A thousand points of light

My hometown newspaper, The South China Morning Post (SCMP), recently went live with a reader driven mashup site dedicated to reporting environmental damage. The SCMP calls the site Citizen Map. It looks like it’s gaining traction. The public responded with more than 20 tip-offs in the first few days.

Mashups are nothing new. Typical examples include real estate listing databases married to neighborhood maps and school district information, sites that track epidemic outbreaks around the world and geo-location restaurant guides.

But most mashups are meant to broadcast a single author’s voice, or at least a single group’s message. What the SCMP has done looks a little different. The paper has put together a number of services, some commercial, some open source, that let other people generate the content around a theme. Arguably, user generated content is nothing new either. Think Twitter or Facebook.  But Twitter and Facebook cater to everyone, or at least try to.

I would guess that the SCMP has no idea where this is going to go but the framework is clear: the SCMP has created a point solution (in contrast to an enterprise or utility solution) to aggregate community generated information on environmental damage. Individual postings might lead to follow-up investigations, government responses (one hopes), name and shame reporting or public debate.

The site is powered by an open source solution called Ushahidi. Ushahidi itself is fascinating, a software development project born out of a Kenyan political movement to remove corrupt and violent politicians. But what the SCMP has accomplished with the Ushahidi solution is interesting to me as a learning and development and performance support practitioner because it shows the power of what is increasingly becoming the way forward — the deep integration of easy-to-deploy open source/open standards solutions into commercial or semi-commercial user-facing point solutions, usually around a single theme or event and often with a known shelf-life.

Citizen Map includes, among other integrated services: Google maps, Twitter, SMS services, online form reporting and email.  The options allow for point-of-need or point-of-impulse interactions — when you’re hiking you can send an SMS and follow up with details later. With its defined scope, broad interaction affordances and the promise of real world follow up, the site is brilliant. It makes a difference.

Lessons for learning

  • People pay attention — the power of open, community discussion cannot be underestimated. Budget holders tend to take notice when public sites aggregate and amplify broad concerns. Inside companies the same dynamics rule. If client, staff, shareholder and/or ecosystem partners start to speak in concert around defined interest areas, executives listen. Nothing drives change quite like fresh air.
  • Learning and development, if we truly want a seat at the table, must become a bit more like the fifth estate — think CNN getting the story and facilitating dialogue. Reporting the news, providing a forum for the concerned and the experts and becoming good at supplying aggregation, editing and curation services — these things start to become the new focus. This means that the provision of some “training” services starts to look more like promotion of fast-moving information consumables rather than investment in long-term project outputs.
  • Aspiring to be good at point solutions is great; it’s nothing to be ashamed of — on the spectrum from quick and dirty point solutions on the one end, through to interim, enterprise and long-term utility solutions on the other end, achievement on a series of point solutions is a fantastic career arc and truly useful to the organization.