you’ve changed the normal mechanisms we have for building trust.   Then the question on the table is: what can one do to provide mechanisms to provide building of trust?  That’s what drives a lot of ideas in collaborative development environments.

The other thing is the importance of serendipity – the opportunity to connect with people in ways that are unanticipated, this option of ‘just trying things out’.  You need to have that ability too.  The way we split teams across the world doesn’t encourage either trust or serendipity.  So, a lot of ideas regarding collaborative environments were simply: “What can we do to inject those two very human elements into this scheme?”

As we have been talking about trust, I’m curious as to your opinion on the SOPA, PIPA and ACTA bills.

I’ve Tweeted about it, and I’m pretty clear that I think those bills are so ill-structured as to be dangerous.

I get the concept, I understand the issues of privacy and the like, and I think something needs to be done here.  But I’m disturbed by both the process that got us there and the results.  Disturbed by the process in the sense that the people who created the bills seemed to actively ignore advice from the technical community, and were more interested in hearing the voices of those whose financial interest would be protected by such a bill.

The analogy I make would be as if all of a sudden you make roads illegal because people do illegal things in their cars.  It’s stupid the way the process that led up to this bill was set, I think, because it was very, very political.  From a technical perspective, while I respect what needs to be done here, the actual details of it are so wrong – they lead you to do things to the web that are very, very destructive indeed.  That’s why I’m strongly, strongly opposed to it. And I have to say that this is my personal opinion, not that of IBM, etc.

This is the final segment of our multi-part interview with Grady Booch. Part One can be read here, and Part Two can be read here

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed. Be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where Grady’s lecture series will be posted.

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]

Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 2)

In the pantheon of world-famous computer scientist’s, Grady Booch is the star who co-authored the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and co-developed object-oriented programming (OOP). He is a Fellow of  IBM, ACM, the IEEE, the author of six books, hundreds of articles and papers and the Booch Method of Software engineering. Grady serves on several boards, including that of the Computer History Museum and is the author, narrator and co-creator of what could be seen as a historical magnum opus of the technological world, COMPUTING: The Human Experience. 

To view the full introduction to this multi-part interview with Grady, and Part 1 of the series: Click here

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

[This was a joint conversation between Grady, Michael and myself. I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us - though, I think it will become obvious as you read - lol!]

Grady, lets begin with the very basics. As this is the Innovation Interview Series, let’s start with: how do you define innovation?

Ecclesiastes 1:9 has this great phrase:

What has been will be again.  What has been done before will be done again.  There is nothing new under the Sun“.

The way I take it is that innovation – really deep innovation – is about warming the Earth with the Sun of your own making. And to that end, that’s how I distinguish the ‘small i’ from the ‘Big I’.

The ‘small i’ therefore means: I may have a brilliant idea and it warms me, but the ‘Big I’ Innovation is where I can start warming others.  There are new suns possible; there are new ways of warming the Earth… And I think innovation is about doing so.

One of my heroes is the physicist Richard Feynman. If you read any of his stuff or watch his physics lectures – which are just absolutely incredible [Ed. Note: As is his series: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out] – there are some conclusions you can draw (and there is a delightful article someone wrote about the nine things they learned from Feynman.  The way I frame it is to say that I admire him and his innovation because he was intensely curious but at the same time he was bold, he was not fearful of going down a path that interested him. At the same time (too) he was also very child-like and very, very playful.  In the end what really inspires me from Feynman’s work is he was never afraid to fail, but much like Joseph Campbell observes, he followed his bliss.

Richard Feynman

I think that many innovators are often isolated because we’re the ones who are following our bliss; we really don’t care if others have that same bliss.  We are so consumed by that, that we follow it where it leads us, and we do so in a very innocent, playful way… We are not afraid to fail.

I’ve noticed that there is often a level of audacity and a lack of fear within innovators, but sometimes I wonder if that audacity and lack of fear could frighten general society.

Well, I think there’s a fine line between audacity and madness.

And that depends on what side of the fence you’re on.

Exactly. It also depends upon the cultural times. Because, what Galileo said in his time [that the earth and planets revolve around the sun] was not just audacious, it was threatening.

To the church, absolutely.

In a different time and place [the response to] Galileo would have been: “Well, yeah, that’s right. Let’s move on now”.   [Instead of being tried by the Inquisition, found suspect of heresy, forced to recant and spend the rest of his life under house arrest.]  The sad thing is you may have the most brilliant idea in the world, but you will never go anywhere.

Take a look historically at Charles Babbage.  I think he was a brilliant man who had some wonderful ideas; he was very audacious, and yet he’s a tragic figure because he never really understood how to turn his ideas into reality.  [A mathematician, philosopher, inventor and engineer; Babbage originated the idea of a programmable computer.]  That’s what ‘Capital I’ mean to me.  I think that’s why Steve Jobs was so brilliant; it’s not just that he had cool ideas, but he knew how to turn that into an industry.

We have a golden rule that it really doesn’t matter how cool your tech is if nobody’s using it. And it’s a shame because there are some incredible innovations out there, but so many innovators haven’t learned the Job’s magic of marketing.

KimmiC rule: It doesn’t matter how ‘bright the light’ if no one is using it to read.  

I think that’s especially true of our domain of computing systems, because we are ones who are most comfortable – as a gross generalisation – with controlling our machines.  Being able to connect with humans is a very different skill set. To find people who have the ability to do both is very, very challenging indeed.

Zuckerberg is a brilliant programmer, and he had the sense to surround himself with the right people so that he could make those things [Facebook] manifest.  There are probably dozens upon dozens of Zuckerbergs out there, who had similar ideas at the same time, but they didn’t know how to turn them into reality.

The same thing could be said of Tim Berners-Lee: a brilliant man, a nice man…  He was in the right time at the right place and he knew how to push the technology that he was doing.  He was developing things that were in a vast primordial soup of ideas.

