27 September 2013

Technology for improved collaborative intelligence

Filed under: collaboration, Hangout On Air, intelligence, Symbian — David Wood @ 1:02 pm

Interested in experiences in using Google Hangout On Air, as a tool to improve collaborative intelligence? Read on.

Google’s Page Rank algorithm. The Wikipedia editing process. Ranking of reviewers on Amazon.com. These are all examples of technology helping to elevate useful information above the cacophony of background noise.

To be clear, in such examples, insight doesn’t just come from technology. It comes from a combination of good tools plus good human judgement – aided by processes that typically evolve over several iterations.

For London Futurists, I’m keen to take advantage of technology to accelerate the analysis of radical scenarios for the next 3-40 years. One issue is that the general field of futurism has its own fair share of background noise:

  • Articles that are full of hype or sensationalism
  • Articles motivated by commercial concerns, with questionable factual accuracy
  • Articles intended for entertainment purposes, but which end up overly influencing what people think.

Lots of people like to ramp up the gas while talking about  the future, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

I’ve generally been pleased with the quality of discussion in London Futurists real-life meetings, held (for example) in Birkbeck College, Central London. The speaker contributions in these meetings are important, but the audience members collectively raise a lot of good points too. I do my best to ‘referee’ the discussions, in a way that a range of opinions have a chance to be aired. But there have been three main limitations with these meetups:

  1. Meetings often come to an end well before we’ve got to the bottom of some of the key lines of discussion
  2. The insights from individual meetings can sometimes fail to be taken forward into subsequent meetings – where the audience members are different
  3. Attendance is limited to people who live near to London, and who have no other commitments when the meetup is taking place.

These limitations won’t disappear overnight, but I have plans to address them in stages.

I’ve explained some of my plans in the following video, which is also available at http://londonfuturists.com/2013/08/30/introducing-london-futurists-academy/.

As the video says, I want to be able to take advantage of the same kind of positive feedback cycles that have accelerated the progress of technology, in order to accelerate in a similar way the generation of reliable insight about the future.

As a practical step, I’m increasingly experimenting with Google Hangouts, as a way to:

  • Involve a wider audience in our discussions
  • Preserve an online record of the discussions
  • Find out, in real-time, which questions the audience collectively believes should be injected into a conversation.

In case it helps others who are also considering the usage of Google Hangouts, here’s what I’ve found out so far.

The Hangouts are a multi-person video conference call. Participants have to log in via one of their Google accounts. They also have to download an app, inside Google Plus, before they can take part in the Hangout. Google Plus will prompt them to download the app.

The Hangout system comes with its own set of plug-in apps. For example, participants can share their screens, which is a handy way of showing some PowerPoint slides that back up a point you are making.

By default, the maximum number of attendees is 10. However, if the person who starts the Hangout has a corporate account with Google (as I have, for my company Delta Wisdom), that number can increase to 15.

For London Futurists meetings, instead of a standard “Hangout”, I’m using “Hangouts On Air” (sometime abbreviated as ‘HOA’). These are started from within their own section of the Google Plus page:

  • The person starting the call (the “moderator”) creates the session in a “pre-broadcast” state, in which he/she can invite a number of participants
  • At this stage, the URL is generated, for where the Hangout can be viewed on YouTube; this vital piece of information can be published on social networking sites
  • The moderator can also take some other pre-broadcast steps, such as enabling the “Questions” app (further mentioned below)
  • When everyone is ready, the moderator presses the big red “Start broadcast” button
  • A wide audience is now able to watch the panellists discussion via the YouTube URL, or on the Google Plus page of the moderator.

For example, there will be a London Futurists HOA this Sunday, starting 7pm UK time. There will be four panellists, plus me. The subject is “Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity”. The details are here. The event will be visible on my own Google Plus page, https://plus.google.com/104281987519632639471/posts. Note that viewers don’t need to be included in any of the Circles of the moderator.

