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President Gast weighs in on disaster in Gulf

The following opinion piece was written by President Alice P. Gast and appeared in The Harrisburg Patriot News on June 27.

There is no place to hide in our tweeting, texting, networking world. Information and attention are harder to contain than spreading oil.

We are now more than 65 days from a horrific accident that cost lives and continues to unfold as an unprecedented environmental and economic crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. News that media access to the spill is being restricted just doesn't cut it. Short of a plan to deal with such a disaster, BP must turn to the same public that holds it responsible. The only hope for this incident is that our greatest untapped resource is a caring public with good ideas that can develop solutions for this and future crises.

About a month ago, BP was inundated with ideas from vendors and the public when it opened its phones and website for input. Since then, the company has received more than 80,000 ideas from average citizens, drilling experts and celebrities such as Kevin Costner and James Cameron. The EPA has followed suit with its own "Submit a Technological Solution" site.

What is the potential for such approaches to solve our greatest challenges? According to author Clay Shirky, who writes about technology and society, the world's educated people have in excess of a trillion hours of free time a year, in what he calls the "cognitive surplus." He attributes to this surplus the production of Wikipedia, which represents an estimated 100 million hours of thought. If we can harness that level of thought power, we should be able to solve even the most complex of problems.

In the technology world, the idea of opening up the problem and the solutions to the public allows everyone to contribute to, and benefit from, a common operating principle or application. The concept, though not new at the time, was popularized more than 10 years ago when Linux began the trend commercially.

This principle "encouraging collaboration" has been applied to many problems and is known by a variety of names such as open source, open innovation and crowd sourcing. The idea is the same.

Consider the X Prize, which puts forward a $10 million prize to challenge people to solve the world's most complex issues from space exploration to genomics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency "red balloon hunt" called upon the public to see how quickly it could locate 40 large weather balloons nationwide using social networking and prize-sharing. This project inspired 4,000 teams from around the world to participate, with the answer coming in less than nine hours.

Similarly, Netflix offered a $1 million prize that led teams to spend thousands of hours improving the company's ability to predict what movies a person will enjoy based on their past preferences.

These examples used monetary prizes to motivate innovation; however, important challenges don't need financial incentives. Motivation to help society is a powerful tool as well. The folding@home project provides a way of chaining together millions of computers worldwide to assist medical research.

Hoping to eventually find cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's, the project uses a computer's spare clock cycles to simulate protein folding. Large corporations also have jumped on the bandwagon. Last month, it was reported that GlaxoSmithKline will use the open source approach - putting a call out to the public for ideas - to develop a medication to treat malaria.

Examples of successful open source philosophy and collaboration abound; what's missing from BP's approach thus far is one of the keys of public sourcing - there must be open sharing of the results. I encourage BP to share the "best ideas" for further input and scrutiny of the community. It also must share the things it has learned with others so the improvements and varied strategies can have broader benefits before we have another tragedy such as this.

This is the essence of open source. It is an education process for those who participate to see what their ideas did or didn't do. For it to work for BP, it needs to continue to keep the phone lines open and start calling us back.

 

Posted on Friday, July 02, 2010

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