Tim Berners-Lee

HyperCard was out; and why didn’t HyperCard succeed while Tim’s work did?  Part of it is technical, part of it just the will of Apple, and part was his [Tim] being in the right place at the right time.

And HyperCard influenced Tim.  Even Bill Atkinson, creator of HyperCard, said: if only he had come up with the notion of being able to link across [Hyper]card decks, then he would have invented the prototypical web.  But, he didn’t do it, he didn’t think about it.

Do you feel that you are ‘in the right time,  at the right place’?

There are times that I think I was born in the wrong century, but I know that if I had been born in the Middle Ages, at my age, I would be long dead.

So, yes, I can say from a very philosophical basis: I am quite content with the time in which I am now living, because I cannot conceive of any other time in which I could have been successful.

I read a quote on Wikipedia… a story you apparently told:

… I pounded the doors at the local IBM sales office until a salesman took pity on me. After we chatted for a while, he handed me a Fortran [manual]. I’m sure he gave it to me thinking, “I’ll never hear from this kid again.” I returned the following week saying, “This is really cool. I’ve read the whole thing and have written a small program. Where can I find a computer?” The fellow, to my delight, found me programming time on an IBM 1130 on weekends and late-evening hours. That was my first programming experience, and I must thank that anonymous IBM salesman for launching my career.”

It sounds like you were quite fortunate to have bumped into someone who was willing to take a chance with you very early on.

I think that’s fair to say.  Though, if it hadn’t been that person, I imagine the universe would have conspired to find me another person, because I was so driven.   Looking backward upon fifty-some years passed, that was the right time and place.  It may have just happened to be that was the right time and guy. But there would have been others.

Grady Presenting

[But] I haven’t told you about the missteps I had and the people who rejected me; we just talk about the successes.  Historians are the ones who write history. Because it’s the history of the winners, we don’t tend to write about the failures.  But even Edison pointed out… I forget the exact quote, but the reason he succeeded so much is he’s done so much and he’s failed; he’s failed more than others on an absolute basis, but he tried more.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ― Thomas A. Edison

What, in your view, gets in the way of the success of innovation?

I think the main thing is the fear of failure. I run across people like Babbage for example… or this gentleman I was mentoring earlier today, who are so fearful that they’re not doing something absolutely perfect, they are afraid to turn it into a reality. I think some innovators are so enamoured with perfection they are afraid to fail and therefore never do anything.

Within this milieu you seem to have had your fingers in many interesting pies.  One that I think must be especially fascinating is your work with the Computer History Museum.  How did you get involved in that?

In a way they came to me.  My interest has been in software, it always has been.  I forget the circumstances but, some years ago, I connected with John Toole, who was the original CEO of the Computer History Museum when it was in the Bay Area. He showed me around the warehouse that they had set aside at Moffett Airfield.

Not long before that they had shipped a lot of the materials from the old computer museum in Boston out to the Bay Area.  Gordon Moore [co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Intel] and others had said they wanted to make a museum, and they funded that effort.  So, I was around the edges of it in the early days. I thought it was fascinating.

I think the reason it attracted me in the first place, in general, is that I have an interest in the appreciation of history, not just the history of technology, but just the history of humanity.

As I went to the exhibits I remember making the observation to John that I thought their plans were great, but, projecting out to one or two generations, there wasn’t going to be too much that was interesting to display in the museum because, by then, all of the hardware would have shrunk to a tiny size and we’d need microscopes in the exhibits.

“And so, therefore, John”, I said, “what are you doing about preserving the history of software,” which is a very ephemeral thing.

Think about getting the original source code to the [IBM Operating System] 360, or the original source code to Facebook.  Because these are such ephemeral things, people throw them away.  In fact we, IBM, no longer have the original source code to the first version of OS/360; it’s gone.  There are later versions but not the original one.

Facebook Source Code

When Microsoft decided to stop production on the Microsoft Flight Simulator, I mean, this was a ground-breaking program, I wrote off to Ray Ozzie [Microsoft CTO and CTA from 2005 - 2010] and said: “What are you guys going to do with the software? Can we have it?”   He munched around for a while, but I think it’s lost for all time.

We’re in an interesting period of time and my passion, which has led me to the museum, is to say: Now is to time to preserve software!  We don’t know how to present it, we don’t know what to do with it once we have it, but let’s worry about that in future generations and just capture it now.

It’s very similar to what Hollywood has found with a lot of their film stock. A lot of it was just being lost or destroyed, but there is so much cultural history in those records.

Yes, exactly.  So, prior to being on the board, I set up a workshop at the museum looking at the preservation of classic software.  I wrote to 500 of my ‘closest friends’… people ranging from Marvin Minsky [cognitive scientist in the field of AI] to some other developers I knew, and everybody in between, and asked: “What software would you preserve for future generations?”

We came up with a long list.  I think that very idea inspired Len Shustek, who’s the president of the museum, to invite me on to be on the board of trustees.

What is your favourite exhibit in the museum?

I like the [IBM] 1401 reproduction.  They have a couple of 1401 machines and they’ve gotten them running again.  It’s fun to be in a place where there is something dynamic and alive and runs and you can be in the midst of it.  Just walking into the room, you smell old computers; and that’s a pretty cool kind of smell.  So, is the fact it’s running and clacking away.

The 1401

Fred Brooks [IBM software engineer] and I had an interesting discussion once, in which I lamented the fact that our computers make no noise, because – and I know I sound like an old guy, but – I remember you could hear some of the earlier computers I worked on. They were clattering in one way or another, be it their hard drives or their tapes, and you could get a feel for where the program was just by listening.

You can’t do that now with our machines; they are all very, very quiet. So, the 1401 exhibit has this wonderful visceral immersive display, in which you hear it and smell it as it processes.

