Monday, March 31, 2008

Virtual World: Making Data Come Alive

I have a new hero.

He is Hans Rosling (photo credit: OECD). His goal is to unveil the beauty of boring statistics and by so doing, to make them accessible and usable by all of us. In one of his lectures, he shows a slide of the music for a Chopin Nocturne, saying "First, I want to show you something beautiful." He goes on to lament that only musicians would be able to see how beautiful the piece is by reading the notes. "Most of us need to listen to the music to understand how beautiful it is." But, he says of those who love and work with statistics, "Often we show the notes, we don't play the music." I love this man and I've never even met him. He is so dedicated to mining statistics for gold, that he created a nonprofit, Gapminder (after the caution so often heard in the London tube: "Mind the gap."), to transform gray numbers into colorful, moving animated graphics that, most importantly, reveal the stories behind the digits.

That means that even I, whose right brain dwarfs my left, can understand this man, even though he revels, rolls and burrows in huge piles of numbers, those great heaping mounds of information usually shoveled into the appendices of dreary government reports, where it languishes, unread, unused, unintelligible to all but the left-brained. Not only is that unfortunate, says Rosling, it could be disastrous. Why? Because not reading or misperceiving numbers leaves us ignorant, or, dare I say it, stupid in our assessments of what is happening in the world and why. If we don't look at the data, we miss huge changes says Rosling. Such as? Well, the vast alteration in the social fabric of the world, for example, as demonstrated by his 2006 lecture, "Debunking the Myth of the Third World."

To save us all from data illiteracy, Rosling and his colleagues invented the Trendalyzer in 1998. It's a terrific display engine that allows you to plug in an X-axis and a Y-axis and a bunch of elements with different values and then "play" them over time to see change in the two chosen areas of investigation--say, fertility rate (number of children per woman) and life expectancy. Running the numbers for all the countries of the world from 1950 (or whenever they began keeping good statistics) until 2003, quickly explodes the myth that large families and short lives still define the large swath of countries we once knew as the "Third World." Rosling did just this in 2006 at the TED conference, an annual gathering of thinkers, innovators, inventors and more in Monterey, Calif.

Watching Bangladesh suddenly spurt into the small family/high life expectancy portion of the graph as mothers promote family planning in the 1980s is heartening, exciting and mindbending all at once. Watching the African countries plummet out of the worldwide trend toward longer lives as the AIDS crisis hits in the 1990s is sobering and tragic.

Rosling makes it not just edifying, but exciting. He's a Swedish dervish, charting the change in countries and parts of the world the way the announcer calls the Kentucky Derby every spring.

Rosling's reprise at TED in last year was jubilant. First, he beamed when he announced that the United Nations was then on the cusp of making all its data available to anyone who wanted it. His trendalyzer, having been acquired by Google, was newly available right on the Internet without the need for a download. And his statistics showed that among most emerging economies, social progress--such as falling child mortality--is moving ahead of economic progress--measured as income per capita. On the darker side, he also showed that nowhere in the world has economic and social advancement arrived without damage to the climate as measured by carbon dioxide emissions.

Mostly, Rosling uses his animations to deliver counterintuitive insights and to play the contrarian. He wants us to stop lumping Latin American countries in with African and Asian as the Third or developing world. Instead, he would have us tease out country by country and region by region to discover how different they are and, most of all, why.

For example, he says, "Africa has not done bad. In 50 years they have gone from a pre-medieval situation to a very decent 100-years-ago Europe. I would say that sub-Saharan Africa has done best in the world in the last 50 years because we don't consider where they came from. It's this stupid concept of developing countries." Let the animations pique your curiosity, Rosling suggests, and the journey for explanations will enrich us all. "I have a neighbor who knows 200 types of wine. . . but my neighbor only knows two types of countries, industrialized and developing, and I know 200." His message is that with a deeper understanding of real trends we will discover that "the seemingly impossible is possible." Whatever you do, watch all the way through to the end for proof!

So why is Rosling my hero? Because he is paving the way for virtual government, for our ability to use technology to amplify human intelligence. Yes, you might argue that Rosling has a point of view and that his results are colored by the variables he chooses to depict. But that always has been true.

Using his trendalyzer, anyone can choose the variables and play out history. Armed with information, we can make better decisions. Armed with visualized statistics, we can ensure that the many--who heretofore were closed out of the discussion by inaptitude for reading statistics--just as those who cannot read music must hear it to appreciate it--can have the same insights as the few statistically fluent among us. What heretofore has been inscrutable ciphers in columns, now becomes palpable, manipulable, real.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Virtual Job Fairs, Real Disabilities

A news story about this topic appears on Government Executive's new technology Web site, NextGov.

