Decentralized, complex adaptive systems meet realpolitik and journalism. Finally.
December 3rd, 2005 by Tom Johnson

couple of articles have passed across our desk in recent days that
illustrate the impact — and  importance of understanding —
decentralized (or “distributed”) systems and
complex adaptive systems.

For starters, take a look at “Reinventing 911
How a swarm of networked ¬≠citizens is building a better ¬≠emergency broadcast system.”

Author Gary Wolf writes:
I've been talking with security experts about one of the thorniest
problems they face: How can we protect our complex society from massive
but unpredictable catastrophes? The homeland security establishment has
spent an immeasurable fortune vainly seeking an answer, distributing
useless, highly specialized equipment, and toggling its multicolored
Homeland Security Advisory System back and forth between yellow, for
elevated, and orange, for high. N
ow I've come [to Portland, Oregon] to take a look at a
different set of tools, constructed outside the control of the federal
government and based on the notion that the easier it is for me to find
out about a loose dog tying up traffic, the safer I am from a terrorist

“To understand the true nature of warnings, it helps to see them not
as single events, like an air-raid siren, but rather as swarms of
messages racing through overlapping social networks, like the buzz of
gossip. Residents of New Orleans didn't just need to know a hurricane
was coming. They also needed to be informed that floodwaters were
threatening to breach the levees, that not all neighborhoods would be
inundated, that certain roads would become impassible while alternative
evacuation routes would remain open, that buses were available for
transport, and that the Superdome was full.

“No central authority possessed this information. Knowledge was
fragmentary, parceled out among tens of thousands of people on the
ground. There was no way to gather all these observations and deliver
them to where they were needed. During Hurricane Katrina, public
officials from top to bottom found themselves locked within
conventional channels, unable to receive, analyze, or redistribute news
from outside. In the most egregious example, Homeland Security
secretary Michael Chertoff said in a radio interview that he had not
heard that people at the New Orleans convention center were without
food or water. At that point they'd been stranded two days.

“By contrast, in the system Botterell created for California,
warnings are sucked up from an array of sources and sent automatically
to users throughout the state. Messages are squeezed into a standard
format called the Common Alerting Protocol, designed by Botterell in
discussion with scores of other disaster experts. CAP gives precise
definitions to concepts like proximity, urgency, and certainty.
Using CAP, anyone who might respond to an emergency can choose to get
warnings for their own neighborhood, for instance, or only the most
urgent messages. Alerts can be received by machines, filtered, and
passed along. The model is simple and elegant, and because warnings can
be tagged with geographical coordinates, users can customize their cell
phones, pagers, BlackBerries, or other devices to get only those
relevant to their precise locale.”

Second item of interest
I'm sure many of you noted Dexter Filkins Pg1 lead story in the NYT on
Friday, 2 Dec. 2005.  The online version headline is “
Profusion of Rebel Groups Helps Them Survive in Iraq
.”  That, unfortunately, lacks the truth and insight of the print version headline:
“Loose Structure of Rebels Helps them Survive in Iraq — While Al Qaeda Gains Attention, Many Small Groups Attack on Their Own.

seems that finally someone in the journalism community has figured out
that what's happening in Iraq — and around the world — is a
decentralize, CAS.  Too bad journalists — journalism educators, students and professionals — haven't been exposed to the
concepts and vocabulary to really present the problem in all its, ahem,

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