Sir Nigel Shadbolt: Understanding the benefits of social machines #AppsWorld

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"The human brain is still the thing we haven't been able to reproduce digitally," explains Sir Nigel Shadbolt, "so in lots of situations it is exquisitely good at certain sorts of problems, and machines we know have this fantastic data capability. How can we harness the two together?"

It's a problem which has fascinated technologists for generations. But for Shadbolt, whose work includes SOCIAM: The Theory and Practice of Social Machines, and the Open Data Institute, where he is chairman and co-founder, social machines, and social learning, are the closest thing we've got to it.

A classic example of a social machine is Wikipedia. "People used to say that there's no way these things could ever compete with traditional encyclopaedias," Shadbolt tells DeveloperTech. "Well that's no longer contested." But what about the occasional accusations of over-zealous moderation, meaning it's not a truly collaborative experience.

We can find places where humans can do things machines can't

"If you look inside the active areas of development, the so called Wiki projects where specialists areas branch off to develop content - they're very vibrant," Shadbolt argues. Yet he concedes: "It's not the same in every place. Part of the issue with Wikipedia is it's become less crowded in the centre because those are very high quality contributions now, and they're resistant to change."

Evidently there is work still to be done, but there are lots of different classifications for movements that are roughly similar, such as crowdsourcing, or citizen science. As Shadbolt argues, it becomes an educational platform as much as a social machine.

"We can find places where humans can do things machines can't," he says. "People really get into this, and what you see is people getting engaged, and we've seen it in Wikipedia as well, so you become more expert."

In some situations, naturally, the human element isn't as greatly desired, say if a fat finger leads to a data centre outage. But when it comes to open data, if you can put data in the hands of empowered individuals, then a whole new world of innovation opens up.

It's the old adage that not all the smart people work for you

Take Rootmetrics for instance, a crowdsourcing data provider which allows users to point out where their phone network signal is spottiest. The data gets hoovered up by the developers, fed back to the operators, and in theory everyone benefits.

"What we are arguing is there is clear evidence that value - social, economic, efficiency gains - in sharing data is very large indeed," says Shadbolt. "It's the old adage that not all the smart people work for you. If you put all the data out there, other people will innovate around it and for a company, an app can soon be built out of left field which puts their own data to work to that company's benefit.

"There will be, I think, collaborative environments in which open data companies exist," he adds. "They exist alongside companies who have mixed economies, closed and open data, and those companies who want to develop it for themselves; and they'll get different benefits out of this space."

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