As the HOA proceeds, viewers typically see the current speaker at the top of the screen, along with the other panellists in smaller windows below. The moderator has the option to temporarily “lock” one of the participants into the top area, so that their screen has prominence at that time, even though other panellists might be speaking.

It’s good practice for panellists to mute their microphones when they’re not speaking. That kind of thing is useful for the panellists to rehearse with the moderator before the call itself (perhaps in a brief preview call several days earlier), in order to debug connectivity issues, the installation of apps, camera positioning, lighting, and so forth. Incidentally, it’s best if there’s a source of lighting in front of the speaker, rather than behind.

How does the audience get to interact with the panellists in real-time? Here’s where things become interesting.

First, anyone watching via YouTube can place text comments under the YouTube window. These comments are visible to the panellists:

  • Either by keeping an eye on the same YouTube window
  • Or, simpler, within the “Comment Tracker” tab of the “Hangout Toolbox” app that is available inside the Hangout window.

However, people viewing the HOA via Google Plus have a different option. Provided the moderator has enabled this feature before the start of the broadcast, viewers will see a big button inviting them to ask a question, in a text box. They will also be able to view the questions that other viewers have submitted, and to give a ‘+1’ thumbs up endorsement.

In real-time, the panellists can see this list of questions appear on their screens, inside the Hangout window, along with an indication of how many ‘+1′ votes they have received. Ideally, this will help the moderator to pick the best question for the panel to address next. It’s a small step in the direction of greater collaborative intelligence.

At time of writing, I don’t think there’s an option for viewers to downvote each others’ questions. However, there is an option to declare that a question is spam. I expect the Google team behind HOA will be making further enhancements before long.

This Questions app is itself an example of how the Google HOA technology is improving. The last time I ran a HOA for London Futurists, the Questions apps wasn’t available, so we just used the YouTube comments mechanism. One of the panellists for that call, David Orban, suggested I should look into another tool, called Google Moderator, for use in a subsequent occasion. I took a look, and liked what I saw, and my initial announcement of my next HOA (the one happening on Sunday) mentioned that I would be using Google Moderator. However, as I said, technology moves on quickly. Giulio Prisco drew my attention to the recently announced Questions feature of the HOA itself – a feature that had previously been in restricted test usage, but which is now available for all users of HOA. So we’ll be using that instead of Google Moderator (which is a rather old tool, without any direct connection into the Hangout app).

The overall HOA system is still new, and it’s not without its issues. For example, panellists have a lot of different places they might need to look, as the call progresses:

  • The “YouTube comment tracker” screen is mutually exclusive from the “Questions” screen: panellists can only have one of these visible to them at a time
  • These screens are in turn mutually exclusive from a text chat window which the panellists can use to chat amongst themselves (for example, to coordinate who will be speaking next) while one of the other panellists is speaking.

Second – and this is what currently makes me most apprehensive – the system seems to put a lot of load on my laptop, whenever I am the moderator of a HOA. I’ve actually seen something similar whenever my laptop is generating video for any long call. The laptop gets hotter and hotter as time progresses, and might even cut out altogether – as happened one hour into the last London Futurists HOA (see the end of this video).

Unfortunately, when the moderator’s PC loses connection to the HOA, the HOA itself seems to shut down (after a short delay, to allow quick reconnections). If this happens again on Sunday, we’ll restart the HOA as soon as possible. The “part two” will be visible on the same Google Plus page, but the corresponding YouTube video will have its own, brand new URL.

Since the last occurrence of my laptop overheating during a video call, I’ve had a new motherboard installed, plus a new hard disk (as the old one was giving some diagnostic errors), and had all the dust cleaned out of my system. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this Sunday. Technology brings its challenges as well as many opportunities…

Footnote: This threat of over-heating reminds me of a talk I gave on several occasions as long ago as 2006, while at Symbian, about “Horsemen of the apocalypse”, including fire. Here’s a brief extract:

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges. I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

“Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster. Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law. As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet. The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software. Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire as it performs its incredible calculations…


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