Ford and open innovation

fordopeninnovationIt’s probably fair to say that Detroit hasn’t been known for its innovation over the past few decades, with the big three car companies struggling enormously in the years leading up to the credit crunch.  So it’s incredibly pleasing to see the extent to which Ford have unleashed their shackles and delved headlong into open innovation.

For instance, back in 2012 they enrolled core customers into a rapid feedback program, which would allow the company to get much quicker input from customers into their latest models.  They followed that a year later with the launch of OpenXC, which was an attempt to ensure as much of the data behind their cars gets utilized as possible.

The system was developed because Ford cars were producing all of this data that was essentially being wasted.  Historically however, access to this data has been restricted, with what wasn’t wasted being protected by the manufacturer.  OpenXC aimed to change that and allow developers access to this data to develop add-ons.

Building on from the original success of that project was the recent announcement of the launch of the Innovate Mobility Challenge Series, which will see developers and innovators come together to find novel mobility solutions in eight locations around the world.

“Reaching out to local stakeholders lets Ford more effectively address the diverse mobility challenges around the world,” said Paul Mascarenas, Ford’s chief technical officer and vice president, Research and Innovation. “Launching our Innovate Mobility Challenge Series in eight different regions will bring global and local players together in the pursuit of one goal, which is a smarter and more efficient transportation network for the future.”

There are currently three competitions open, each with a prize fund of $30,000:

  • The parking challenge wants to reimagine parking in Los Angeles, with developers encouraged to ask how can Los Angeles outdoor surface parking lots be repurposed to increase their variety of uses, or aesthetic value, while enabling parking in the city?
  • The city mobility challenge focuses on logistics in Lisbon.  developers are asked to consider how can big, real-time, or system-integrated data be used to deliver goods and services in congested streets like those in Lisbon?
  • The monsoon challenge takes place in India, and asks developers to consider how transport can evolve to cope with the kind of rainfall common throughout the country.

The open innovation initiative is all built upon the OpenXC platform that has rapidly grown over the last year.  The Innovate Mobility Challenge Series encourages developers to integrate real-time vehicle information into apps that relate to sustainability and mobility issues, whether by incorporating the data into existing apps or creating new apps from scratch.

“The OpenXC platform gives developers access to more than 15 types of vehicle data, including those related to vehicle speed, engine speed, fuel-level, and things like whether or not the windshield wipers are on or if a door is open,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader, Open Innovation, Ford Motor Company. “With these challenges, we’re reaching out to the best minds in the developer community, because we know that no single company or individual holds the answer. Local problems need local solutions, and we want to encourage that.”

In addition to the cash prizes on offer, there are some other carrots dangled in front of developers.  For instance, the Argentine challenge is also offering winners a scholarship for an Entrepreneur Postgraduate course at an Argentine university, together with meetings with Ford mobility engineers in the US.

The competition is open to both individuals and organizations with fewer than 50 employees, although larger organizations may still participate, but will do so for the non-cash Large Organization Recognition Award.  It’s yet another nice example of how Ford are encouraging innovation from whatever source it may arrive.

Diversity awards can mask real problems

EDA awardDiversity is one of the more interesting areas of modern working life.  It is undoubtedly crucial to the creativity of our organizations, but I can’t help but feel it often gets a bit misguided in its devotion to identity based diversity rather than ideas based diversity.

In The Difference Scott Page highlights four things needed for diversity to come into its own.

  1. The problem needs to be tough enough that no single person will always come up with a solution
  2. The team members need to have some intelligence in the general area of the problem
  3. The team members need to be able to incrementally improve solutions to the problem
  4. The team needs to be large enough to have a genuinely diverse talent pool

Of course, it’s probably fair to say that the notion of idea diversity is not particularly fundamental to the billion dollar diversity management industry that has mushroomed in recent years.  An interesting recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, highlights the poor success record of many organizations with supposed diversity initiatives.  Indeed, it goes as far as to suggest that many such programs end up doing more harm than good.

