Exploratory philanthopy and public-service content

Gates' telescope

While this might be a typically hilarious technocratic and somewhat bloodless statement by Bill Gates, you have to admire the project itself:

‘”LSST is truly an internet telescope which will put terabytes of data each night into the hands of anyone that wants to explore it. [It is] a shared resource for all humanity – the ultimate network peripheral device to explore the universe,” he said.’

Gates gives $10m, Charles Simonyi gives 20$m. Various other software billionaires are exploring the human genome, or building space programmes.

In the past I’ve somewhat facetiously wondered what would happen if the BBC used it’s annual billions to move into space exploration, creating entertainments as spin-off.

A question I asked Max and Jack in the pub before Christmas was – what if these ‘exploratory billionaires’ made a land-grab for the public-service broadcaster’s territory instead?

Gates after all already owns Corbis etc., Google is mapping and measuring the Earth constantly for representation. While these are definitely for-profit enterprises, what if Larry and Sergey et al decided not to settle for just Google Earth but go after “Planet Earth” also?

If Google decided to beat the BBC’s Natural History Unit at it’s own game, what would be the result?

What if they decided to devote technology, money, phd’s and determination to mapping, recording, simulating, visualising and telling stories of the natural world with data rather than film. A kind of Quokka-for-nature, might be one possible outcome I guess.

What if they offered all of the data and assets they gather to scientists, students, schoolkids, storytellers with an open license? What if they gave it to games developers, educators, exhibitions to be used in playful, interactive, engaging ways?

Currently in the domain of natural history, there are efforts to build a ‘commons of content’ such as ARKive that are, pretty good, (although the Terms of Service are not exactly inviting) but you can’t help thinking if someone of the GOOG mindset and resource-base got their hands on it, it would be truly, literally awe-inspiring.

I guess the thrust of my question is what happens when software people with serious resources behind them get very, very serious about what’s traditionally seen as the preserve of ‘content’ or ‘editorial’.

Often at ‘content companies’, especially notable public-service broadcasters (ahem) – the great teams taking technical, systemic approaches to knowledge are indulged and somewhat encouraged at early stages, but if there is a spark of promise then ‘of course someone editorial will be brought in’ above them.

This does not often end well.

The troubling thought, that even in core areas of expertise with glorious heritage such as natural history, we’ll see that public-service broadcasters can, and will get dis-intermediated in a world where data is played with as much as stories are told.

Based on the rise of ‘exploratory philanthopy’ that aims to create “a shared resource for all humanity” as evidenced in quotes like Gate’s above, this might not be a bad thing…

3 comments
  1. pat said:

    Was at a World Entrepreneurs Conference yesterday, and the whole question of how tech giants are ‘building the infrastructure of the information commons’ willy-nilly, and at what point they ‘gift’ it to the world, came up again and again. I even met a wonderful guy from BT’s ‘open source’ division, and was too shy to ask whether that meant they’d given up their copyright claim on hyperlinks… :-/ Was also reading a New Yorker piece yesterday on Google goes to Washington – and part of their case against being investigated for anti-trust/monopoly was that they’re scanning books under ‘fair use’. Hey, that old public library stand-by… Great idea, Matt. But as ever, I’m interested in the policy-political chicanery that can set the marketplace rules so that good results happen.

  2. balf said:

    Like. A lot. Nice counterpoint to Denton anti-old media activism.

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