Ground Truth and Social Sensors

Ground truth is the unfettered and unfiltered relating of people’s experiences within a human social system. It can be associated with a specific event at a particular point in time, such as personal interviews with survivors on December 26, 2004 in Sri Lanka shortly after the devastating tsunami struck. It can be the review of a series of experiences across a period of time such as follow-up interviews with those same Sri Lankans who were interviewed originally to understand how their circumstances are changing. It can be the stories told about how members of a social system, who experienced a catastrophe like the tsunami, adapted their social, political, and economic structures in response; namely, what worked, what didn’t, and what changes to make. Ground truth is given when people speak for themselves. It is the ONLY way a human social system knows what is REALLY going on.

People who deliver their ground truth are acting as well-functioning “social sensors” in a broader social system. They draw upon a wide range of information and communication technologies (ICT) e.g., websites, email, blogs, wikis, with land-line, cellular, and satellite connections from locations throughout the world, no matter how remote, to relate their experiences instantaneously and continuously. Social sensing parallels similar functions within mechanical and biological systems. In fact, there is a point of convergence between scientific and social sensor development paths that establishes the possibility of two working together in a highly interrelated manner that enables large, complex systems to be better managed.

Sensor technology, too, has it roots in ICT. The earliest application of ICT during its commercial development was data collection. People would make manual entries into databases of data they and others collected utilizing various measuring devices at certain points within factory or office operations. The computer would use programs to analyze those data and put them into an informational format that could help interpret what was occurring and develop responses to improve the processes or procedures.

One of the first areas where ICT quickly developed in the 1970s and 1980s was in sensor technology. With increased capability and reliability, sensor technology contributed significantly to the replacement of humans as the means through which data was collected and entered into databases. Further developments over the last 15-20 years greatly reduced the size and power requirements for sensors, and increased the sophistication and range of type and capability of sensor technology. Now, sensors are pervasive; they influence almost every aspect of our lives and endeavors. And they continue to displace people from those activities where consistency, repetitiveness, quality, and reliability are essential for effective and efficient operations.

Of particular significance in these developments and displacement is the degree of integration and compatibility between what is being sensed and what is doing the sensing. Today, extensive sensor networks are carefully nested within all manner of systems: mechanical, chemical, optical, biological, and social. Regardless of application, these sensor networks monitor and evaluate conditions which become feedback in larger, adaptive systems that devise corrective strategies and take appropriate actions in response. The key to their success is the accuracy and timeliness of their input as well as the pervasiveness and comprehensiveness of their coverage.

In many ways, the human body is a complex web of sensor networks. Millions of nerve receptors of different types and functions are distributed throughout the body and send continuous signals through the central nervous system to the brain where they are processed and given responses. And like any sensor network, the quality of the response is tied directly to the quality of the input.

Despite highly evolved and elaborate redundancies that function effectively the vast majority of the time, our senses can be fooled: hot can feel cold and vice-versa; we see mirages we believe are real; we hear sounds when there is silence; odors we smell and taste evoke memories that do not accurately reflect what we are experiencing in the moment. And as in the interplay between sensor networks and the larger systems they help regulate, there are different ways of analyzing and processing input with each eliciting different responses. Furthermore, we can ignore sensory input or respond in ways that override evidence suggesting a more appropriate course of action. So, regardless of how well-designed the system and how well-refined the processes, the arbitrariness and irrationality of our decision-making have the potential to bring it to naught.

Like the human body, human social systems are vast sensor networks. Each member of the system is a “sensor” who “reports” on conditions as they are experienced. The system – comprised of hierarchical political, economic, and social structures that operate according to sets of self-serving rules – sorts, aggregates, and analyzes data entries from sensory members in an effort to understand, interpret, determine response possibilities, consider alternatives, and decide on a course of action. Of course when considered on a global scale there are myriad social systems in play simultaneously. Members of one social system can concurrently be members of others. Interpretation of sensory input in one social system can elicit a different response compared to what happens in response by another social system. The key determinants are rank, status, and position in the formal structure and presence, voice, and passion in the informal structures.

Human social systems are analogous to the human body in other ways. There are over 6 million people in the world. The human body consists of billions of cells. Thousands of people die and thousands more are born every day. Millions of cells in the human body die daily and millions more are regenerated. Of the thousands who are born, live, and die each day, I have the opportunity to know only a handful. I know my body, in general, through its organization by function, role, and relationship of one part or system to another. Most of it I will never see and I don’t have to; I trust that it will do what it should without my deliberate attention if I follow simple rules of good health in terms of diet, nutrition, exercise, and rest. Similarly, most people in the world obey the rules of the social system to which they belong. These rules present choices and people decide in ways that permit them to adapt to current circumstances, but preserve the integrity of the system. Behavior is managed and people stick by the intent of their roles, responsibilities, and relationships.

