Building a True Information Commons

In the mid-20th century, R. Buckminster Fuller proposed the construction of a monumental globe to be suspended above New York’s East River within view of the United Nations building. It was to be covered with millions of tiny light bulbs, essentially forming an immense, spherical computer display. It would present a constantly-updated graphical summary of the various facts and statistics comprising “ground truth” of the state of the planet. It was Fuller’s belief that such a “God’s eye” view of Earth and the activities of its inhabitants would empower and inspire the UN delegates –and everyone else– to better consider all the consequences of their decisions and thus be more likely to “do the right thing” from a global perspective.

25 years later, Computer Scientist David Gelernter, (Mirror Worlds, 1989) envisioned a global, public, digital model of the state of the planet, into which real-time data would be constantly fed, digested, and reflected back to millions of personal computers to be visualized and analyzed by countless people for countless purposes.

Writing in different times and from very different points of view, Fuller and Gelernter describe a common vision: that technology has made it possible for individuals to apprehend the world and its activities as a single system. For the first time, the slogan “Think globally, act locally” might cease to be a vague platitude and instead become the modus operandi of a more rational and humane world.

Both of these proposals were seen as quixotic in their day, but in the intervening years, the essential substance of their common vision has become, at least from a technical perspective, completely practical. The maturing of the Internet, plus new distributed database technologies and peer-to-peer (P2P) networking have brought us to the threshold of a true “Information Commons,” capable of achieving this vision. The Civium® Foundation, as an endowed not-for-profit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), international in scope, will set in motion the fulfillment of this vision. Its mission is to:

  1. Set in order the basic facts of the world
  2. Make them freely available to all as part of the human commonwealth
  3. Develop this resource as a venue for collaborative exploration, creation, and recreation

The Opportunity

A vast amount of “public” information exists in digital form. But, most of it resides in scattered “data silos”–isolated and often poorly-designed web pages that sometimes feel more like lock boxes than efficient media for sharing. More seriously, virtually all of it is under the exclusive editorial control of individual corporations, organizations, or governments. Unlike, say, the corpus of scientific publications or the open, vastly distributed world of literature, it is all intrinsically vulnerable to the agendas of the institutions who control it.

The stunning success of Wikipedia bears witness to what can be accomplished by diverse, loose knit individuals, given the right technology and a modicum of organization. But even it, despite almost heroic efforts toward openness and neutrality, is ultimately under the editorial control of a single entity. Moreover, it and similar efforts are essentially literary in nature: their end result is not a model of the world, but rather a set of documents —very useful for human perusal, but unsuited as a reliable infrastructure upon which to build a rational future.

The so-called “Semantic Web”, albeit intended to address the latter deficiency, represents local hill climbing from ad hoc, poorly architected systems, largely uninformed by even basic design-science principles.

It is time to move past pre-scientific approaches to this issue. A true “Information Commons” — combining the scope and openness of Wikipedia with the decentralization and audit-ability of traditional literary/scientific citations is fully feasible from a technical perspective. The proposed Civium Foundation will attack and solve the remaining impediments to the realization of this vision.

Our challenges are technical, social and political.  We must:

  • Maximize Information Liquidity: the ability for information to flow freely where and when it is needed. For deep reasons, today’s client-server web, backed by relational databases, exhibits very poor liquidity. In contrast, P2P networks (with small chunks of data replicated in widely distributed data stores) are intrinsically liquid. Unfortunately, P2P has become associated with such legally questionable activities as music “sharing”. Moreover, commercial interests often see P2P as a threat to prevailing business models that depend on the localization of data assets in tightly controlled databases. Separating the promise of the underlying technologies from these historically-driven perceptions represents a significant challenge.
  • Develop a Consistent, Persistent World Model. The Web today is a medium for sharing fragmented bits of ephemera. Information on a page remains available only as long as its owner remains motivated to maintain that page, which often is not long and is never “forever”. In contrast, traditionally published texts comprise a highly persistent, self-correcting, cumulative space of deeply cross-referenced documents. On the Web, hypertext links inevitably go “dead” sooner or later. But a print citation rarely does. Civium employs an information architecture and database technology in which: (a) All structures are layered upon small, modular units of information (called “U-forms”), each with a Universally Unique Identifier (UUID); (b) ownership of sets of data is separated from ownership of data items themselves; (c) massive P2P replication guarantees independence from central infrastructure and censorship threats and maximizes persistence; (d) cryptographic signatures ensure data integrity and proper attribution; (e) metadata such as provenance, change history, etc, can be maintained at unprecedented granularity. The ability to do time-series analyses is integral.
  • Reverse the Erosion of the Public Domain. As many have observed, recent political, technical, and economic forces have conspired to marginalize the availability of information that is “clean” from an intellectual-property (IP) perspective. The vast majority of websites contain the ritualistic inscription “All Rights Reserved”, even in cases (such as the United Nations–to pick just one example) in which one might naively think that the sentiment so expressed was at odds with the mission of the owner of the site). So-called “click-through” contracts purporting to limit the uses to which Web-published data may be legally put stand guard at the entrances to almost all of the most useful data-oriented websites. information entering the Commons will in no case bear greater restrictions than those demanded by its contributor. It will actively advocate for the public domain and will favor open sources of data when available.

Foundations

Civium is an initiative of MAYA Design–a technology design consultancy with more than 20 years’ experience studying and developing pervasive computing technologies. It is currently being funded by MAYA as an internal research and development effort, but is intended to eventually be spun out as an endowed not-for-profit foundation. The later step, which will require funding beyond MAYA’s internal resources, will involve raising an endowment adequate to ensure the administration of the Civium World Model in perpetuity.

