The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

Last October, I described the reasons why companies need to look beyond advertising, marketing, and PR to experience the full benefit of social media technologies. In November, I discussed the importance of seeking the 10X business solution instead of blindly shoehorning new technologies into existing business practices. Today, I want to expand upon both of them by addressing a fundamental question that anyone running a business should ask themselves.

Technology and Management

Successful businesses are built upon efficiencies. The most competitive companies solve problems faster, cheaper, or deliver higher quality products and services than their competition. Technology has played a pivotal role in the quest for efficiencies. For example, innovations in water-power and automation led to the Industrial Revolution, which in turn established the basis of the modern corporation. For the past two-hundred years, management decisions surrounding technological advances have been driven by the premise that efficiency is attained through centrally locating resources such as capital, matériel, and labor.

Until recently.

New technologies are chipping away at this premise and opening a new field of thought. Is it possible that the road to corporate efficiency may actually run through the decentralization of corporate resources instead?

Many Hands Make Light Work

For two centuries, management’s role has been to steward centrally located resources. Good managers distribute work among employees, monitor their progress, and ultimately ensure that the work product is completed optimally. During this era, automation squeezed inefficiencies from centrally-located corporate resources, in turn obsoleting employee jobs (the resource) while sparing managerial jobs (the resource stewards).

The emergence of social technologies, however, has changed the rules. Not only have they opened access to distributed labor forces, but network technologies have introduced automation into tasks once reserved for managers. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, for example, divides large projects into small tasks, distributes those tasks to a networked labor force, and then assembles the completed tasks into a final work product.

But, what if we took the concept of distributed labor to the next level? What if we combined rapidly dropping hardware costs, popular social networking technologies, and automation to create an application-specific network? Might such a system give companies the ability to tackle problems that were once considered impossible through resource centralization?

Networked Hands Make Even Lighter Work

The moment that the Fukushima nuclear power plant released radiation into the air last March, Japanese citizens were forced to deal with the worst type of terror–an invisible, tasteless, odorless, and potentially deadly foe. They immediately wanted to know the answer to three questions:

  1. How much radiation was released?
  2. How far did the radiation travel?
  3. What were the health risks associated with a particular level of exposure?

Simple questions, yet who could they turn to for reliable answers?

Typically, the responsibility to build a country-wide radiation detection network falls to large, centralized organizations…like a government.  Unfortunately, while governments posses the resources required to build such networks, historically, they’re rarely the best arbiters of sensitive information. So, that’s when a worldwide group of concerned individuals considered using modern technologies to build their own. Just one week after the tsunami hit, a newly formed nonprofit organization called Safecast took on the challenge. Their goal was to gather radiation data and place it into the hands of the people who needed it most.

The organization’s top priority was gaining access to cheap, portable, radiation sensors. After creating a design based on an open source hardware platform, Safecast turned to Kickstarter to fund its manufacture. In the project’s Kickstarter Video, David Ewald explains, “The long-term goal of this project is to create a network of radiation sensors that can provide real-time data both in times of crisis and beyond.”

Over six-hundred people from around the world responded to the request, donating $36,900 to build these sensors. So far, the organization reports that it has collected over 1.25 million pieces of data.

But there’s a difference between collecting data and making it useful for the people who need it. Safecast publishes a page that contains six different radiation maps, each created from various (distributed) sources. For example, blogger and OpenIdeo founder, Haiyan Zhang, took the live streaming data coming out of data aggregator Pachube and piped it into Google Maps to create a real-time view of the radiation cloud over Japan. Similarly, other third-parties created maps that mixed and matched data from not only Safecast’s mobile and fixed readings, but also data from the Japanese government, non-government organizations, and activist citizens. The diversity of these maps creates a validation; if you don’t believe the data from a specific source, it’s easy to compare its readings with those from other sources. The net result is information that Japanese citizens can use to make life decisions.

To Decentralize or Not to Decentralize?

The Safecast story offers a new lens for companies to view their businesses through.

  • The organization was formed in one week to solve a problem that probably would have been impossible to solve just a few years ago.
  • It raised $36,900 in start-up capital through distributed funding.*
  • It used the data aggregation services of Pachube to harness the power of distributed data sources.
  • It welcomed the distributed labor services of concerned global citizens, who in turn used their talents to translate raw data into a human-readable form.
  • It proved that the solution to this type of problem is best served by a decentralized as opposed to a centralized approach.

Companies should consider these lessons by asking the following question:

Can social networking technologies help us create new products and services, or at least help us deliver our existing ones much more efficiently?

Perhaps this question will help lead your company to its next 10X solution.


Photo Credits: Mill Girl: Library of Congress, Interpolation Map: Lionel Bergeret

* Five months later, The Knight Foundation added $250,000 to the cause.


[…] creative logjams is to focus on solving specific problems. Why must we rely on the government to monitor the radiation from a nuclear power plant? What exactly is the water quality in my home town? If we could put accelerometers into every high […]

RonAmok! » iEngineer
February 1, 2012

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