The research looked at the perceptions of a fake company amongst a mixed group of 135 Latino and White participants.  They were asked to rate the company on measures such as fair treatment of minority employees.  Before doing so, they were also asked to complete a survey that was designed to gauge their views on society as a whole, and in particular how fair it is.

When judging the merits of the company, they were divided into two groups.  One group was shown a profile of the company complete with numerous awards related to their success in diversity related areas.  The second group was shown a profile where the awards won by the company were more general.

Following this, each participant was asked to read a newspaper article whereby the company in question was being sued for discrimination by a Latino worker.  The employee was claiming a lack of opportunity, support and development at the company due to his ethnic background.

The participants were then asked to rate how fairly they believed the company treated minority employees generally, and their thoughts on the discrimination case.

It emerged that those in the group exposed to the diversity award winning description believed that the company was fair in its treatment of minorities.  What’s more, this was particularly so amongst the Latino participants, who were particularly scathing of the discrimination claimant.

“These findings are consistent with the idea that among those who already perceive the status quo as fair, diversity initiatives signal that minority employees are treated fairly within an organization, and hence are unlikely to be discriminated against,” they write in the journal Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. “As a result, their claims are seen as unfounded.”

They conclude that it’s important to understand the impact having diversity programs can have on perceptions of fairness in the workplace, and how they can sometimes mask problems that really do exist.

The wisdom of crowds in financial investments

crowdfundtheatreThe wisdom of crowds as a concept has been around for some time now, and has gradually grown to underpin many of the crowd based models that have flourished in recent years.  It has also fostered a good deal of discussion around the merits of experts, and just how valuable they actually are.

One of the more famous examples is of course the 2005 study conducted by Philip Tetlock, who studied 284 experts over a 20 year period to see just how many of their 28,000 or so predictions actually came to fruit.  The results were infamously rather abysmal, with the so called experts performing scarcely better than pot luck.

A slightly more recent study suggests things might not be quite as simple as that.  The study saw 1,500 forecasts made by intelligence analysts poured over to determine just how accurate the spooks were at predicting the future.  This study painted an altogether different picture.  Not only were the analysts rather accurate (75% of the time), but they also became more accurate, the more experienced they were.

The suggested theory behind the difference in outcome between the two studies is that the analysts are likely to be held account for their opinions much more than the ‘experts’ used in the Tetlock study.  That accountability in turn encourages a more conservative approach by the expert, which tends to make their predictions more accurate.

So it’s with great interest that I read a recent study that was looking at the relative performance of the crowd and a group of experts for funding arts projects.

The testing ground for the research was crowdfunding platform Kickstarter.  The researchers compiled data on a random sample of theatrical projects from the site between May 2009 and June 2012.  These 120 projects were then split into 20 groups, with each group containing at least three projects that failed to meet their funding target.  Of the three remaining successful projects in each group, one exceeded their goal by at least 110%.

The researchers then asked a team of 30 expert judges, armed with the same kind of presentation videos and photos as the Kickstarter crowd, to recommend a funding amount for each project.  Would the crowd and the experts come to similar conclusions?

The decisions of the judges and the crowd were “remarkably similar,” researcher Ethan Mollick says, adding that there was 57% to 62% agreement between them.

“The judges seem to consistently rate the successful projects higher than those that did not achieve their funding goal,” they continue. “Projects that were funded by the crowds were twice as likely to be ranked as the best project, while those that were unsuccessful were more than two times as likely to be ranked as the worst project by judges.” Judges also gave, on average, 1.5 times more money to projects that were successful in their Kickstarter goal in real life than to projects that were unsuccessful.

The main divergence between the crowd and the experts occurred when experts failed to back a project that the crowd had supported.  The researchers suggested this was because those projects were highly proficient at marketing themselves in a way that appealed to sites such as Kickstarter.  So, they may have included some great rewards for backers or used highly appealing videos.

The researchers suggest that their study could provide yet more support for the value in opening up funding to the crowd, as there was a reasonably amount of agreement between who the crowd chose and who experts chose.  Of course, we’re seeing this kind of approach in action in the various crowd based talent shows such as X Factor.

