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

Keeping the Beat with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

My association with Jump Rhythm Jazz Project (JRJP) extends to early 1998 when Billy Siegenfeld and a cadre of JRJP dancers performed in Lakeway, TX at a Leadership for INstitutional Change (LINC) workshop sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation1. The purpose of their performance was three-fold. First, make rhythm and dance integral in the design of the leadership workshop as an appeal to the auditory-musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences of attendees, à la Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Second, act as a disruptive force among attendees and prompt them to consider a different line of thinking about leadership – followership and changing roles and responsibilities within a dynamic community. Third, provide a divertissement that would be engaging and entertaining.

The JRJP performance and subsequent question and answer period exceeded all expectations. Those who were intellectually (and physically!) asleep came to life. Those who had difficulties crossing the boundary separating their realities and the views of reality imposed by the dominant culture found a bridge. Those who believed that the most effective leadership was one that exercised control and focused choices were introduced to an open, participatory alternative that obviously worked. To this day, attendees at this workshop comment on the powerful effect JRJP had on them – it was transformational.

At the heart of JRJP is rhythm – the beat. Organized human endeavor is a pattern of communication or sustained conversation through which people give voice to what is important to them, achieve understanding, reach agreement, and garner commitment. Patterns, even conversational ones, have rhythm and voice – who is in what conversation about which topic. Changing an individual or an organization means changing conversations. Effective leaders change rhythm patterns to change conversations; over time, the people within the organization, and eventually the organization itself, change.

Because dance plays heavily on certain dimensions of human intelligence, it is a medium through which societal problems are addressed and different responses considered. A great dance presents a problem or situation for the audience to consider that is within their realm of experience and influence – a type of Theater for the Oppressed as conceived by Augusto Boal only in the form of dance and music. Through these the audience is invited to join the dancers in deliberating on social issues and exploring alternative approaches (recent examples in the JRJP repertoire include “Sorrows of Unison Dancing” and “The New from Poems”).

Building on rhythm and voice, JRJP displays a choreographic technique and musical score that is approachable and familiar. The dancers and the dance are engaging and invite participation by the audience. It is democratic in its purest sense. Democracy, though, carries certain responsibilities. As an organization, JRJP was forced to learn about these democratic principles in the context of its own behavior so that what was demonstrated in the performances was a true reflection of its own experience. The more that JRJP has found this touch point in itself the more engaging it has become with audiences worldwide. But getting there was not simple!

In July 2003, JRJP board members, staff, dancers, and close friends participated in a series of moderated conversations at a planning retreat. The intention was to drill down into what it meant to be members of JRJP and what JRJP needed to do to sustain itself into the future. The outcome of the retreat was the realization of three key points: first, JRJP was a great experience for most, but not all – surprisingly, Billy being the one experiencing the least joy; second, participating in the good things that JRJP had to offer was not associated with a commensurate level of shared responsibility – some, like Billy, had far more to do than others causing him to feel overwhelmed and living a life out of balance; and third, JRJP was heavily dependent on Billy; if he stopped doing what he did JRJP was at grave risk – sustainability was in question. This realization led to several actions including seating an Executive Director so that Billy could focus on being the Artistic Director, expanding the board membership to get more outreach to funders and supporters, defining and strengthening staff positions for distribution of operations among qualified personnel who were adequately paid for their work, and locating a home for JRJP somewhere other than Billy’s condo. These are done. And the level of performance for JRJP reflects this success!

But JRJP is not done. On June 4, 2006 there will be a second retreat. The purpose of this retreat is to make explicit what the company has accomplished, why it was able to do that, how it does what it does, and what that learning means for future activities. While many have experienced the recent changes in JRJP, several are not aware of why those changes happened and their significance for the future. The exercise of participatory democracy as a governing principle rather than hierarchical dictatorship speaks to an effective leadership – followership model. Showing others how to do this through the medium of rhythm, dance, and music is a significant deliverable JRJP can add to its repertoire.

To do this will require touching these past experiences, giving them voice, and building a confidence in moving them forward for others to learn. A different language will need to be developed that recasts what seems to be the same in the eyes of the uninitiated so that they have a very different understanding of what is going on. It is storytelling of the highest order. Between now and the retreat time and energy will be devoted to telling the JRJP story – both what has happened and the dreams for the future. By the time the retreat draws nigh, there will be a lexicon of terms and phrases incorporated into stories of vision and mission and proposals to funders that broaden the sense of what JRJP is up to for the next 5 years. It is a process of bringing the future into the present and giving it voice. JRJP will persist but will not be the same!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Monday, December 5, 2005

  1. Susan Fugate, “Kellogg Foundation Initiative Seeks to Catalyze Change at Land-Grant Institutions,” Journal of Extension 34, no. 5 (1996):https://joe.org/joe/1996october/a1.php

Ménière’s Disease: Requiem for My Left Ear

This past Friday, my doctor told me I have Ménière’s disease. These two words explained a week of incessant, high-pitched ringing and pulse-throbbing pressure in my left ear, an unsteady gait when walking, and a counter-clockwise swirling of the room following any rapid movement of my head. The only action that seemed to curb it was sleeping, which is what I did. While there was much to be done, I felt like doing NOTHING!

