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2011-02-08

Where Should Our Brains Be?

A colleague sent me an interesting and thought-provoking message a few days ago. It challenged a characteristic of the paradigm we have been following in developing the system of NCB-Prepared. Our initial approach is to access data across a number of domains (clinical, emergency, food safety, weather, etc.) and look for patterns that may be emerging threats to human health. The emphasis is on the analytics that can find the signal in all the data noise. It is necessarily a data- and technology-heavy approach.

The alternative he suggested involves creating and leveraging social networks of experts to understand phenomena. Although he did not reference it, he seemed to move in the same pathway as James Surowiecki explored in The Wisdom of Crowds. The notion he was proposing was connecting a crowd of experts in an online community to allow them to observe, comment, and learn from each other to address issues of cognition (essentially figure out what's going on) together. The connections across organizational borders would reduce the effects of siloed information and expertise that tend to crop up. Across any effective organization there is an interplay between the formal structures where authority and responsibility reside and the informal network that often facilitates getting the work done. As he put it, developing such an approach "implies a careful consideration of how you would like to sociologically engineer your network."

That statement resonated with me as I recalled a rich conversation I had about visual analytics with a researcher at Purdue University. He made the point that presenting data as visual information only expresses one end of the model. The other involves the psychology and sociology of the person engaging with that visualization to understand it and potentially take action. He advocated taking a holistic approach to the experience of data visualization.

These ideas resonated with me and prompted a line of thought that I'll continue in future posts. Stay tuned. 

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