The 56 million Americans with disabilities spend twice as much time online as do people without. Given how hard it is to get around if you aren't able-bodied, that makes sense. Extending the logic, you might expect that the disabled also would feel more at home in a virtual world, where real world limits don't apply.

Recruitment agency TMP Worldwide Advertising & Communications wants to test that theory by sponsoring a job fair for disabled people in the synthetic world, Second Life. And the company wants government agencies to do the in-world hiring. Why government? Well, TMP, which already has had success running in-world job fairs for companies, sees a need and therefore an opportunity.

As it turns out, the percentage of people with targeted disabilities in the federal workforce fell from 1.24 percent in 1994 to 0.97 percent, or just 24,086 employees, in 2006. In fact, Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner Christine Griffin has called on agencies join EEOC's Leadership for the Employment of Americans with Disabilities initiative to step up hiring of disabled people.

TMP proposes, for a fee, to create virtual buildings for agencies on one of its two islands in Second Life, to advertise the job fair to prospective applicants, teach them how to get around as avatars--3-D representations of themselves—and permit agencies to preview and choose the applicants they want interview, virtually, of course. “We see it as an opportunity for agencies to stem a 10-year decline in representation of people with disabilities,” John Bersentes, director of business development for TMP government solutions, told me.

Further, he sees virtual job fairs as a better way to bring on retirees, noting that those over age 55 are more likely to become disabled. Virtual hiring could help agencies such as Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is attempting to recruit retirees to help handle a huge backlog of citizenship applications.

The idea spawns others, for example, what about serving disabled citizens in world? Or even the able-bodied. What if, instead of schlepping among agency offices to deliver and receive information and to receive assistance, we could let our avatars do the walking? What if agencies seeking citizen input could hold virtual town meetings to allow interaction by the many with the many? No one of us is as smart as all of us, after all.

The cost of entry isn't staggering, either. TMP is charging between $30,000 and $50,000, Resentes estimates, for the virtual buildings and real-life ad campaigns to draw job candidates to them, as well as to teach them how to maneuver in a world where teleporting and flying--without a plane--are perfectly normal. TMP will create a chat-based microsite especially for those with visual impairments.

In-world help is important, if my own experiences as an avatar are any guide. I spend a good deal of time relearning simple things like how to move around or look at the front of myself each time a re-enter Second Life after an absence. Press coverage of TMP's private sector virtual job fair last year showed such glitches aren't uncommon. Some applicants spent hours learning how to create and manipulate their avatars and still weren’t able to master such simple interview etiquette as sitting in chairs.

Nevertheless, finding ways to use virtual worlds to better serve and educate citizens is a laudable goal. If we hope to save fuel, address the needs and interests of Generation Y and figure out how to handle the knottiest problems of our era, then meeting, collaborating, planning and practicing online and in world seems as logical for the able-bodied as the disabled.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Virtual U.S.A

A news story about this development is featured on Government Executive's brand new technology Web site,

The Brookings Institution has modeled all 350 million Americans, their genders and ages, their location by zip code and their daily travel habits. The large-scale agent model lets researchers program rules of behavior and additional demographic information into each agent, rendering them pretty fair representatives of the people they represent. These are pretty rudimentary as computerized stand-ins go, nothing like the 3D, full color, dressed, buffed and made up avatars strolling the streets of Second life. Brookings' agents are just little dots of color, even less from a distance.

Nevertheless, the model marks a huge advance toward the day when government officials will be able to model how well or badly different programs and policies address the problems they are intended to solve. The model is big enough to just about encompass the current world population of 6.7 billion—it can house 6 billion agents--offering the possibility of testing responses to global pandemics, the worldwide effects of alterations in trade or monetary policy, and the human cost of natural and political disasters, among many other things.

The ability to grow artificial societies allows government policymakers and officials to watch how social, economic, biological, and civil events develop and then to see the effects of governmental and other interventions on the outcomes. Such agent-based modeling took hold in the social, biological sciences and economics in the early 1990s. But only now have they become big enough and flexible enough to model and predict human behavior on a large scale.

The Brookings Institution’s Center on Social and Economic Dynamics is home to the LSAM, where it resides on eight computers. It was developed under the auspices of the Homeland Security Department University Center of Excellence on Preparedness and Catastrophic Event Response (PACER) at The Johns Hopkins University.

