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Should BP crowdsource solutions to solve the Gulf oil spill?

Clifford Krauss of the New York Times reports on BP’s latest effort to cap the oil leak, called “top kill”. He notes the following:

The consequences for BP are profound: A successful capping of the leaking well could finally begin to mend the company’s brittle image after weeks of failed efforts, and perhaps limit the damage to wildlife and marine life from reaching catastrophic levels.

A failure could mean several months more of leaking oil, devastating economic and environmental impacts across the gulf region, and mounting financial liabilities for the company. BP has already spent an estimated $760 million in fighting the spill, and two relief wells it is drilling as a last resort to seal the well may not be completed until August.

Let’s hope for the best. Given the challenges of the previous efforts, it sounds like it will take a monumental effort to stop the leaking well.

Which begs a question…should BP be tapping a larger set of minds to help solve the leaking well? Can they crowdsource a solution?

In a way, they’re already doing it. Sort of. You can call an idea hotline to suggest ways to stop the oil. They even have the number posted on their home page.

But why not take it a step further? A formal crowdsourcing effort. I’ve heard that the folks at Innocentive asked this on an NPR report. Another vendor also pitched its idea management software, however BP didn’t bite. Spigit hasn’t pitched BP, but would certainly be willing to help.

There are some very good reasons to open it more publicly, and cast a call across the globe for ideas:

  • Diversity of ideas increases the odds of finding something that will be useful
  • While no one idea may solve it, visibility (as opposed to private phone calls) increases the odds of finding parts of ideas that lead to viable solutions
  • The brain power of enthusiastic participants across the globe is a good match to BP’s in-house experts
  • Potentially a good PR move, as the company demonstrates that it’s leaving no stone unturned to solve the leak

Crowdsourcing has proven its value in other endeavors, such as products, government services, technical problems and marketing. Surely it could do well here. But what might hold BP back? Three reasons:

  1. Little previous experience with crowdsourcing
  2. Deep technical domain experience is required
  3. Site becomes a place for public criticism

Are they valid? Let’s see.

Little Previous Crowdsourcing Experience

If a company hasn’t previously mastered open innovation and crowdsourcing, a crisis is a hell of a time to give it a go. This is far from comprehensive, but I did find a couple examples of BP’s forways in the world of crowdsouring and open innovation.

Headshift wrote up a case study about BP’s Beacon Awards. The internal awards recognize innovative marketing initiatives, and BP created a site for employees to submit ideas and vote on them. This example has a couple elements of note:

  • It’s an internal effort, where “mistakes” can be made as the company gets comfortable with the process of crowdsourcing
  • It was for marketing ideas in a time of relative calm, not time-is-ticking ideas during a crisis

BP also touts its open innovation efforts. Open innovation means working with others outside your organization to come up with new ways of tackling problems. In  a post on its website, it discusses its work with partners:

The need to work with others to solve tricky problems has most likely been around since humans learned to communicate, pooling their skills to achieve a desired mutual goal. In today’s world, collaboration between partner organisations has become highly sophisticated, particularly so in the energy industry where new challenges abound, be those in security of supply, cleaner energy sources, or the bringing together of different scientific and engineering disciplines to focus on a common problem.

Certainly the oil spill qualifies as a tricky problem.

So BP has experience in crowdsourcing internally on marketing ideas, and in open innovation with academia and industry partners. Not too shabby, and that argues for their having a favorable disposition toward crowdsourcing.

Deep Technical Domain Expertise Is Required

OK, I’ll admit. I have no idea how I’d stop the oil leak. Maybe I could come up with an idea as I give my kids a bath (“so you take the rubber duckie, and move it over the drain…”).

The BP oil leak occurred deep underwater, an area subject to different conditions than oil companies have had to deal with. BP is sparing no level of expertise to fix the issue, reports the New York Times:

Several veterans of that operation are orchestrating technicians in the Gulf of Mexico. To lead the effort, BP has brought in Mark Mazzella, its top well-control expert, who was mentored by Bobby Joe Cudd, a legendary Oklahoma well firefighter.

Didn’t even know one could be a legendary well firefighter. But the challenges of doing this in the Gulf are different. Popular Mechanics has a scorecard of each previous effort by BP to stop the leaking well. Do you remember one effort called “The Straw”? It is capturing a part of the oil, siphoning it to a surface ship. But it’s not without its risks:

The real gamble was in the original insertion—the damaged riser’s structural integrity is unknown, and any prodding could have worsened the spill, or prevented any hope of other riser- or BOP-related fixes.

Given the highly technical nature of these efforts, and the myriad complexities, does it make sense to crowdsource? I’d say it does, in that a proposed idea need not satisfy all elements of risk mitigation and possible complications. That puts too high a burden on idea submitters. Start with the idea, let the domain experts evaluate its feasibility.