I’ve actually seen people get a little misty-eyed just thinking about a dial-up tone, and you certainly seem to have some ‘misty memories’ too.  But, let’s look forward now.  What new things do you think may be exhibited in ten years time.

I think that’s the next interesting challenge.  We know how to display physical things, but there aren’t that many more things like old machines, to collect because they are disappearing.

If you go to the exhibits, you’ll see things get smaller and smaller and there is more of an interest in software.  I think the interesting problem for the museum to attempt is: how do we present software to the general public so that we open the curtain on it and show some of the magic and the mystery therein.  I think software can be very beautiful, but how do I explain that to someone who can’t see software. That’s an interesting challenge.

You’ve got to look at it it like an art form.  Source code, especially some of the well-written stuff, looks physically beautiful; forget about what it actually does.  There are many different dimensions you can look at try to get people’s interest.

[Editors Challenge to artists: here is a piece of code I've 'mucked about with' 

- why not see what code inspires you to create and send us a picture, which we’ll share with our readers, Grady Booch and the Computer History Museum!]

I think it’s very much like modern art because you can look at a bit of an impressionistic painting and you may not get it. Often the reactions are: “My kid could do that kind of thing.”

Well, not exactly; because the more you learn about it, the more you learn how much that painting – or whatever the art form is –  speaks to you and tells you stories.  It requires a little bit of education.

There is a visceral reaction at first to some art but the more you know about it, the more you can appreciate its subtlety.  I think the same is true of software.  We (the museum) have collected the original source code to Mac Paint, which turns out to be a really beautiful piece of software.

I’m using a phrase here that has meaning to me – beautiful – but requires explanation to the general public to say: why is this a beautiful piece of code, why does it look so well-formed?  I think that’s a responsibility we have as insiders to explain and teach that kind of beauty.

What are your thoughts about the emerging trends in Innovation and technology?

Well, the web has been an amazing multiplier, and yet at the same time it’s also increased the noise.  Therefore, the ability to find the real gems in the midst of all this madness is increasingly challenging.  For example, with the computing project  [COMPUTING: The Human Experience] we’ve done, we crowdsourced some initial seed funding for our work.

We could not have done this in the past without something like the web.  We put this appeal out to the world and it gave us access to people, otherwise we could not have done it.  I think the web has produced an amazing primordial soup of ideas into which we can tap; and that is so game-changing in so many ways.  That’s probably the biggest thing. [You can contribute to and volunteer for the project here.]

The web has changed everything; and those who don’t keep up are doomed to be buggy web producers.

Yes, exactly.  Or companies like Kodak.

I had the opportunity to speak to Kodak’s developers about 15 years ago.  It was a small group of people who were in the computer side of Kodak, and I remember saying to them: “Look guys, the future of Kodak is in your hands… so, what are you going to do about it?”

I Tweeted about it not too long ago with a sort of “I told you so.”  And yet, I don’t know whether or not it was inevitable.  It could be the case that some businesses simply die because they just don’t make sense any more.

And they should die sometimes.  But I think early IBM was a good example of a company that understood what business it was in.  I don’t think Kodak really understood what business it was in, towards the end, and that’s what killed it.

I agree, very much so.

Some web business models are founded on the idea that a company has a right to use and profit from an individuals data and personal information… What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that that’s a business model that’s sustainable? I believe that the general public is wising up to this very quickly and are soon going to expect some recompense from the use of their data.

I think there is a local issue and there is global issue that is even harder to tackle.  In the case of the Facebooks and the Twitters of the world, the reality is when I subscribe to those services, I do have a choice – I can chose whether or not to use them.  And, by the very fact that I’m using those services means I am giving up something in the process.

So, why should I be outraged if those companies are using my data, because I’m getting those services for free.  It seems like a reasonable exchange here, and I, as an adult, have the responsibility of choice.  Where it becomes nasty is when I no longer have choice; when that choice is taken away from me.  That’s when it becomes outrageous: when my data is being used beyond my control [in a way] that I did not expect.

I think that will sort itself over time; capitalism has a wonderful way of sorting things.  It’s also the case that we have a generation behind the three of us who are growing up, if not born, digital.  They have a very different sense of privacy, so, I’m not so concerned about it. We have lots of ‘heat and smoke’ but it will resolve itself.

What I find curious is that the ‘heat and smoke’ and discussions are hardly any different from what was initially said about telephones or, for that matter, the printing of the book.  Look at some histories of how phones were brought into the marketplace and you’ll find almost identical arguments to those that are going on today.

I trust the human spirit and the way capitalism works to find a way.  What’s more challenging is the larger issue, and that is the reality that there are connections that can be made in the presence of this data that are simply beyond anybody’s control.

I may choose to share some information on a social media source, or I may use a credit card or whatever, but the very act of participating in the modern society leaves behind a trail of digital detritus.  And I can’t stop that unless I choose to stop participating in the modern world.

I think this is a case where we’ll have politicians do some profoundly stupid things, and we’ll see lots of interesting cases around it.  But, we’ll get used to it.  I mean, people didn’t like the idea of putting their money in a bank for God’s sake, and we got used to it; I think the same thing will happen.

You brought up the Millennials – the digitised generation. What insights would you give them in being game-changers?”

Does any young adult ever want the advice of their elders?

I didn’t ask if they wanted it… :)

You know… I think, we laugh about it, but the reality is – and I think Jobs said it well: “Death is a wonderful invention because it allows us to get out of the way and let the next generation find their own way.”  I’m comforted by that; I find great peace in that notion.  They need to have the opportunity to fail and find their own way.  If I were born a Millennial, I’d be growing up in an environment that’s vastly different than mine.

Though, in the end, we are all born, we all die, and we all live a human experience in various ways, there are common threads there… the stories are the same for all of us.  I think those are the kinds of things that are passed on from generation to generation, but everything else is details.