As with the original studies however, the key here would seem to be the accountability of both sets of investors.  With a financial stake in their decision, there is a tangible reason to predict wisely.  That alone seems to be enough to ensure strong decisions are made.

Making the commute more productive

BridjAs regular readers of this blog can attest, I am a big fan of flexible working, and significant research supports the notion that those who have that option tend to be both more productive and more engaged than their peers who commute to work.  Nevertheless, flexible workers tend to still form a minority of the workforce, so it makes sense to make the commute as productive as possible.

Whilst a host of digital tools have made it possible to work whilst journeying your way to the office, the stress involved in the commute can still be considerable.  Whether it’s delayed trains or significant traffic congestion, the journey to work each morning can be all rather stressful, leaving you in a frazzled state before the day has even begun.

Boston based Bridj are aiming to improve matters.  Bridji operate a shuttle service that hope to offer commuters a more enlightening way to get to work.  As with most things these days, the service is driven via a mobile app, through which users can select their desired pick up and destination points, their time of travel and to reserve a seat on the bus.

The bus comes with comfy seating, ample luggage space, and free wifi that people can tune into with their mobile devices to get on with work, checking the news and so on.  Now, that in itself is nothing new.  Indeed, when in the Czech Republic we regularly travel from Prague with the Student Agency company, who offer all of those features, plus a free drink and choice of newspaper.

Where Bridj aim to be different however is in how they determine the route they take.  Whereas most forms of public transport offer fixed routes, Bridj intend to offer something much more flexible.  The companies app shows the routes the shuttles are currently undertaking, but these routes can shift dynamically so as to better serve customers as the day progresses.  This variance is underpinned by smart data analysis and machine learning algorithms that the company hope will allow the creation of an agile network that can predict demand at any particular time and day.

As the business is still in beta mode, it is currently offering itself for free, but the plan is to eventually charge customers a ticket price of somewhere between what is currently charged for train or taxi travel.  There have been other services that aim to provide a more user friendly form of public transport, with Kustuplus doing a similar thing in Helsinki, Finland.

You access the official Kutsuplus app on your phone, from which you can summon a Kutsuplus bus to your stop (within a 10 minute lead time).  The bus that arrives will seat at least nine people and comes with space for baby carriages and bicycles.

It’s great to see various organizations attempting to innovate in how we travel throughout cities.  You can check out more about Bridgj via the video below.

Department of Education to research Khan Academy

khanresearchKhan Academy has undoubtedly made a splash in its relatively short life, and with an increasing array of high profile supporters seems only likely to continue doing so.  Earlier this summer, the organization released the findings of a two year study into how effective using the site proved to be for 20 K-12 schools in the US.

Whilst the usage of tools such as Khan Academy is still very much in its infancy, the report revealed a number of interesting findings.  Perhaps most important of all is that 71% of students said they enjoyed using Khan Academy, with 32% revealing that using the videos made them enjoy maths more than previously.

This was reflected in very high engagement figures for students using Khan.  87% of students reported being either moderately or highly engaged, with nearly 1/2 students saying that the videos helped them learn things independently of specific teaching assistance.  This independence was largely achievable due to the instant feedback students would receive on their work.

Whilst the findings were undoubtedly interesting, the fact that Khan Academy produced them casts a wee bit of doubt over the authenticity of them.  This has prompted the US Department of Education to team up with the research agency WestEd to provide an un-partisan exploration of the sites STEM potential.

The study, due to begin in the 2015-2016 academic year, will consist of a randomized control trial, with algebra teachers from a range of community colleges recruited to teach using either Khan Academy or their more usual methods.

The aim of the research is to identify both whether Khan Academy improves student outcomes, and also to identify how that improvement comes about, exploring factors such as teacher preperation, student characteristics and course structure.

Obviously, it will be a little while before the results of the study are made public, during which time it seems likely that there will be further evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, around the effectiveness of the service from other sources.

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