Jishnu Mohan


View My GitHub Profile

31 October 2016

E-Portfolio - Communities

by Jishnu

This post was part of my final semester e-portfolio: a linked series of posts on a common theme

Humans, we have all been told, are social animals. Our capacity to cooperate and collaborate presents an invaluable tactic for dealing with hard, complex problems. Leveraging our social networks is a great complement to the personal tools of models and heuristics. Groups of people (which I will refer to as ‘communities’ through this post) have worked successfully together through various organizing mechanics including but not limited to the firm, the market, the state and the church.

A great learning experience that I had early in my university days was my time as RAG Logistics I/C for the USP. RAG is a float parade and dance that is part of the university’s annual orientation events. I signed up for this on a leap of faith, as I had no relevant experience or skills, only hoping to learn and contribute. Looking back, it is the best example I had of how by splitting up a very challenging problem, a group of committed people were able to credibly solve it. I had very little understanding of the Design and Engineering of the physical float and even less so of the choreography of the Dance. However, despite our fair share of interpersonal conflict and stress, with each team member pulling their weight, we managed to get a Silver for our efforts.

However, as any university student facing project deadlines will tell you, groupwork is not easy. Common issues include coordination problems, free ridership, information and goal asymmetry and interpersonal conflict - and each of these is writ large in ‘real world’ organizations. Creating incentive structures and models of governance to minimize these conflicts of interest is an active area of research in multiple fields and from multiple perspectives. Learning and applying some of these theories in the USP course on Polycentric Governance shed new light on why an earlier effort of mine to build a problem-solving community failed.

In CS3216: Software Development on Emerging Platforms, my group’s final project was a system, NUSCloud, that aimed to provide a collaborative platform for developers in NUS to work with each other to build applications. Essentially, this project made it easier for new applications to use user data and preferences from their information on existing applications.

NUSCloud homepage Screenshot from the homepage of NUSCloud, showing that we wanted to foster a community. A slightly technical draft of the features is here

To attract adoption among developers, we worked with the widely used timetable builder NUSMods to develop a proof of concept. Our project was technically successful, getting good grades and third place in the final project showcase. However, it showed zero adoption among the wider NUS developer community beyond the proof of concept that we ourselves developed.

Although initially we attributed the failure to a lack of sustained effort on our part, further experiences highlighted that our attempt to create an entirely new community were perhaps wrong-headed. In UHB2209 Polycentric Governance, I again tackled (only theoretically, this time) the challenge of creating a tech-focussed community. This course introduced to me the concept of social capital, a characteristic of group, which (among other things) facilitates the creation of new knowledge through exchange and combination of existing knowledge.

In this course, my final submission task was a Policy Memo, which I chose to address to the Minister in charge of Singapore’s Smart Nation Initiative. This is a Singapore Government sponsored initiative to promote empowering Singaporeans economically and socially through technology. In this memo, I propose taking advantage of existing ‘hacker’ community structures instead of attempting to start a new one in relation to the efforts to build a community of technologists. I reference the Government’s efforts to create and encourage physical infrastructure like startup incubators and accelerators which they would like to see become the cores of such communities.

… current efforts do aim to build such a network, through building infrastructure which acts as a ‘commons-as-space’ to foster interaction, collaboration, and experimentation. However, these efforts cannot by themselves ensure the sustained usage necessary to create high social capital communities. They also miss out on opportunities provided by existing groups formed around technical or entrepreneurial skills.

Strengthening existing technology-based communities, would allow for changes in technology to propagate quicker since an aware individual can evangelize it through an existing network. Working with existing groups ensures that existing social capital is harnessed and not needlessly replaced …

Full memo here

There are clear parallels (at vastly different scales, of course) between the Smart Nation Initiative. The Government builds physical buildings while we built an online tool, seeking to become a core of a community. Clearly, leveraging on existing social groups would have been a sensible way to approach the NUSCloud effort. We could certainly have taken advantage of existing groups like the NUS Hackers to drive adoption of our platform.

Beyond the application of the theory of social capital and the advantages of communities as problem solving entities, this experience taught me the importance of appreciating the interface at which technology applies to real life. Whatever the product, technology works with real people, real communities, and real relationships. Ignoring this reality can lead to technology being misguided or even harmful. Of course, this is rather trite - every Computing student has to do a course on Computing and Ethics, and no one today is ignorant of the effects of technology on lives. I also got a small taste of this issue with an early (and slightly differently focused) iteration of the software we developed in the course discussed above. In this version, users could share their class timetables as well as their module histories with (all) their friends, in order to share resources or identify project mates. However, we were not very clear about this, and did not have the time to build out a system by which users could remove their information. This led to the following exchange with a friend on Facebook:

Request to remove information A request to remove personal information from a friend

This made the idea of building for privacy so much more concrete than mere discussion in an ethics class could make it. Choosing to build privacy features would have been a choice, which would have entailed building less of something less else. Only keeping in mind these real users and their concerns could keep us being seduced into building things which were just technically challenging or sounded cool.

Course Artifacts Mentioned:

Read More:

Sometimes, we don’t have the support of others. We can then deal with complex problems using either heuristics or models.

tags: university - usr4002