I would not be surprised if the structuring of their brain is different to ours.  I’ve been talking to guys that are 10 – 15 years younger than me, and the ability to hold their train of thought over weeks or months – when you’re doing some serious development or research – they seem to find that extremely difficult.  So, I wonder if we’ll see any really big innovations coming through from those generations.

You could claim that it’s not just the web that’s done that, but it’s back to Sesame Street and the notion of bright, shiny objects that are in and out of our view in a very short time frame.  Certainly I think a case can be made that our brains are changing; we are co-evolving with computing – we truly are.

But, at the same time, throw me in the woods and I couldn’t find my way out of it easily; I can’t track myself well, I can’t tell you what things are good to eat and what things aren’t.  Those are survival skill that someone would have needed to have had a century or two ago.  So, my brain has changed in that regard, just as the Millennials’ brains are changing. Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? I’m not at a point to judge it, but it is a thing.

End of Part Two.  Part Three will be published next week – sign up for the blog and it will be delivered directly to your inbox!

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed. Be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where Grady’s lecture series will be posted.

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]

Zen and the Art of Software: The Innovation Interview with Grady Booch (Part 1)

One of the greatest things about ‘Flat World Navigating’ the internet, is that it enables connections with fascinating minds, even if from a distance.  If you are able to then reach out to those magnificent minds and invite them to have a chat – the encounter can be transformational.  Such was the case with Grady Booch, who is, I believe, a most genial genius – a man who brings Zen to Art of Software.

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14

I first encountered Grady Booch via his project, COMPUTING: The Human Experience, “a transmedia project engaging audiences of all ages in the story of the technology that has changed humanity.” I was immediately hooked on the concept, and wanted to discover the mega-mind who thought to pull this off.

In the pantheon of world-famous computer scientist’s, Grady Booch is the star who co-authored the Unified Modeling Language (UML) and was one of the original developers of object-oriented programming (OOP). That alone would be immensely impressive, but it is far from the end of Grady’s long list of credits, which include being an IBM Fellow (IBM’s highest technical position) and Chief Scientist for Software Engineering at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center.

In fact, he’s quite a fella, being a fellow the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the World Technology Network (WTN) as well as being a Software Development Forum Visionary and recipient of Dr. Dobb’s Excellence in Programming Award and three – yes three! – Jolt Awards .

There is a rumour (one which he doesn’t discuss), that Grady was approached to takeover from Bill Gates as by Microsoft’s chief software architect.  What is not a rumour, and what Grady does admit to, is that he taught himself to program in 1968 and had built his first computer a year earlier – at the age of 12.

He is the author of six books, hundreds of articles, and papers that originated in the term and practice of object-oriented design (OOD) and collaborative development environments (CDE), and the Booch Method of Software engineering. Grady serves on the advisory board of the International Association of Software Architects (IASA), the IEEE Software editorial boards and the board of the Computer History Museum.

Yes, with all that (and more) to his credit, Grady could quite comfortably sit on his laurels, and yet, instead he is the author, narrator and co-creator of what could be seen as a historical magnum opus of the technological world, COMPUTING: The Human Experience.

“At the intersection of humanity and technology is COMPUTING. From the abacus to the iPad, from Gutenberg to Google, from the Enigma machine designed to crack the codes of the Nazi SS to the Large Hadron Collider designed to crack the code of the universe, from Pong to Halo, we have created computing to count the uncountable, remember beyond our own experience, touch the invisible and see the unforeseeable. COMPUTING: The Human Experience is a brilliant and surprising insider view of the hidden stories of passion, greed, rebellion, rage and creation that created the technologies that are everywhere, transforming our world, our lives, and who we are as a species.”

Grady is not alone in this endeavour, working as he does with a tremendous creative team which includes, among others: Grammy Award winner, Seth Friedman; President of the Computer History Museum, John Hollar; and psychotherapist/theologian/social worker Jan Booch, Grady’s wife, co-writer and co-creator of this obvious labour of love. The series will include lectures, books, videos, an interactive website, and much more.

February 24, 2012 sees Grady launch the first in a series of lecture series at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California.  For those readers who are not lucky enough to be in the vicinity to attendWoven on the Loom of Sorrow: The Co-Evolution of Computing and Conflict’, I hope you will enjoy reading this multi-part Innovation Interview with Grady as much as Michael and I enjoyed talking to him!

Grady Booch: Capital I Interview Series – Number 14 

Grady, when I clicked on the link from your LinkedIn profile, I was extremely excited by the idea of the COMPUTING: The Human Experience and found it to be immensely interesting!  What made you feel that it was important to compute the human experience?

I think it has to do a lot of where I am in my life.  In the sense that I have nothing left to prove, if you will, and I could do what I want to do.  I could just happily fade away into an existence here.  But, I think part of it is wanting to give back to the community that has given so much to me; and being able to express to the general public my child-like joy and delight at what I do.  That’s why I think I chose to go down this path of telling the story.

In the end, I’m a story teller, and I think there is a story to be told here. There’s probably some other factors that happened that led me in this direction. Just random stories… A side conversation with one of our goddaughters…

We were talking to her about computing stuff, and she said:

“Oh, I know everything there is to know about computing. Because I’ve taken a class.”
“Oh, what did you learn?”
“Well, in my class we learned how to write a Word document and how to surf the web.”
I was like: “Oh, my gosh; there is so much more!”

It’s things like that that have led me to say… We’ve created this technology, and I’m responsible for helping create that technology, and we as a civilisation have chosen to step inside and live inside it. We’ve created a world and yet most of people in the world don’t understand it and can’t understand how to use it to their advantage.

I think my goal is: let’s open the curtain and explain some of that matter, and the mystery, beauty, excitement, and human stories that lead to it.

I think there is a lot of latent interest there, that is untapped at the moment.