MAYA Design and Visage. MAYA’s business model involves both work-for-hire commercial design services and also basic research in areas relevant to the emerging field of pervasive computing and collaborative systems. Our research has been funded by a mixture of government research funding–primarily from the US Defense Advanced Research Administration (DARPA)–and internal research and development budgets. The Civium agenda as described here is a direct product of two decades of highly programmatic research whose goal has been the emergence of a robust architecture for the Information Commons. In particular, a research project known as Visage represents the embodiment of many years of research and experimentation concerning how humans can use highly liquid information systems and advanced visualization techniques as a medium for large-scale collaboration and distributed decision-making. The results of these efforts have been widely recognized for their foresight and rigor, and have been extremely well-received by both the government R&D world and by a number of significant (mostly military) operational communities. By the late 1990’s, these enthusiasms on the part of our sponsors began to create significant internal tensions, tending to drag MAYA away from its core role as an R&D organization and toward a production-engineering role for which it is poorly suited.

Maya Viz. As a result of these tensions, we decided in 1998 to spin off a new company, Maya Viz, with the mission to produce a professional-quality version of Visage and to market it to both the commercial and the government sectors. The new company was led by the late Dr. Steve Roth, our longtime research partner and a recognized founder of the discipline of information visualization. Viz quickly grew to exceed the parent company in size and revenue, and drew the increasing attention of technical strategists in both the commercial and the military domains. Although a tiny project by government standards, the commercial version of Visage (known as CoMotion®) became widely recognized as providing capabilities for information sharing that no other available technology could approach. It has been deployed in varied commercial settings, including energy management, transportation scheduling, and pharmaceutical research. A watershed event occurred in 2003 when Major General Pete Chiarelli, then commander of the US Army’s 1st Calvary Division, was shown a demonstration of a CoMotion-based military planning tool, known as Command Post of the Future (CPoF). Chiarelli was sufficiently impressed that he immediately procured funding for an experimental fielding of the technology in his new command, scheduled for deployment to Baghdad in early 2004. (http://www.infovis.org/infovis/2005/roth.shtml). This experimental deployment was so successful that Viz found itself on a course leading toward a large-scale government project far beyond anything that we had the skills or inclinations to manage. As a result, in April of 2005, MAYA Viz was sold to General Dynamics Corporation, under terms that reserve to MAYA Design and its owners the rights to pursue the use of the core Visage technology for non-defense-related purposes, including the development of the Information Commons. In particular, we specifically reserved the right to put certain of the basic techniques of the system into the public domain. This was done in anticipation of the Civium initiative. Under General Dynamics, CPoF has continued to prosper, and has become a Program of Record within the DoD, and has twice been recognized with DARPA’s highest awards for excellence. Based on the same technology as the Information Commons, CPoF represents a compelling validation of the power and efficacy of the approach.

The Vision

To support this vision, the Civium Foundation will need to be a unique, multidisciplinary institution, designed to attract and retain world-class experts in such diverse areas as library science, information architecture, distributed database technology, and information visualization. It is to be structured as a two-tiered organization:

1) At the core will be a small, highly focussed Commons Management group, responsible for the acquisition, organization, dissemination, and maintenance of the core Commons information space. This core operation must, we believe, be funded from the beginning by an endowment of sufficient size to ensure its status as a permanent institution. Two requirements are irreducible: The initiative will simply fail unless it is widely believed from the start that (a) the Commons will endure; and (b) it will be free and open for all. The first of these requirements demands a highly plausible long-term funding model, and the second ensures that no possible version of the “social venture” approach to funding will suffice. This core activity will “live within its means” and by charter will limit itself to its core mission–choosing permanence and reliability over growth. Its activities will include advocacy for open information access and the preservation of the public domain, but beyond that it will maintain a strict political neutrality and economic independence.

Integral to the core operation of the foundation will be the Steve Roth Center for Information Visualization. Named in honor of the late co-creator of Visage and a founder of the field of Information Visualization, the Roth Center will attend to the development and deployment of the advanced visualization technologies that are and will continue to be essential to the realization of the vision of the Commons. Like all Civium efforts, the work products of the Center will be freely available as an integral part of the Foundations core mission.

2) Around this core function will accrue (over time) a circle of complementary secondary activities, including research and development projects, “special projects” such as on-line exhibitions and promotional activities, and a visiting scholars program. These activities will be chosen to complement the core mission, and provide a vibrancy and continued freshness to the organization. These activities will not be eligible for endowment funding, but will be funded by project-based grants and government research contracts. These second-tier activities will be highly entrepreneurial and their size will grow and shrink according to their own merits and success. The organizations bylaws will contain strict controls to prevent these activities from threatening the viability or independence of the core Information Commons mission. These activities will have a lower priority in the early years of the Foundation.

Current Status

The Civium initiative is currently a privately-funded initiative of MAYA. Most of the the technical foundations have been developed and proven in various commercial and governmental contexts. Work continues on the Civium-specific realizations of these technologies. We have not yet begun active fund-raising, but are interested in engaging in preliminary discussions with potential funders. The total requirements for the endowment will be approximately $20M. We anticipate an “all in” funding model involving binding pledges to be funded only when the entire amount has been pledged. That is, the organization will not launch as an independent entity until its financial stability is assured. MAYA will contribute the rights for the Foundation to use the Visage technology pursuant to its core mission.