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A Citizen’s Eye View of Public Preparedness

“Tapping The Public Brain” To Address Difficult Challenges Like The Oil Spill Has Some History

June 4th, 2010 · No Comments

As I write this Friday morning, there is some hope that a containment cap has been placed over the well pipe to stop the gushing oil. But I wanted to post an interesting article in the BBC News, “Can Ordinary People Think Of A Way To Stop The Oil,” because it covers both the BP solicitation process as well as some historical of citizen-generated problem solving:

By 2 June, BP had received 31,600 suggestions from members of the public on how to plug the well, or deal with the oil slicks already in the sea. The company’s helpline, which has 80 telephone operators, deals with interested citizens. Of the 31,600 ideas, 8,000 have been submitted on paper.

BP then puts the plans through a four-stage process. The first is a primary evaluation to weed out ideas that have already been considered or are just not possible. The second stage is classification into categories such as “dispersants” or “mechanical”. The third stage is a more detailed technical review and the fourth stage is field testing. There are 235 ideas currently in stage three and four, says BP. Of those, just 10% are about how to plug the well.

Some might ridicule the idea that interested amateurs might be able to solve a problem that is foxing a giant company with immense resources at its fingertips. But the notion has a long pedigree. One of the most famous examples of attempting to tap the public brain came in the Longitude Prize, established in the UK by Parliament in 1714. For a seafaring nation, the ability to accurately measure longitude was a massive challenge.

The act of Parliament offered £20,000 to the person who could do it, and the clockmaker John Harrison established the principles for the marine chronometers that revolutionised navigation. Another prize was offered in late 18th Century France for the creation of soda crystals from sea salt. Harrison was met with scepticism and never received the full prize, while the French winner Nicholas Leblanc was denied his cash because of the revolution.

One reason, experts say, why there haven’t been any successful citizen ideas yet on the oil spill is a lack of information:

The term “crowdsourcing”, coined by journalist Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business, is now often used to describe this phenomenon. Howe says that it is sometimes the case that problems that have proved insoluble to hand-picked experts can be solved when placed before a wider, but less expert, audience. ”[Crowdsourcing] is an acknowledgment that 99 times out of a 100 the best person to solve a problem is an expert. If it’s a chemistry problem, you want a chemist.

“But one time out of a hundred the problem seems intractable. Crowdsourcing has revealed – in those intractable cases – you need someone who is not trained. All the steps the experts have thought to do haven’t worked. You need the unexpected.”

That might be why BP is using some of its resources to test these suggestions from the public. They won’t reveal any of the detail of the submissions they have had, but look at some public forums on the web – not run by BP – and you can get a flavour of the sort of ideas that might be arriving…

Looking on the web you can see solutions involving pre-cast concrete plugs, giant screws, explosives, sealant pumps, giant magnets, liquid nitrogen, inflatable bladders and all manner of other devices…

But despite the public enthusiasm, there’s a feeling among some experts – not brought in by BP – that they aren’t able to contribute their own ideas because of a lack of detail from the oil firm. ”The problem is there is not a whole lot of detailed information released,” says Prof Sears. “Exactly what are the pressures, temperatures, flow rates and pipe sizes?

“The more information is released the more analysis can be done by people that are not directly involved.” It will probably be somebody with some sort of engineering or science background who could come up with an answer, says Howe. It is unlikely that “a random guy with an English degree” will crack it, he notes. ”[It might be] someone who has some tangential experience – it isn’t some experience that BP think to tap.”

Harrison was a self-educated genius, who already made clocks, and Leblanc had a scientific background. The prize approach made sense in a time when the pool of formal academics was tiny compared with today. And if an ordinary citizen comes up with the solution, they have to hope that the powers-that-be treat them a bit better than they did Harrison and Leblanc.

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