Finding where a photo has been shot

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This is a very neat application and a wonderful example of the power of the collective (a combination of multiple independent people’s activities and algorithms). By comparing pictures on Flickr that have geolocation information supplied with those that are unknown the authors can fairly accurately guess the location at which photos were taken.

How cool is that?

Of course, they get it wrong pretty often, but they reckon they can do about 30 times better than chance, which is no mean feat. What we see, therefore, is a means for collective human intelligence to augment (but not replace) individual human intelligence. I love this stuff.

Now all we have to do is to find an educational application.

I think it shows an interesting feature of collective applications in general, which is that they are inherently fuzzy. I would never trust one that told me with authority that it had the answer to what I seek. Google, the archetype, is pretty good at finding the right things when fed with appropriate keywords, but not perfect. It, and applications like this one, can offer choices that help us to narrow down the search but, ultimately, it is we who are selecting the right things for our needs. While systems can help by offering interface cues (e.g. list position in Google) the final arbiters are us. If we don’t get the definitive answer first time, we must find more evidence or improve our search. A skill for the twenty first century that we all need to learn is therefore fine-grained decision making, to successfully judge the value and validity of a relatively small selection of competing resources or ‘facts’. Synthesis and analysis come next, but they are subordinate to using the collective wisdom of the crowd.

It bugs the hell out of me that there are those who believe that the Google generation are getting dumber because of Google. These are higher order skills than we have ever had to deal with in the past. Collective intelligence gives us a shin-up, a means of climbing the intellectual ladder to give us a head start. But rather than making us dumber, it should just put us higher up so that we can be smarter.

The trouble is, there are still educators who are trying to perpetuate and assess skills that the collective is more than capable of surpassing. This is pointless. Requiring students to repeat knowledge that they can easily get from Wikipedia or Google is like assessing basic arithmetical skills on a graduate level mathematics course when the students all use calculators. We might mourn the passing of mental arithmetic skills but let’s get over it and move on. Or, if we think it is so important to develop mental skills which don’t rely on technology, let’s scrap this whole stupid book idea and, while we’re about it, let’s stop writing too. These things are so bad for our mental acuity and we rely on them too much.
Created:Fri, 20 Jun 2008 07:04:18 GMT

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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