I think so; I hope so.  Well, there is a lot of interest in anything.  Why do you think we still watch celebrities like Paris Hilton? It’s amazing what people get interested in.

But I think here is a topic that has profoundly changed humanity, and we are at the time and place where we can talk about it.  And the people who made these changes… many of them are still alive, so let’s get their stories and tell that to the world!

The phrase I often use is: “An educated populous is far better able to reconcile its past, reason about its present and shape its future.”  And I want to help contribute to educating that populous.

You don’t shy away from contentious topics, either. Such as: computing and war, computing and faith, and computing and politics. What are your thoughts on these subjects?

It’s interesting you called them controversial, because I see them as simply part of human experience.  The reality is that there are billions of people, a billion Muslims, a billion Christians, and lots of others who profess a faith of some sort.  So, to not talk about faith denies an element of the human experience; to not talk about war denies the existence of warfare.  It’s not intentionally controversial, it’s a recognition that this is part of the human experience, and that it’s reasonable for us to consider what role computing has played in it.

So, let’s take computing and war for example. This is the one that I’ll be giving my first lecture [Woven on the Loom of Sorrow: The Co-Evolution of Computing and Conflict] on at the Computer History Museum on February 24.  My premise is that war is part of the human experience, for better or worse.

By the way, a background you must recognise was that I trained to be a warrior.  I went to the Air Force Academy and I learned about war, and many of my classmates have killed people in anger in warfare.  It’s part of the life in which I have lived.

And yet, if you look at the parallel story of computing and warfare, the conclusion I draw is that computing was, at one time, a companion to warfare; it now is a means of warfare, and it’s quickly becoming a place of warfare.  I’d like to tell that story: an observation, from an insider, of how computing has both enabled and been shaped by warfare.

I think the average person would be surprised to know that your average smart phone, and a considerable amount of technology, exists simply because of what happened during the Cold War and World War II.

2012 is the centenary of Alan Turning's birth

There are surprises in those regards.  There are also some incredible personal stories. The tragic story of Alan Turing... [considered to be the father of computer science and AI]

Absolutely!

Who changed the course of World War II.  He saved a nation, and yet that very nation eventually condemned him because he was homosexual. Go figure!

Will the lecture be something that people around the world will be able to access?

Our intent is to make it available on our YouTube channel and the museum’s channel. And I believe the local PBS station, QED, has an interest in making it available on their channels as well.

Wonderful!

So, yeah, we’re going to see a wide distribution of this.  Ultimately, you can view this as the alpha (or beta) of what we’re trying to do with the series.  One of the main things we’d like to get out to the world is an eleven-part series for broadcast. This [lecture] is not the broadcast, but we’re talking about it and this is one of the lectures about it.

What is the end product, or goal, of the COMPUTING: The Human Experience project? Would you say that the series is the end product, or is it something that doesn’t necessarily have to have an end?

It won’t ever have an end because I hope we will develop a dialogue with the public that goes on far beyond this.

Look at Sagan’s Cosmos; it’s still being seen to this day.  I hope, and I certainly strive, to produce something as interesting and as timeless that.  So, I’ll put it in the terms of [political scientist] Herbert Simon:  ‘What our intermediate stable forms are‘…  We want to produce eleven one-hour episodes (that’s a big thing), have a book, an e-book, curriculum materials, some Aaps.  Those are the physical things we’ll actually be delivering.

To that end, you’ve already gone through one very successful Kickstarter funding round.  I’m sure there will be others, but, other than helping to fund the project, what can readers of the Innovation interviews do to help you, and the project, reach some of those goals?

I think there are two things: My wife Jan and I have self-funded this for the last four years, but we’ve now gone to funding, like with Kickstarter – the very process of doing a Kickstarter has brought a number of volunteers to us.  In the next few years, we need to raise about eleven-million dollars to pull this off.  We’re going to foundations, we’re talking to individuals, and we’ll continue on that path.

Grady and Jan Booch

In a recent interview with Grady, Darryl K. Taft noted, “Meanwhile, Jan’s role on the project is multi-faceted.  As a social worker, she attends to issues of multiculturalism, inclusivism and the impact computing has had on society.  As a psychotherapist, her focus is on how human desires and needs have shaped and continue to shape the development of computing technology.  As a theologian, her focus is on the moral and ethical issues found in the story of computing.  Finally, as a non-technical person, she assures that the stories will be approachable, understandable and interesting to the general public.”

Working on the book and lecture series allows us to continue story development in a very, very low-cost kind of way. So, one of the things that I hope people can do is to say: “Hey! I know a guy who knows a guy, who works for this person, and they may be interested.” I hope we can find some serendipitous connections to people with whom we can find some funding.

I know foundations within the US, but I don’t know what opportunities there are in other parts of the world; we’re telling a global story so I hope we can get some connections that way.

The second is: I hope that people will look at this and say: “This is interesting. I think you should tell this story or that story.”  And so I hope from this people will come to us and help inform us as to what they thing the world should know about.

[They hope to collect more than 2,000 human experience videos for their YouTube channel, so don’t be shy, make a video!]

Along with a magnificent creative team, you have an extremely eminent board for the COMPUTING: The Human Experience project. In particular, I must note Vint Cerf, who helped me kick off the Innovation interview series and really was integral in its initial success. How did you gather those people around you?

My philosophy is to surround myself with people far smarter than I am, because they know things that I will never know.  I want to be able to go to them for two reasons: one is as a source of information, and the second is as a source of contacts.

Tim O'Reilly

I reached out to this set of people and I’m going to be growing the board to around 20 or 30 total for people who have specific expertise and who have been game changers in certain domains.

I’ll give you a great example of how this has worked well: Vint, Tim O’Reilly and Mary Shaw have been particularly useful for me thus far, but for developing the lecture on computing and warfare, one of the people on my board is Lt. Gen. William Lord, who happens to be the Chief Information Officer and Chief War Fighting Officer of the Air Force.

