Tell us about your research
My research involves crowd-sourcing and collective intelligence. Currently we’re looking at whether or not an organization can enjoy the workflow benefits of a traditional hierarchical structure even if they rely on crowdsourcing to complete critical tasks. The idea is that we’re creating a new form of microtask workflow that can integrate with the workflow structure of an organization. Organizations use hierarchies to do complex things and to communicate across the organization. Within the hierarchy, multiple individuals have context over large pieces of the organization, and these individuals communicate to ensure that information gets passed along appropriately. But organizational hierarchies don’t work when you have people coming in for short amounts of time. So that’s essentially what we’re exploring: whether or not you can have the benefits of hierarchies in regard to crowdsourcing tasks.
What issues have you encountered so far?
In the hierarchy, there are coordination costs, or management costs of passing information from here to there. When you have people randomly coming in for short amounts of time, these costs can be prohibitive. There are also questions of how you structure these hierarchies; for example, what are the patterns that you might use in these relationships? So we’re trying to work on all of these things and hoping to get somewhere with it soon.
What are the benefits of this research to society?
I started thinking about this when the Syrian Refugee Crisis was just starting. At that time, I was wrestling with what I could do to support relief efforts. I knew that my research in crowd-sourcing, and in bringing people together to accomplish tasks, could help. Previously, crowd-sourcing had worked for relatively simple tasks. People were pushing the boundaries of how complex you could get, but when you have very interdependent tasks, current microtask workflows don’t work. The context is completely broken, and so any errors that are introduced just propagate. I wanted to find a way to organize large numbers of people to support nonprofits by working on technical projects that support what they’re already doing. We started doing this with refugee resettlement agencies in the area.
Where in the world would you like to travel?
I want to go everywhere. So many problems now are global, and I feel like I don’t understand the perspectives of a lot of people and a lot of cultures. I would just love to visit a lot of different places and engage in the different communities and nonprofits there.
Is there someplace in Santa Cruz you like to go to get away?
I like to go to the beach, and I like that I can just walk into the forest from my office. That’s really nice. But to be honest, this first year, I’ve been so heads-down on working that I haven’t really had time to explore much.