How did a Bunch of Amateurs… Get it Done?

When Ito learned that Japan experienced a magnitude 9 earthquake, he thought immediately of his family. As he tuned into news reports, information was scarce. Official government organizations weren’t releasing much in a general effort to avoid panic. And, all the “experts” didn’t have enough data to act on.

It was ordinary people — thru Twitter — that provided real data, real answers to Joi Ito, now director of the MIT Media Lab (who was in Boston at the time interviewing for the job). When the nuclear plan shutdown at Fukushima, Ito’s frustration reached peak levels because of his worries of whether people — especially his family — were safe.

From TED2014, Joi Ito (now director of MIT Media Lab) talk about safecast project
From TED2014, Joi Ito (now director of MIT Media Lab) talk about safecast project

Rather than relying on inaccurate and highly edited information from government agencies, Ito began connecting online, to build a virtual team. That distributed group was able to crowdsource Geiger-counter readings, to map the hot zones. This let some 3 million data points to be collected. More importantly, it enabled people to avoid the hot spots, to stay away from the nuclear fallout.

As he describes, “people took matters into their own hands rather than waiting for institutions to solve the problem”. Loosely formed at first, this group is now called “safecast” which focused on the tools, infrastructure and support for data to be uploaded by anyone / everyone. And what took place is now believed to be the single largest citizen science project. New powers, new outcomes…

And the question is always this: “how did a bunch of amateurs* who have no authorization, plan, or particular expertise do what NGOs and the government had no ability to do (and do it so fast!)”

They did it using the principles of the social era. Instead of plans and formal processes, they focused on doing. Instead of doing what was “required”, they figured out what was necessary. Most central– they tapped into the people who cared, the people who wanted to come together to solve a problem. Today, connected people can now do what once only large organizations could. That’s the fundamental truth of the social era. Those people then share information and organized in such a way that many could act as one.

Safecast is an example (one of many I’m tracking) of a new form of power, a new way of work. It was Alvin Toffler, via his book Future Shock, who pointed out that every economic system is based on knowledge systems. Because of the incredibly prevalent, and free distribution of information (thank you Google, Wikipedia, Tim Berners Lee, the EFF, and all those that continue to fight for an open web) it has a democratizing effect.

But it’s also something else. Something more plainly said than “knowledge systems” or a burgeoning economic system.

What we’re describing here can be called by a simple name: community. Mobilized by Care. Organized by Trust. Motivated by Purpose. Communities can get things done. They can allow seemingly powerless people do powerful things. And, more to the point, communities enable anyone – quite possibly everyone – to create value … however, and wherever they can.

Here more of Joi Ito’s story, and what he thinks are the organizing principles that allowed him to do what he did.


* The word amateur is derived from  French, and ultimately from Latin… amatorem nom. amator, or “lover”.  An amateur is someone who loves. Maybe a viable hypothesis of why Amateurs succeed where “Professionals” may not?

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