Social Science

An experimental study of collective self-organization in crisis mapping
Duncan J. Watts, Microsoft Research

A central problem—arguably the central problem—in organization science is how groups of people coordinate to solve common tasks or sets of tasks. Of particular interest are “complex” tasks, meaning roughly tasks that are (a) too large for any one person, (b) comprised of distinct subtasks with varied requirements, and (c) exhibiting some degree of interdependency among the subtasks.

Traditionally human organizations are studied using observational approaches—for example, comparative studies of successful vs. unsuccessful firms, or single-firm case studies. Conclusions from observational studies, however, are often confounded by the many factors other than the mechanism of coordination itself that also affect performance, such as variability in human capital, leadership, and environment (e.g. the economy, competition, regulations, technology spillovers etc.).

Understanding the causal relationship between collective organization and collective problem solving therefore requires controlled experimentation. Because of practical limits, however, lab studies of organizations have been severely limited both in terms of the size of groups that can be accommodated, and also the type of tasks—mainly extremely simple and largely artificial—that can be studied. The result is that it has been difficult to generalize the insights from lab studies to real organizations.

In this talk I describe a series of web-based “virtual lab” experiments in which groups of workers of various sizes—ranging from 1 to 32—self-organize to solve a realistic crisis-mapping problem, in which the groups are given one hour to create an annotated map of crisis-related events based on 1600 social media reports that were generated during Typhoon Pablo, which hit the Philippines in Dec 2012. As I will argue, crisis mapping is relatively simple yet still “complex” (in the sense defined above), hence it serves as a useful “model task” for studying the relationship between organization and collective problem solving. Crisis mapping is also very much a real-world problem, and hence our research can also be viewed as making a practical contribution to the field of crisis mapping itself.

Background Review Article:

Watts, D. J. "Computational social science: Exciting progress and future directions." The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering 43.4 (2013): 5-10.

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Social Science

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