Keep in  mind that people outside a company can solve technical challenges. Jeff Howe wrote in Wired about the guy who tinkers in a one-bedroom apartment above an auto body shop. This guy solved a vexing problem for Colgate involving the insertion of fluoride powder into a toothpaste tube.

Site Becomes a Place for Public Criticism

If BP were to set up a public site that allows anyone to participate, I can guarantee that some percentage of ideas and comments will be devoted to excoriating BP. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if much of it became that. A free-for-all that has nothing to do with solving the oil well leak.

A public forum receiving press attention during an extreme crisis presents angry individuals with a too-tempting target to make mischief. BP could spend more time deleting or responding to comments than getting much from it. The anger is too strong, too visceral on the part of many across the world.

Charlene Li talks about meeting criticism head-on in her book Open Leadership. Perhaps one way BP could handle this would be to set up a companion forum where criticism could be moved to. Keep an idea site dedicated to just that…ideas.

But I can see how BP understandably would not want to deal with such a site, as it potentially becomes a major PR pain on top of the existing maelstrom.

This reason strikes me as the one most likely to keep BP away from a crowdsourcing initiative to complement their other efforts. What do you think? Should BP be crowdsourcing solutions to the Gulf oil spill?

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Wanted: Cars that Use Collective Intelligence to Improve Driving

Credit: woodleywonderworks

Every week, I drive in my car from Pleasanton, CA to San Francisco. You get some time to think when you make that drive. An idea that has occurred to me is…

We ought to be making better use of the data our cars generate.

It could make a difference in term of driver awareness, and safety.

This notion is consistent with something I heard Tim O’Reilly describe at the Web 2.0 Summit  last year: “web squared”. Which is an odd sounding term, I’ll admit.

Odd, but important. Here’s how O’Reilly and John Battelle describe “web squared” in a white paper:

The Web is no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describe something in the world. Increasingly, the Web is the world – everything and everyone in the world casts an “information shadow,” an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mind bending implications. Web Squared is our way of exploring this phenomenon and giving it a name.

In the white paper, the increased use of sensors is a driver of this new trend. Sensors can track data on machinery and objects that can be turned into collective intelligence. Stanford futurist Paul Saffo sees sensors as the next great wave of technology innovation.

That’s some background for you. Now…how would this web squared collective intelligence be applied to driving?

Useful Data Goes Uncollected

As we drive, our cars produce a treasure trove of information:

  • Speed
  • Braking
  • Use of windshield wipers
  • Windshield wiper cleaning fluid usage
  • Steering wheel turning
  • Headlight usage

But none of it is collected. We see it, control it, on board as we drive. But that’s it. It’s not shared with anyone else. It’s just something we do while we drive.

Turning this Data into Collective Intelligence for Better Driving

Here’s what I would love to see. We’re driving along, and quietly, various data about our cars is collected and transmitted to the cloud. This data is tabulated in real-time. What such a system is looking for variances. Points of change. Because it’s these points of change that present the biggest headaches and safety issues for drivers.

Below are several ways that the data from cars can be used for effective collective intelligence to make driving safer.

Data Benefit
Speed Alert that traffic slows dramatically in 5 miles
Braking Alert that cars are slamming their brakes in 1 mile
Windshield wipers High frequency wipers in use 1 mile ahead
Wiper cleaning fluid Drivers unexpectedly cleaning windshield in 1 mile
Steering wheel turning Drivers veering sharply left in 1 mile
Headlights Drivers turning on headlights in 1 mile

Notice the way this should work. Not an alert for conditions right where you are. After all, you’ll know about those. It’s what’s coming up ahead of you where the value of such a system would work.

In the examples above, I imagine alerts for things happening 1 mile ahead, or even 5 miles. There’d be a visual and audio system of alerts. Think of it like a Twitter stream. Of data about conditions ahead. It’d generally be quiet, unobtrusive. Unless something materially changes in the road ahead of the driver. Kind of like a Garmin GPS unit telling you to “turn right in 1 mile”.

Such a system would take full advantage of GPS. As the data is relayed from cars, their location is noted. As a person drives, her location is noted, and plotted relative to identified upcoming changes.

Collective Intelligence Works at Scale

Collective intelligence requires a reasonably high participation rate to be of value. Sporadic, spot updates don’t provide sufficient data for this desired innovation to work.

Which means these systems would need to be built into cars. On-board computers that systematically track these variables and have the ability to transmit them to satellites. Like a Garmin GPS or GM OnStar unit.

And since scale is required, you’d want common standards among the automakers – GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, etc. No need to balkanize such a system.