Of course, I indulged in self-diagnosis in between waves of vertigo. Was it the result of too much coffee? Too little down-time? A simple case of the flu? I settled on three possibilities: an inoperable brain tumor (in deference to my mother – may God rest her soul – who believed in establishing an extremely severe alternative no matter how unlikely so that almost any diagnosis made by the doctor would be good news in comparison); an ear infection (where my bets were placed); and wax build-up in the ear canal (I knew this one was a long-shot, but it at least served as a balance to the first choice). Ménière’s disease?! Never heard of it!

“What is it?” I asked. The doctor offered an explanation: no one knows what causes it…could be genetic…could be a virus…there is no cure…it comes and goes unpredictably…you have atypical vestibular Ménière’s disease because you are not experiencing hearing loss in the left ear…long term prognosis is that you probably will have total, permanent hearing loss…severe vertigo can be incapacitating due to nausea and vomiting…can only treat the symptoms…surgery works in some cases to lessen vertigo. In the meantime, here is a prescription for 25mg of Meclizine to reduce dizziness…the side-effects include feeling lightheaded, sleepy, having blurred vision, change in thinking clearly…avoid driving, doing other tasks or activities that require alertness or clear vision. Anything else I can do for you?

I entered into the privacy of the doctor’s office aware of my very real, but unspecified condition. It was real because I physically and mentally experienced its consequences. And in that moment it was mine alone. No one else knew what I had or how I was affected by it, not even my wife who accompanied me. However, the doctor gave it a name. He now knew, my wife knew, and I knew and I was no longer alone with the unknowable.

The mere fact that it was symbolized with letters gave it a virtual existence extending far beyond me and touching the millions of others who have the same condition. This virtualization gives me access to the experiences, knowledge, empathy, and understanding of others; and they to mine. Because of a name, Ménière’s disease, such widespread connectedness becomes a powerful way for me to learn about myself and the result may carry far beyond the bounds of the condition. So, to start…

A Google search on the term, “Ménière’s disease” yields 667,000 results. A search of Amazon generates two pages of books, journals, magazines, even herbal medicines. There are 28 Yahoo! Groups and 3 Google Groups and almost 2700 groups across the Internet dedicated to the Ménière’s-related topics such as tinnitus, vertigo / dizziness, vestibular virus, etc. There are countless variations on how Ménière’s manifests itself and what people who have it do in response. The choices are many, ranging from pharmacological prescriptions to alternative medicines, and from low-salt diets to surgery.

It is almost impossible NOT to get connected. Clearly, I don’t know what’s next for me with Ménière’s — I could have another episode tomorrow or I could never have another one. At the moment I have no vertigo, no hearing loss, no spinning computer screen, no pressure in the ear, only a slight ringing. The prescription for Meclizine is filled, but unused. So in the moment, I go on reading more, asking more, learning more. And even if I don’t have call to use this knowledge for myself, I have it at hand in case others I meet or know are afflicted with similar symptoms and diagnoses. This potential for learning together in the future marks a distinct value of virtualization. If and when Ménière’s strikes again and the realization of the condition hits me hard, I thank all of you in the vast global network in advance for imparting your knowledge and wisdom and making me a better person for it!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Saturday, October 22, 2005 and updated on Monday, October 24, 2005

Conversations and Stories

As mentioned in an earlier post, integrity is manifested through the filters and screens that make up the various affiliations in a person’s life. Some of these affiliations are stronger, newer, and exercise greater influence than others. Because of these differences, integrity is not necessarily central in a person’s affiliation landscape as evidenced in the graphic below. Furthermore, this positioning is not static. As time passes, the filters and screens vary in intensity and significance, and the balance point for integrity shifts.

Filters and Screens

We humans are social creatures. We have highly evolved language skills and capabilities which we use to communicate with each other through conversation. These conversations convey meaning about us, our situations, our needs, and our aspirations. Essentially, they are our stories.

Stories are structured conversations we have with others about our experiences and the meanings they hold for us. Because of the influence exacted by filters and screens upon us, the stories we tell at one time may be quite different than the stories we tell at another time, place, and circumstance. Stories are contextual. The “truth” they express is relative.

As stated in an earlier post, establishing ground truth is a critical first step for knowledge brokers to ascertain behavior and communication patterns and make relevant responses be they positive or negative. Proclaiming one’s ground truth is an exercise of story-telling. Context is crucial if the reality that shapes a person’s story and truth can be well-understood and acted upon appropriately.

Stories are dependent on the conditions that exist at the time of their telling. The forum — who is in the conversation, where it occurs, when it takes place, and what processes are followed — and the agenda — topics for conversation, expected outcomes from the conversation, and next steps to be taken — are major determinants in how the story is told. Even the same experience shared by many will be related differently depending on the forum and agenda.

Knowledge brokers are concerned about ground truth because of the implications on communication patterns. Repeated over time, stories are reflections of sustained conversation themes and understanding. Changing forums and agendas changes these conversations. Changing conversations leads to experimentation and different experiences. New experiences prompt learning which leads to different stories in an attempt to make meaning out of the new experiences. These new stories influence recurring conversation themes. Told with sufficient frequency over time, stories change the underlying communication patterns and adaptation and evolution occur.

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, September 6, 2005 and updated on Saturday, September 24, 2005