Mary Shaw

He has helped me out because I wanted to get some information that simply doesn’t exist in ‘the literature’: what’s the current doctrine at the war colleges about the use of Predators… what are people thinking?  He put me in touch with people who have that source of information.

Lt. Gen. William Lord

Tim has been able to do similar kinds of things.  The computing community, at one level, is a relatively small community; we all kind of know all the movers and shakers.  Well, let’s get them to be a part of this, because I’m also celebrating their story!

You can learn more about Grady via the COMPUTING: The Human Experience website, Grady’s blog and his Twitter feed.

This is part one of a multi-part interview with Grady, be sure to look out for the next instalment – Part Two can be viewed here and part three here.

If you’re in the San Francisco area on the 24th of February, I heartily suggest you try and attend Grady’s lecture. If you, like me, are unable to attend, be sure to keep your eye on the COMPUTING: The Human Experience YouTube channel where the lectures will be posted.

[Note: the lecture has now been posted on the Computer History Museum YouTube channel.  Thanks  to John Hollar for letting us know!]

[Kim, Michael and Grady Skyped from their homes in Sydney and Hawaii.]


Antics with Semantics: The Innovation Interview with Semantics Pioneer, Ora Lassila

Wanting to speak to someone, both interesting and inspiring, about the Semantic Web and Innovation, Ora Lassila, an Advisory Board Member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as well as Senior Architect and Technology Strategist for Nokia‘s Location and Commerce Unit, was the obvious ‘go to guy’.

A large part of Ora’s career has been focussed on  the Semantic Web as it applies to mobile and ubiquitous computing at the Nokia Research Center (NRC), where he, among many things, authored ‘Wilbur’, the NRC’s Semantic Web toolkit.   As impressive as that is, as I did my research, finding out more about Ora, the more fascinating he, and his career, became to me.

Ora is one of the originators of the Semantic Web, having been working within the domain since 1996.  He is the co-author (with Tim Berners-Lee and James Hendler) of the, to date, most cited paper in the field, ‘The Semantic Web’.  Ora even worked on the knowledge representation system ‘SCAM’,  which, in 1999, flew on a NASA Deep Space 1 probe.

Leading up to our attendance and presentation at the Berlin Semantic Tech and Business Conference, Michael- the true ‘tech head’ of KimmiC – and I were extremely pleased that Ora, ‘the Mac Daddy’ of the Semantic Web, gave us so much of his time.   I hope you find our conversation with him as interesting as we did!

[I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us - though, I think it will become obvious as you read - lol!]

Ora Lassila (photo credit: Grace Lassila)

Ora Lassila: Capital I Interview Series – Number 13

Lets start out by talking about Innovation in general, and we’ll move on to the Semantic Web as we go along.   As this is the Innovation Interview Series, the ‘baseline’ question is always: how do you define Innovation?

Good question.  I think many people do not make a clear distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’.

To me, ‘innovation’ is something that not only includes some new idea or ideas, but also encompasses the deployment and adoption of such.  You can invent clever new things, but if you don’t figure out how to get people to use those new things, you have fallen short of the mark.

How essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being, going forward?

It has been important.  A big part of my professional career was spent in a corporate research lab, where inventing new things was less of a challenge than getting these inventions ‘transferred’ to those parts of the corporation that had more capability in promoting their adoption and deployment.

That said, I have learned that ‘technology transfer’ is not always about taking concrete pieces of technology, software for example, and handing them over to someone else for productization.  Sometimes the transfer is more ‘insidious’ and involves influencing how people in your organisation – or outside your organisation – think and see the world.

I would claim that some of my early work on the Semantic Web absolutely fits this definition.  So writing, publishing and talking all constitute viable means.  Also, we should not forget that people need to be inspired.  You cannot just tell them what to do, instead, they have to want to do it.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?

I am not kidding when I say that the absolute biggest obstacle is communication.  That is, we should learn to communicate our ideas better to be able to convince people and to inspire them.  I have much to learn in this area.

Who and what inspires you? Where do you look for inspiration?

I have no good or definite answer for that.  When I was younger I was really inspired by the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva whose simple yet radical idea about aircraft – the ‘autogiro’ – paved the way for the adoption of helicopters.  And yet, one might argue that, in many ways helicopters are a far more complicated and complex technology than de la Cierva’s original invention.

Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, 1st Count of De La Cierva

I am inspired by simplicity… I strive to create and design things that are simple, or at least not any more complicated than necessary.

What are, in your view, the current emerging critical trends in Innovation and technology?

I like openness, things like open-source software as well as Open Access and sharing of data as part of the scientific process.  I am hoping we see a fundamental change in how research is done.  In many ways we have progressed to a point where many problems are so complex that they are beyond a single researcher’s or research group’s capacity and capability to tackle.

Also, on the topic of openness, I like some of the recent developments in open government, e-Government, and such.

And what are some of the coolest mobile technologies you’re seeing launched? 

I am much enamoured with the idea that mobile technologies – particularly via the use of GPS, etc. – ‘ground’ many services to the physical world.  There are many uses for location information, uses that help me in my everyday life.

Furthermore, by making the mobile device better understand the current ‘context’, not only geographically but also by making use of other observations about the physical world (movement, sound, etc.), we can make applications and services better for users.

Do you think we will have a ‘meshed up’ world that effectively bypasses the stranglehold telcos have on infrastructure?

I don’t necessarily agree that the telcos have a ‘stranglehold’.   They provide an important service and a critical investment in an infrastructure I don’t really see us living without.

But we need things like ‘net neutrality’ to make sure that this infrastructure really serves people in an open and non-discriminatory way.  in this regard I am also concerned about more recent legislative attempts [SOPA, PIPA, ACTA] that (perhaps unintentionally) will hurt the overall technical function of the Internet.

