Archive for November, 2007

How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

November 29, 2007

A twist on the old joke may now have a more formal answer. I was recently pointed to a paper The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge, published in Science magazine, which looks at the size of teams involved in the production of new research. The authors, Stefan Wuchty, Benjamin Jones and Brian Uzzi reviewed the authorship of 19 million papers produced over five decades to see if there were any patterns.

What they claim to have found is a move from the lone artisan to larger teams of researchers. This was the case not only in science and engineering, where there are obvious, practical drivers to move towards teamwork (shared use of expensive equipment for example), but also, to a lesser extent, in social sciences, humanities and arts. The lone genius battling against the prevailing consensus is a powerful image in the history of science: think Darwin or Einstein. What these researchers are arguing is that they don’t believe this is the case any longer.

But is this accurate? I have to confess I’m a bit worried about this piece of research, partly because the authors only look at (predominantly US) research papers and patents and don’t take account taken of, say, the impact of funding regimes or the ‘politics’ of producing papers. I suppose what it boils down to is that, for me, if you wanted to investigate the question that the research purports to shed light onto, you’d have to do a lot more than add up the number of contributors to academic papers and show that this number has increased over the years. Still, the Wisdom of Crowds tribe will love it and I dare say we’ll hear a lot more about the paper from that quarter.

And the answer to the joke? According to the statistics given in the paper it’s 3.5.

Lunch on the line

November 27, 2007

Lunch last Wednesday was courtesy of British Rail (as was). Nothing too exciting, just a cheese and pickle sandwich, but it was enlivened by the free cabaret courtesy of the staff. As we approached St Pancras, the guard went round collecting rubbish, asking for “any old rubbish, newspapers, magazines, weapons of mass destruction, secret and confidential documents about Nick Clegg.”

This kind of humour by public service staff was reflected in the story, yesterday, about the London Underground announcer who has been posting “spoof” announcements to her website. It’s not the spoofs that have got her into trouble, of course, but it looks likely that she will lose her voice-over contract for allegedly telling a Sunday newspaper that she thinks the tube is “dreadful”.

I think London Underground should extend her contract and include some of her spoofs in their normal schedule of announcements. These kinds of moments enliven the otherwise dreary experience of travelling.

As far as the railways are concerned—let’s hope the guard continues to brighten things up on the London run. He could probably now add CD-ROMs from the Inland Revenue to his list.

Tax CD-ROM fiasco

November 23, 2007

An abridged version of this appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s letters page today

As chance would have it a major EU-sponsored conference on privacy, identity and technology was taking place in central London yesterday, as news broke of the UK’s tax CD-ROM fiasco. I was one of a hundred or so experts from across Europe from a wide variety of technology, research, and legal backgrounds who were debating these issues.

Whilst the discussion at the conference raised many pertinent points about technology and data protection, mainstream news reporting has centred on whether cost cutting within HMRC is to blame. Personally, I find this rather disappointing. No doubt this is great fun for political point scoring, but basic data protection measures cost little if any money, in terms of staff time (which is where the debate has focused), to implement.

For example, why was even the most simple data encryption not undertaken? Why in the age of the Internet and highly secure Government data networks are CD-ROMs flying about between different parts of the public sector. Sending a disc by TNT post surely costs more than using a data network.

It should also be borne in mind that none of this is new. As Jonathan Bamford, from the Office of the Information Commissioner, pointed out in his speech to the conference, the data protection framework that is supposed protect citizens’ private data in ICT systems has been in place for twenty years. I think that in the Tax CD-ROM case there seems to be some evidence that this was ignored, possibly with the knowledge of senior managers.

All of this means that there is a pressing need to address the lack of public confidence in the Government’s ability to protect our personal data. Jonathan Bamford made reference to the latest survey undertaken by the Office of Information. This shows that protection of personal information was ranked, by the general public, as their second highest concern—just below fear of crime. This survey was taken before yesterday’s events and placed privacy concerns above worries about the health and education systems.

Data protection of citizen’s information should be hardwired into the DNA of government departments and agencies. It clearly is not, judging from this case. Until it is there should be no more talk of a national ID system.

Google goes crowdsourcing for an iPhone ‘killer’

November 16, 2007

I recently mentioned the rumours surrounding the possible release of a Google gPhone which would be in competition to the Apple iPhone. It appears that this is not going to happen now, at least not in the sense of a distinct, hold-in-your hand, physical product.

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My online identity mash-up

November 14, 2007

There seems to be a steady trickle of whizzy little apps that manage one’s public persona in Web 2.0 applications. I recently noted the MoodBlast tool, but the latest, Second Friends, allows you to import your Second Life avatar details into your Facebook profile and comes courtesy of EduServe’s Andy Powell (via his Second Life alter ego Art Fossett).

By creating an open Applications Programming Interface (API), Facebook is encouraging this kind of innovation on top of its core product. Andy Powell’s widget could be the first stage of a larger development where you can control your avatar in Second Life, from within Facebook.

This got me thinking. Increasingly a real person is represented online by a variety of virtual personae, aspects of which are filtered through different applications.

Somebody, somewhere, probably in a back bedroom, is building some kind of amalgamating, persona application that allows easy control of all these aspects from one handy desktop widget. This would be a true identity mash-up.