Monday, August 21, 2017

The search power of a social network

People working together... 

... can sometimes discover amazing things.  

This is true in news reporting (think of the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe, or the Watergate scandal investigative team at the Washington Post--reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein).  It's true in our multi-week Challenges here at SRS, and it seems generally true:  Teams often beat individual researchers, and not just because they can dedicate more time to the task.  

A small group of researchers that are focused on a common task bring multiple perspectives and multiple ways of searching for the same target.  This is really one of those times when diversity really is MUCH better than a monoculture.  

In the April 3, 2017 issue of the New Yorker magazine, an article by Andrew Marantz tells a rather remarkable story is told of how a small group of dedicated people were able to repeatedly find a flag located somewhere in the world.  (The story is actually a bit sad: it's really about 4CHAN trolls searching for the flag in order to vandalize it, but the lesson for team research is still striking.)  
Could you locate this flag?

The thing that impressed me is that this team was able to find it even when the location clues were remarkably small.  

In one instance, the flag was shown flying in a live webcam view against just an open sky.  But by pulling together several streams of information (e.g., the last known tweet location of the flag installer), they were able to generally locate the flag. Then, since it was shown on a live webcam, planes flying through the view could be tracked down by using one of the live flight data streams (e.g., FlightRadar24).  It only takes a couple of known planes to triangulate the spot.

Then, one of the searchers (who happened to live nearby), drove around the area honking his car horn until one of the search team heard his horn... 

This search process had a fairly trollish goal, but the story illustrates the power of a search team working together.  They had to pull together bits of data from different places in order to find the target.  

Three important observations:  

(1) There wasn't a master plan to use those data streams made ahead of time--the plan was cooked up in the moment using whatever data was available.  Being able to improvise is an important skill.  

(2) The diversity of the team was powerful.  They had different people with different expertise.  Some knew about different data sources, some were able to sit and just watch the stream until something happened that they could use. 

(3) The team took direct action to probe the likely location (by honking their horn and listening in on the stream).  Sometimes research takes more than just looking up stuff online.  Every so often, you have to go out into the field and collect the data directly.

Search on... but be prosocial in your research!  

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