Keeping the Sky(lab) from Falling

Photo of the largest recovered piece of the Skylab Space Station. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

It was a crowd-sourced crisis response of sorts, the anticipated but mostly uncontrollable descent of Skylab from its perch more than 200 miles above the sky back to earth in 1979.  News reports alerted of the impending surrender of the United States’ first space station to the forces of gravity and atmospheric friction, and watchers around the world awaited an opportunity to claim a prize from the San Francisco Chronicle for finding a piece of the orbital science platform.  The $10,000 reward ultimately went to an Australian teenager who was the first to bring one of the fragments scattered across his home continent to the newspaper’s headquarters.

The response to a world event like Skylab falling is an example of a broader human aspiration: people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. Winning a prize can certainly be a motivator, but there’s also something about connecting with others in a shared experience. And although even NASA didn’t have a practical way to sustain Skylab’s orbit after the drag on the craft became too great due to the effect of unusually high solar radiation on the surrounding atmosphere, I suspect that if they could, the “crowd” would have put its shared resources to work helping NASA find a solution. It was just a lot harder back then to source solutions from individuals scattered across the globe.  Media could get the news out, but individuals couldn’t really get a response back on a global level, not without effectively delivering it to news headquarters. And they especially couldn’t put a response together as a group at that level, not in real time.  The crowd just wasn’t that efficient.

Fast-forward a generation, and today, when a crisis emerges, the crowd gets to work offering online assistance.  For instance, Konbit draws together volunteers from the Haitian diaspora to translate voice messages from Creole to English and other languages, helping connect local Haitians with aid organizations.  In the past, these same types of volunteers, moved by their compassion, would have donated funds, food and supplies; some may have even flown to the crisis location to assist in person. Now, in addition to the traditional options, they can engage broadly, directly and remotely with their skills, delivered through the Internet.

I’m encouraged by the many stories I hear like Konbit’s about people who are not only enjoying the personal benefits of a connected digital world, but also are finding new ways to make their world a better place. Last week’s Feast on Good is another example. Meeting in New York City for its fifth annual conference, the organization sees its purpose “to inspire the next generation of doers.”  And the Internet is a key enabler, as the organization’s mission states:

Mankind is now more connected with the tools to engage millions and more potential than ever to build a brighter future.

Feast on Good added a new dimension this year as volunteers hosted hundreds of dinner meetings on the last day of the conference to start local efforts in social innovation. Grass roots efforts are nothing new, but the level of interconnection, with the global network of dinner parties sharing in a larger “feast” via Twitter, surely takes this time-tested community engagement model to the next step.

In terms of technical engagement, this week’s International Conference of Crisis Mappers will gather experts to innovate the way that information is shared in crisis situations to enable responders to be more effective in bringing relief. This is one of the great use cases for “big data” solutions that acquire and analyze volumes of background information and current reports — usually incomplete, often unreliable, and scattered among sources that may have never expected to be merged together — to paint a picture of what’s really going on and how to help.  It is hard to believe that people could actually get things done without tools like these!

Finally, students themselves are finding personal reward in devoting themselves to technology-driven solutions to global challenges, and, again through the Internet, alumni are joining the charge. The MIT IDEAS Global Challenge — a program my wife and I have personally been involved in as alumni — brings student teams, alumni and other contributors together each year to develop new solutions to problems of the kind I’ve described here. Now I expect many of the solutions would be just as good if they were done just by students on campus the way that MIT IDEAS was run for its first decade. But I am truly inspired by the potential to go to the next step by connecting the dots with a global network of experts. Students still drive the teams, but alumni get to help as well.

Whether connecting alumni with student social entrepreneurs, enhancing the tools and data available to humanitarians, or bringing local dinner guests together to discuss social challenges, the Internet is unlocking tremendous potential for good.  And we’re still in the early days.  For those who want to be part of something bigger, there have never been more ways to get involved and to make an impact.  And I wonder, should the next Skylab start to tumble, if the collective wisdom of the connected crowd might be able to keep it up.

(Personal recollection:  An object bearing the label “Skylab” was once displayed, if my memory serves, at a gas station on Hanover Street in Manchester, NH. The flight trajectory suggests to me that this piece, if genuine, didn’t make it to my hometown on its own, but the enthusiasm about this global phenomenon certainly did.)

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