It seems that current Web based business models are founded on the idea that businesses have the right to record everything about users/consumers and profit from this information.  Do you think this is a sustainable business model, or do you think the user/consumer will start to think that they, and their data, is worth something and begin to demand recompense of some sort?

There are very few fundamentally different, viable, business models on the Web, so I can see that businesses would want to cash in on user data.  It is only a matter of time before the consumers ‘wise up’ and understand the value of their own data.  Personally I think we should aim at ‘business arrangements’ where all parties benefit.  This includes concrete benefits to the user, perhaps in a way where the user is a bona fide business partner rather than just someone we collect data about.

It is important to understand that what’s at stake here is not only how some user data could be monetized, it is also about users’ privacy.  Luckily I work for an organisation [Nokia] that takes consumer privacy very seriously.

You’ve got a fascinating history, and seem to have gotten into the Semantic Web at the very beginning.

The very, very beginning, yes.  I think I can argue that I’ve been doing this longer than the term has actually existed.

In ’96 I went to work at MIT…  I’d just been hired by Nokia, and they wanted to send somebody to MIT as a kind of visiting faculty member.   So, I worked in Tim Berners-Lee’s team, and one day he asked me what I thought was wrong with the web.

Tim Berners-Lee

Just a small question.

Yeah, not intimidating at all.

I said: “My hope has been to be able to build,” – what then would have been called agents, autonomous agents – and I said: “I can’t really do that because the web was built for humans and human consumption.  I would really, really like to see a web that was more amenable for consumption by automated systems.”

And he [Berners-Lee] said: “Yeah, that’s it! Now, how do we fix that?”

And I went: “Well, how about we try knowledge representation and apply that to web technologies.”  Because knowledge representation is a branch of artificial intelligence that has a long history of taking information and representing it in such a way that you can reason about it then draw conclusions from it… things like that.  We agreed that I would look into that, and that’s really how I got into all this.

Of course I had worked on various projects before that, that involved ontologies and knowledge representation, it just wasn’t done on the web.   The big reason being that the web had not really been invented yet.

There was Cyc and some other AI [Artificial Intelligence] things before that… 

Cyc is a very good example of an attempt to build a very large ontology that would encompass common sense knowledge.  But there are many examples of systems that used ontologies in one way or another for narrower domains.  Cyc was an overly ambitious project, in the sense that they really wanted to cover a lot of ground in terms of human knowledge.

I had worked on several projects in the past that applied ontologies to things like planning industrial production, or planning logistics.  So, the question really was, could you build a model of the world that was rich enough and precise enough that a system could use that knowledge to create plans for various things.  In my case those were plans for either how to run industrial production, or large fleets of logistics’ resources.

You were a long, long way in front of everybody else… at least ten years.  It’s incredible!

One might argue too far ahead.

I think at that time most people were just trying to come to grips with basic HTTP and web servers.  If you look at the vested interests, especially of software providers at that time… I guess it wasn’t really the right timing. But I think that time is coming now.

Yeah, I think we’re in a better position now and we’ve certainly seen a lot of adoption of Semantic Web technologies in the last few years.

I think elements of semantic are brilliant.   RDF, for example, is one of the smartest ways I’ve ever seen of describing something.  You can’t break the way semantics talks about something, whereas you can break the interpretation easily in XML.

I start to lose traction with it when it gets towards ontologies.  Do you think that ‘splitting the message’ would help with adoption?  For instance, you can use ontologies, but there is also a part of semantics which is brilliant for just doing ‘business as usual’?

I think there is a fairly broad spectrum of possible ways of making use of this technology.  I’m sure you’ve seen diagrams of the so called layer cake, with the different technologies layered on top of one another.

A Semantic Web Stack (layer cake) [image created by Tim Berners-Lee

I think that it’s up to you to decide how far up that layered structure you want to go.  There are a lot of applications where very simple use of just some of the most basic technologies will give you a lot of benefit.  And then there are other problems where you may actually want to separate a lot of the understanding of your domain from your actual executing code…  for those kinds of things, encapsulating that knowledge in the form of a potentially very complex ontology may be a good way to go.

My issue with ontologies is exactly the same issue I have with the current enterprise software providers… If you talk about mass adoption, as opposed to just specific domain adoption, for every extra entity – be it a class or data table – you decrease your adoption exponentially.   And, once you go up to higher levels, you shouldn’t assume you’re the only person that has a valid way of looking at the world, though you may be using the same data.  I think we’re saying the same thing…

Absolutely.  The interesting thing to say about the current enterprise software providers, I think, is that they have one model of the way to look at the world.   There are cases where companies have had to change the way they do business in order to adopt the enterprise software [currently available].

You have two choices: you either do it their way or else you spend a few million bucks and you do it their way anyhow.

I think that there is a possibility, with these Semantic Web technologies, of getting into more flexible uses of information and I kind of like that idea.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in our ability to share information.  When you start talking about sharing it becomes really dangerous to have very complex, strictly defined semantics.  Because, like you said, other people might have a different interpretation of things.

But you want to nail some things down.  Understanding something about [the] information would give you a baseline for interoperating.  And then, you could do ‘better’ interoperation if you had a better definition of the meaning of the information.

I agree with you about understanding information.  But I think where most things fall to pieces – and this is also looking at business model languages and stuff – as soon as you get anywhere near processes with that information, it goes to hell pretty quickly. 

Exactly.  I spent a few years, at the beginning of the previous decade, working on a large Semantic Web research program funded by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].  I was part of an effort to see if we could use ontological technologies to model web services.

Is that DAML and stuff like that?

Exactly; DAML, and DAML-S for services.  We very quickly got into process modeling; and those kinds of things get very difficult…

Very quickly.