It’s Just an Idea

As I noted at the start of this post, it’s just an idea for now. But it seems like a really good application of the web squared concept. I’d love to have better information on driving conditions, and there’s a wealth of data that can provide highly localized reports. We just need to be able to tap it.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 051410

From the home office in outer space, where I’m blogging from the space shuttle Atlantis’s final mission

#1: RT @georgedearing Pilot advertisers happy with initial results from Twitter’s new ad program // http://bit.ly/twittermarketers // #fb [ADWEEK]

#2: The debate about pilot projects in social business http://bit.ly/c3EViV by @leebryant #e20

#3: RT @amyjokim How to build a sustainable community http://bit.ly/bJtkes (practical tips for hands-on community management)

#4: Applies to enterprises as well: RT @sidburgess How Cul-de-Sacs Are Killing Your Community http://bit.ly/cGg6yi #e20

#5: Does Reputation Ranking Make a Difference in Idea Management? (via Spigit blog) http://bit.ly/cfPWa0 #innovation #e20 #reputation

#6: Customer Suggestions: When to Listen, When to Ignore >> Pragmatic Marketing #innovation http://post.ly/fMoz

#7: RT @jorgebarba Game-based marketing takes off from frequent flyer programs to social media | VentureBeat http://ff.im/-k2bW1

#8: Noticing an uptick in Foursquare friend requests lately.

#9: Would love a laptop like this: Future Designer laptop – ROLLTOP http://bit.ly/dkypIY

#10: My kindergarten son made this “spy” laptop computer today – no Flash support though… http://twitpic.com/1nk9pw

Foursquare Check-in Etiquette

Anyone remember the early complaints about Twitter? That people were posting updates about what they’re eating for lunch? Robert Scoble noted this phenomenon in a blog post from last September about Twitter’s rise:

It tells me that Twitter isn’t lame anymore. Remember those days when Twitter was for telling all your friends you were having a tuna sandwich at Subway in Half Moon Bay?

I do.

Yes, Twitter has grown up and become much more than the report of what you’re eating for lunch. Which brings us to Foursquare and Gowalla.

These services are in their early stages, with Foursquare outnumbering Gowalla four-to-one in members. Some of us are experimenting with these location-based services. For me personally, it feels like those early days of Twitter (“What should I tweet?”).

The biggest difference since my early Twitter days is that I’ve got more experience with this sharing behavior, and I’m comfortable trying different approaches.

With that in mind, I wanted to describe some early thoughts on Foursquare and Gowalla etiquette.

The Check-in Sharing Hierarchy

Louis Gray wrote a post recently asking whether people are censoring their check-ins to maintain hipster cred. It’s a good, if somewhat painful, examination of the fact that we do have some serious hum-drum in our lives. People’s comments on the post are illuminating, as some admit this behavior, but also note that they don’t want to bore everyone.

There are three levels of sharing check-ins that Foursquare provides (Gowalla only has the latter two):

The three levels each have their own unique use cases, and their own check-in etiquette.

Share It with No One

I’ve done this before. I check in, but I don’t share it with anyone. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Just maintaining a record of my days’ activities
  2. Like to stay on top of the mayorships, badges and points

See, a valuable use case of checking in with Foursquare and Gowalla is the maintenance of a personal activity history. The combination of GPS location, pre-existing locations and one-click check-in makes it quite easy to create your personal record. Now, some of those check-ins are less-than-interesting. Like…

Checking in at a gas station

Now it may be boring, but I’ll bet there’s a badge out there for multiple gas station check-ins. Maybe someone will earn a Gas Guzzler badge (as opposed to the Douchebag badge). It’s all part of the fun. A festooned Foursquare profile.

But there is a role for curating your check-ins. I really don’t need to know about your gas station check-ins. That applies to my interests, and it applies to what I assume to be the interests of my connections on the location-based services. Sure, share your whereabouts, but please have some mercy on those who follow you. We successfully graduated past the “What are you eating for lunch?” stage of Twitter.

And good luck with that Gas Guzzler badge.

Share Only with Foursquare, Gowalla Connections

People that follow you on Foursquare and Gowalla are participating in another aspect of location-based social networks. The “keeping tabs” aspect. You see what others are doing in the course of their day. For instance, I was able to see that Techcrunch’s MG Siegler was in Japan a few weeks back, via his various Gowalla updates.

One commenter on Louis Gray’s blog post noted this use case:

I’ve also found a use case in ethically “stalking” various tech pundits (I hate that word) and found a couple of high value events I would otherwise have missed.

Personally, I look at things like work check-ins as de rigeur for this level of sharing. Whereas gas station check-ins may bore your connections, the work stuff is of greater interest. I’ll often see CEO Eugene Lee’s check-ins at Socialtext headquarters. As head of a major software company, I’m sure he has to travel a fair amount. So the check-ins to HQ tell me he’s working away in the office.