The large-scale model creates easily understandable visual representations of vast events and includes the vagaries of human behavior. Programming into the model the release of a pandemic flu bug in Los Angeles and modeling rate of infection based on a set number of family, work and school interactions among people, produces a spreading scarlet stain across the map of the continental United States as zip code after zip code turns red, signifying that more than five percent of the population has become infected. Blue signifies death, removal from the area or immunity.

The model also can represent a full panoply of human responses, with some agents refusing to be vaccinated, for example, as would a significant portion of the U.S. population in the event of a true epidemic. Adding such realism helps improve the model’s predictive power and its depiction of real-world outcomes.

In the flu scenario, the model showed that reducing interactions among agents by 75 percent for a month prevented the outbreak from becoming an epidemic. Instead, it fizzled for lack of carriers. In real life, a government proscription against attending school, going to work, shopping—what is known as a nonpharmaceutical intervention called “social distancing”—would seem Draconian and be difficult, if not impossible to carry out.

So what about a 50 percent reduction over six months? Well, many more people die, but the longer period at least buys time, perhaps enough to develop a vaccine.

The goal here is to improve policymakers' understanding of the dynamics of epidemics and therefore help them make better choices of preventive strategies. And adding information to the model can make the predictions better. For example, Brookings plans to add the location and capacity for handling a surge of patients of every hospital and emergency room in the United States and then to model how well or badly such resources are distributed. The ultimate plan is to model the population of the Earth.

Brookings is working with other members of PACER to combine its agent-based model with other computer models to produce richer depictions. With Bharat Soni of the University of Alabama at Birmingham mechanical engineering department, Brookings is examining transportation options in response to chemical contaminant releases in cities. The combined model shows how a toxic plume from a river barge would spread across New Orleans and how people in city buildings would react.

Without government intervention, many people would die as a result of panic. They pour out of buildings to escape and become stuck in the congested streets under the cloud. Slowly but surely, the little yellow dots turn red. The simulation also will model human behavior during disasters, including resistance both to evacuation and shelter-in-place, the keen desire to locate and join family members, concern for property and the belief that authorities are unreliable.

As exciting as news of Brookings' large-scale model is, there are plenty of caveats. The biggest one is that the use of models and simulations as predictive devices has been so discredited by misuse and manipulation. And it's true, the Brookings team admits, that they only are as good as the information put into them. Brookings uses Census and other data deemed pretty reliable, and researchers, not federal agencies, choose what to study. But all that means is that consumers of the model's revelations must trust the researchers.

Joshua Epstein, director of the Brookings center, who also heads up global epidemic modeling for the National Institutes of Health Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, is adamant that he will not allow agencies to commandeer LSAM, even though it was funded by DHS dollars. “If the government wanted to use it to figure out better means for urban warfare, Brookings could refuse,” he says.

It's a sad irony that what would propel the use of such modeling in spite of the doubts would be just the sort of calamity the models are being used to prevent. If disaster struck in, say, the form of the release of a pandemic flu virus, and Americans found out the government could have modeled such a thing and then acted on the findings to prevent it, the political results would be devastating and modeling just might be adopted.

Meanwhile, on March 11, the Brookings center received the 2008 Modeling & Simulation Award for Outstanding Achievement in Analysis from the National Training and Simulation Association for the computational feat of creating a mammoth model suited for so many research projects.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Peering Into Virtual Lives

I suspect we're about to see an uptick in interest in and understanding of at least one aspect of virtuality with the debut of a new documentary film called, appropriately, "Second Skin." After you watch the trailer, above, you might be inclined to scoff at the notion of virtual government. "Oh, virtual worlds and online games are just for people with dead-end jobs and no lives," you might decide. But my guess is that the film will offer a rather more evenhanded look at the massively multiplayer online gaming impulse than does the trailer.

The point being that there's plenty of real life in Second Life and its ilk. And the division between first and second lives can be easily surrmounted, if not just about dissolved.

Companies already are creating head-mounted gear to control avatars. Just this week, Carnegie Mellon University annouced a new controller that allows users to experience almost realistic touch as they move about and manipulate things in synthetic worlds and online games.

The imagination runs wild, of course, but one person's prurient interests can be another's chance to practice surgery without injuring real patients, or learn to fly UAVs without crashing them, or design fighter jets with a real feel for how the parts fit together, or get a tactile understanding for how to assemble and dissasemble a rifle. Palpable virtual reality--how can government not adopt it?

Oh, and for those whose interest is piqued, sign up now for the second-ever conference of the Federal Consortium of Virtual Worlds, "Federal Virtual Worlds Expo: Implementing the Future," April 24-25 at the National Defense University in Washington.