Absolutely.  I think that’s the thing that still needs work.

The traditional approach to anything process-oriented just doesn’t work unless you have very tight coupling and a very controlled domain.  But I think there are a lot of different ways of trying to solve the same problem without having to get to that level.

I think that one of the things that is missing from the whole Semantic Web collection of specifications is this notion of action… a notion of behaviour.  It’s hard to model, but I think that we ought to work on that some more.

We [KimmiC/FlatWorld] have taken a more hybrid approach, so we use things like REST architecture, and a lot of stuff from the business world, in terms of authentication and authorisation. 

Sure.  I’m not in any way advocating the use of the WS_* collection of technologies. I’m not a big fan of those.

I’ve looked at all the SOAP stuff and there are a lot of problems… like business process deployment.  It is a nightmare to deploy these technologies.  It’s even more of a nightmare to load balance them.

Right.

Essentially, if you’re looking for dynamic relationships – be it in business or whatever – they’re just useless for that sort of thing.  They’re always designed around having control of a large domain space; this is especially true when it comes to deployment of applications.  I just think they’ve missed the point. 

I think the web is the best example of a redundant, massively-distributed application; and we need to look at it more as, “That’s the model,” and we have to work with it.

Absolutely.  I think that for 20 years there have been discussions about these sorts of ad hoc enterprises, or collections of smaller companies, being able to very quickly orchestrate themselves around a particular mission [purpose].  But I think that these technologies, just like you said, are probably not the right answer.

When you wrote your 2009 position paper you noted that rather than languages, the  biggest issues or problems facing the uptake of the Semantic Web were 1. Selling the idea; and 2.  A decent user interface.

Why did you feel that was the case then; and, has your opinion changed regarding these issues in the two+ years since you wrote your paper? 

Semantic Web technologies are well suited to situations where you cannot necessarily anticipate everything – say, about the conditions and context in which an application is used, or which kind of data an application might have available to it.  It is like saying that this is a technology for problems we are yet to articulate.  Sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and the problem in ‘selling’ Semantic Web technologies is often about the fact that once a problem has been clearly articulated, there are many possible technologies that can be used to solve it.

The issue I have with user interfaces and the user experience is the following: Semantic Web technologies – or more generally, ‘ontological’ technologies – give us a way to represent information in a very expressive manner… that is, we can have rich models and representations of the world.  I feel that user interface technology has a hard time matching this expressiveness.  This issue is related to what I said earlier about not being able to anticipate all future situations; writing software that can handle unanticipated situations is hard.

All that said, I don’t like the term ‘Semantic Web applications’.  Users shouldn’t have to care, or need to know, that Semantic Web technologies were used.  These are just useful things in our toolbox when developing applications and services.

What are the key challenges that have to be solved to bring those two problems together?

I am really looking for new programming models and ways to add flexibility.  This is not only a technical problem, we also need to change how people think about software and application development.  I have no silver bullets here.

How do you see applications developing in the next few years – compared to the current environment – as you have mention we have to shift our minds from an application that ‘owns and controls’ it’s own data rather than simply interacting with data?

I think, again, this is about changing how people think about application development.  And, more specifically, I would like to see a shift towards data that carries with it some definition of its semantics.

This was one of the key ideas of the Semantic Web, that you could take some data, and if you did not understand it, there would be ‘clues’ in the data itself as to where to go to find what that data means.

As I see it, the semantics of some piece of data either come from the relationship this data has with other data – including some declarative, ‘machine-interpretable’ definition of this data, for example, an ontology – or are ‘hard-wired’ in the software that processes the data.  In my mind, the less we have the latter, and the more we have the former, the better.

In previous interviews you’ve noted that you feel users should have a say “in how they view  information.”  Do you think that users should become involved in making the semantic web more ‘usable’? And if so, how?

I think users should demand more.  There needs to be a clear ‘market need’ for more flexible ways of interacting with information.  User experience is a challenge.

On this topic, I also want to point out how unhappy I am with the modern notion of an ‘app’.  Many apps I have seen tend to merely encapsulate information that would be much better offered through the Web, allowing inter-linking of different content, etc. It kind of goes with what I said earlier about openness…

There’s a lot of guys saying they can plug two systems together easily, but it almost always means at the data level.   It doesn’t really work once you start applying context on top of it.

I’d like to see a middle ground where we have partial interoperability between systems, because that’s how humans interact.

That’s something we’re looking at as well.  I view it like this: when I go through Europe, I can speak a little bit of German, a little bit of French. I’m not very good, but I have to have a minimal level of semantic understanding to get what I want: to get a beer.  I don’t have to understand the language completely, just enough, in context, to act on it.

Speaking of acting on things… Ora, where are you going with semantics in the future?

That’s a good question. Right now I’m working on some problems of big data analytics.

With semantics?

Nokia is investing in large-scale analytics, so I’m in the middle of that right now.

I’m currently looking at how to tackle the problem of how to bootstrap behaviour.  Behaviour and notions of action are not well-tackled in the space of the Semantic Web, and I’d really like to get into bringing two information systems in contact with one another, and have them figure out how to interoperate.

That’s very ambitious.

Right.  And I’m not entirely sure if people understand that that’s an important question to tackle.

Oh, it’s an important question to tackle; it’s just more a question of… Again, you’re very far ahead of the game.

Well, I think that today, if you want to make systems A and B interoperate, it’s usually a large engineering undertaking.  So, it’s directly related to the question of separating information from applications…  you could pick the applications you like and take the information that you’re interested in and make something happen.  In terms of interoperating systems, right now we have a situation where we either have full interoperability, or we have nothing… we have no middle ground.

You can learn more about Ora via his website, blog and  Twitter feed.

[Kim, Michael and Ora Skyped from their homes in Boston and Sydney.]

[This interview has been translated into the Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich of Webhostinggeeks.com]