I check in to Spigit every day. Proud to say I’m the Foursquare “mayor” of Spigit, oh yes. But I’m competing with several colleagues for that title. I share these check-ins with my Foursquare and Gowalla connections.

But not with my Twitter/Facebook connections. Those folks didn’t decide to follow me based on my daily work check-ins.

Share with Twitter, Facebook Friends

However, I do share check-ins, even mundane ones, on Twitter at times. I’ll explain in a second.

First, interesting ones are a no-brainer. Should you find yourself with Anne Hathaway at a post-Oscars party, by all means, share that check-in! Or maybe you’re in a working session at the White House. Definitely passes the interestingness test.

There’s also a good use case for alerting your wider social networks as to your location for meet-ups. It’s a commonly cited use case for Foursquare/Gowalla.

However, I’ll admit as a father with a full-time job and a mortgage, my “interesting” check-ins are few and far between, and I rarely am trying to connect with others at Trader Joe’s. And I’m not alone. The majority of people will have mundane check-ins as they go about daily life.

It’s making the mundane interesting where the Foursquare/Gowalla art is.

Create “tweetable” check-ins. What’s going on around you that would be worth sharing? What will some people on Twitter and Facebook find interesting?

It’s something I do, and I admit it’s a bit of a game for me. “What can I tweet with this check-in?” I find it forces me to observe what’s around me, or step back from where I am consider the larger moment.

A couple examples below:

I’ll never do a straight  tweet of my check-in at a BART station. At least, I won’t unless I fat finger my iPhone, that is. But if I can report out the unusually cold weather we’re experiencing, yeah, tweet that!

As I said above, we’re early in this location-based check-in thing. Consider the observations above a start.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 050710

From the home office at the New York Stock Exchange, where I said “Sell Google shares, not a googol shares!”

#1: Li: CEOs have five things they focus on every day. Your “open leadership” and social strategies need to relate to one of them. #socialc20

#2: Surowiecki: The presence of a single dissenter makes a group smarter. Key? Can’t be same person dissenting every time. #feiboston

#3: Surowiecki: Having crowd diversity – cognitive & heuristics diversity – is critical to crowd assessment of ideas. #feiboston

#4: Channeling @cshirky here: “It’s Not Idea Overload. It’s Filter Failure.” (via Spigit blog) http://bit.ly/bJkyf8 #innovation #crowdsourcing

#5: RT @timkastelle Innovation through Exaptation http://bit.ly/d6G1vt > The shifting of a trait’s function over time

#6: Thoughts on Innovation Management From FEI 2010 | Forrester Blogs http://bit.ly/ah0psG #feiboston

#7: RT @jdpuva Innovate on Purpose: Innovation Failure Points: Idea Generation http://bit.ly/bBGAl2

#8: Discussions about Facebook’s privacy settings have the feel of arguing over religion.

#9: RT @ParkerLSmith The Meaning of Colors Around the World http://post.ly/ea14

#10: Learned something tonight. If you karaoke Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’”, the entire bar will be there with you.

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 043010

From the home office on the Gulf Coast, where I just have to note that you never hear about “sunshine spills” or “wind slicks”.

#1: RT @mattgaston If foursquare gets it right, they could go big. Very big! NYTimes: Linking Customer Loyalty With Social Networking http://nyti.ms/cfzclt

#2: RT @TechCrunch The Huffington Post Starts To Give Out Badges To Readers http://tcrn.ch/bQopLB > Just getting started…

#3: WSJ has its own Foursquare badges http://bit.ly/a6EjmX by @mathewi > WSJ also provides news items for locations

#4: RT @tacanderson Cool webcast today by HP: An economist’s view of crowdsourcing http://j.mp/czYrSY

#5: Getting the Most from Your Crowdsourcing Initiative (via Spigit blog) http://bit.ly/cugk0z #innovation

#6: RT @jacobm spigit announces its innovation summit, should be a great one http://bit.ly/csHfNE cc @bhc3

#7: 42: Why innovation is a hard sell http://bit.ly/b83pWs by @deb_lavoy > #Innovation is problem-solving, not ideation

#8: RT @Renee_Innosight Yes! RT @MARTYneumeier: The secret to collaboration is finding a rhythm that alternates between team creativity and individual creativity.

#9: NBC’s Parenthood cracks me up. Love it. Until it inevitably jumps the shark somewhere along the line with a “very special” Parenthood.

#10: About to start Stuart Hall Miller’s Mile with my son — at Warming Hut Park Store & Cafe http://gowal.la/c/E4ah

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