Tag Archives: TED

State of the Art in Digital Disease Detection

Larry Brilliant’s TED Talk back in 2006 played an important role in catalyzing my own personal interest in humanitarian technology. Larry spoke about the use of natural language processing and computational linguistics for the early detection and early response to epidemics. So it was with tremendous honor and deep gratitude that I delivered the first keynote presentation at Harvard University’s Digital Disease Detection (DDD) conference earlier this year.

The field of digital disease detection has remained way ahead of the curve since 2006 in terms of leveraging natural language processing, computational linguistics and now crowdsourcing for the purposes of early detection of critical events. I thus highly, highly recommend watching the videos of the DDD Ignite Talks and panel presentations, which are all available here. Topics include “Participatory Surveillance,” “Monitoring Rumors,” “Twitter and Disease Detection,” “Search Query Surveillance,” “Open Source Surveillance,” “Mobile Disease Detection,” etc. The presentation on BioCaster is also well worth watching. I blogged about BioCaster here over three years ago and the platform is as impressive as ever.

These public health experts are really operating at the cutting-edge and their insights are proving important to the broader humanitarian technology community. To be sure, the potential added value of cross-fertilization between fields is tremendous. Just take this example of a public health data mining platform (HealthMap) being used by Syrian activists to detect evidence of killings and human rights violations.

Another title for this post might have been “Here Come the Crowd-Sorcerers…” I’ll be following up with Crowd-Sorcerer sequels soon (to answer many readers who have been asking) but before  I do, I want to look at a prequel. In 2005, Charles Leadbeater gave what is without doubt one of my all time favorite TED Talks ever. The examples he shares—mountain bikes, telescopes and computer games—provide excellent insights into the opportunities and challenges that companies like Ushahidi face. This talk foretells what may very well be the future of crisis mapping.

If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch the talk, just continue reading since I tease out the most salient points in this post. Charles gave this talk in 2005, before Jeff Howe had even coined the term “crowdsourcing”;  before Brafman and Beckstrom’s book “Spider and the Starfish: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations”; and way before Clay Shirky wrote his book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.”

Charles starts by asking: who invented the mountain bike?  Not a company with a large R&D team. Nor a lone innovative genius in some garage. The mountain bike came from young users in northern California who were frustrated by  heavy traditional bikes and old racing bikes. So they hacked a few bikes and voila, the mountain bike was born. But it wasn’t until 10-15 years later that a small company thought to create a business out of these hacked bikes. Today, mountain bike sales account for some 65% of the bike market in the US alone.

And so, the mountain bike was created entirely by consumers, not by the mainstream bike market because they didn’t see the need, opportunity or have the incentive to create the mountain bike.

Charles argues that it is now possible to “organize without organizations: you don’t need an organization to organize, to achieve large and complex tasks like innovating new software programs” (hint hint). He notes that people (previously consumers now producers) are  increasingly becoming the source of big disruptive ideas. Some of these individuals are amateurs so “they do what they do for the love of it but they want to do it to very high standards.” They take their leisure very seriously, they refine their skills, they invest their own time, etc. This has huge organizational implications for many sectors.

Take astronomy for example. Some 30 years ago, only professional astronomers with huge and very expensive telescopes could see far into space. Today, individuals using “open source” telescopes and the Internet can do what only professional astronomers could do and help discover new stars, meteors at virtually no cost. “So there is a huge competitive argument about sustaining capacity for open source and consumer-driven innovation because it is one of the greatest competitive levers against monopoly,” says Charles.

As a former journalist, Charles recounts from a personal view the significant change that has happened in his profession. He describes the thrill of seeing others in the subway reading his article. At the same time though, he notes that readers only had two places where they could contribute: letters to the editor or the op-ed page. In the case of the former, editors would select the ones they liked, cut them in half and print them three days later. As for op-eds, if readers “knew the editor, been to school with them, slept with their wife, then they could write an article for the op-ed page.”

“Shock horror now, the readers want to be writers and publishers. That’s not their role, they’re supposed to read what we write! But they don’t want to be journalists. The journalists think that the bloggers want to be journalists. They don’t want to be journalists. They just want to have a voice, they want to have a dialogue, a conversation. They want to be part of that flow of information.

So there’s going to be tremendous struggle. But also there’s going to be tremendous movement, from the closed to the open. What you’ll see is two things that are critical, and these are two challenges for the open movement. The first is, can we really survive on volunteers? If this is so critical, do we not need this funded, organized, supported in much more structured ways? Can we really organize that just on volunteers?

And finally, what you will see is the intelligent, closed organizations moving increasingly in the open direction. So it’s not going to be a contest between two camps, but in-between them you’ll find all sorts of interesting places that people will occupy. New organization models coming about, mixing closed and open in tricky ways. [...] And those organizational models it turns out are incredibly powerful and the people who can understand them will be very very successful.”

Charles ends his presentation with a final example, the biggest computer games company in China with 250,000,000 subscribers. The CEO of the company only employs 500 people to service these gamers. “How can this be?” asks Charles?

“Because basically he doesn’t service them, he gives them a platform, he gives them some rules, he gives them the tools and then he kind of orchestrates the conversation, he orchestrates the action. But actually a lot of the content is created by the users themselves. And this creates a kind of stickiness between the community and the company which is really, really powerful. [...] So this is about companies built on communities that provide communities with tools, resources platforms with which they can share.”

Cymatic Insights for Crisis Mapping

I just came across Evan Grant’s fascinating TED 2009 talk on “Making Sound Visible through Cymatics.” Cymatics describes the process of visualizing sound. Sound waves create vibrations—patterns—that can be visualized on the surface of a plate covered with sand as depicted below.


In his talk, Evan demonstrates how different sound frequencies create distinctly different geometric sand patterns. As the sound frequencies increase, so does the complexity of the sand patterns themselves. He describes cymatics as a “looking glass into a hidden world” that can “unveil the substance of things not seen.”

For example, a lexicon of dolphin language is actually being created using cymatics by visualizing the sonar beams that dolphins emit. Cymatics can also be used to create natural art forms. The picture below is a visualization of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony created using a cymatic device. Cymatics can also recreate archetypal forms of nature such as snowflakes or starfish.


It’s not entirely clear what all this means. As Evan notes, cymatics is still a very young field and not many people are working in this line of research. Cymatics shows that sound has form and can effect form in matter. So Evan asks us to think about the universe forming, “about the immense sound of the universe forming, and to ponder on that … perhaps cymatics had an influence on the formation of the universe itself.” Watch Evan’s 5-minute TED Talk below.

In closing, Evan encourage us to apply our passions, knowledge and skills to areas like cymatics. I find this field very interesting because of the analogies with crisis mapping. As often mentioned on iRevolution, crisis mapping is about rendering otherwise hidden patterns visible to improve situational awareness and decision-making.

One can think of conflict processes as sound waves or vibrations and the “plates” as crisis mapping platforms like Ushahidi. We need to “vibrate” conflict data at different frequencies and to develop visual analytics—different templates for data visualization—in order to visualize patterns in a compelling fashion. One might call this the “String Theory” of Crisis Mapping.


A colleague and I tried analyzing conflict data as music back in 2006 when I was at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). I had been inspired by the work of an Italian geophysicist who had taken seismic data (tremblings of the earth) and analyzed the data as music in order to look for “melodic” patterns. We used conflict event-data from Afghanistan but the result was not particularly music to my ears—but then again, neither is war.

Patrick Philippe Meier