What happens when taking care and following the rules is not enough? Even when we do our best to prevent it, inevitably, our bodies get sick. Sensory cells we seldom hear from send messages that indicate they or the systems to which they belong are in trouble. Depending on the nature of the condition they are signaling there is a wide array of prescriptive treatments from which we can select. These can be non-invasive wherein normal functions of the cells and systems are restored through medications; or invasive through the repair, removal, or replacement of tissue. The same phenomenon occurs in social systems. People in their “sensory roles” relate experiences wherein the system – no matter how well-designed the rules and how noble the principles and ideals that frame them – fails to respond within an acceptable range. Functions break down; remedies are required. In some instances a simple reinterpretation of an existing rule is all that is needed. Other times, though, more radical steps are in order such as rescinding laws and enacting new ones, closing operations and opening others, and eliminating products or canceling services and offering of others.

Oftentimes, we do not heed the early warning signals from our bodies indicating something is amiss and what was once easily restored must now be repaired, removed, or replaced. The sensory networks did not fail, but we chose through our heads or hearts to ignore the input, e.g., “I don’t feel any pain” or “I don’t see any bruises” or to not give the input appropriate attention, e.g., “It will go away” or It’s nothing.” Because the human body is marvelously adaptive, this approach works to some degree, but the performance of the whole and the cellular arrangement and functioning that comprise it are compromised. We live with it in a compromised state or we take more radical steps to correct or reverse the damage.

Again, there is a clear parallel within human social systems. Billions of people in the world have a nearly infinite variety of experiences daily. How do these experiences fit the frameworks of the social systems to which people are members? Where are there anomalies between expectations and experiences? Do these differentials drive responses? Is the system stretched beyond its limits to adequately respond and more deliberate and protracted strategies are needed to spur deeper adaptation? To know the answers requires being attentive to the “sensors.” It means getting to “ground truth” with people in the system about their circumstances.

Establishing ground truth is a three-step process:

  1. Ask people for the truth about their realities and encourage them to tell their stories openly
  2. Hear their truth, once offered, understand it; and commit to respond with appropriate action
  3. Follow-up afterward to confirm that the responses were, indeed, appropriate and that the current situation is corrected and steps are underway for longer term changes in the system preventing recurrence of the problems

Just as we do not heed messages within our bodies we do the same in social systems. To know what is really going on requires ground truth. To not ask, listen, comprehend, and take action are just as effective in shutting down responsiveness and adaptation in the social system as it is with our bodies. Much of time it is for the same reasons: “don’t confuse me with the facts” and “if I am ignorant I cannot be held accountable.” Typically, we do not like change even though circumstances warrant it. In addition, we do not like to know about circumstances where change is needed because we will be challenged to take action – in other words, make it happen. Either way we claim we will lose focus and be distracted from the mission we are locked into at the time.

Just as the health of our bodies is compromised when warning signals are ignored or overridden, social systems become corrupted when the ground truth of members is not heard or heeded. Social systems can continue to function, in general, despite certain levels of corruption, albeit their effectiveness and efficiency are significantly reduced depending on the type, degree, and pervasiveness of the corruption. Change is particularly problematic in established social systems. Power concentrates in the tops of the ruling hierarchies, corruption increases, and along with it an aversion to change that might disrupt the structure, grows. As a result, these hierarchies uphold tenets and “rules” that support the dominant culture remaining dominant.

Ruling minorities become increasingly distant from their ruled majorities. In so doing they become increasingly cut-off from what is really happening within the social systems they are charged to “protect and serve.” Ground truth exists in the heads, hearts, and souls of social system members whether it is sought after and cared for or not. People and their truth, like life itself, will find a way to express itself, even it means setting in motion disruptive patterns of behavior that threaten to totally transform the system in which they exist. David Brooks, in his editorial entitled, “Trade, Oppression, Revenge,” published in the NY Times on December 25, 2005, illustrates this point through a very recent example. The native Indian people of Bolivia, who comprise 65% of the population, dominated for years by a ruling white elite representing 3% of the population and controlling almost all of the resources in the country, used the democratic process to elect an Indian president. What is in store for the ruling minority of Bolivia and their repressive, exploitative policies? Something not nearly as pleasant as it could have been had the ground truth been spoken, heard, understood, heeded, and the outcomes confirmed.

Therein lays the challenge with respect to ground truth: some have to want to hear, some have to be willing to say, and others still have to respond to what the truth means about the design of the system and make changes accordingly. For any sensor to work effectively, regardless of type or application, its input signal must be captured, processed, and acted upon. This certainly pertains to people as social sensors in human social systems: their input is in the form of valuable stories to tell and their experiences constitute important feedback in regulating the function and adaptation of these same systems. Are you asking…and listening?

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 26, 2005

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