The Power of Less

by francine Hardaway on April 1, 2009

A weary Tim O’Reilly took the stage on April Fool’s Day to kick off Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco after a rumor had circulated that he wouldn’t appear. As it turned out, the rumor wasn’t really a joke: Tim became a grandfather at 1 AM this morning. I don’t think he was exactly well-rested.

If I were him, I wouldn’t have appeared:-) Doesn’t he know what’s important? 4535160

It turns out he does. He structured his entire presentation around babies and growth, using his personal situation as a metaphor for Web 2.0 five years later.

His theme was that we are now at a stage where the social tools we developed over the past five years for fun can  be put to work. His examples of the smarter web were pretty cool: smart grid sensors that can read the energy signal of major appliances so when your refrigerator’s motor kicks on they can identify its make and model and tell you if you should buy one that’s more energy efficient; and something called antigenic cartography  used to map flu trends (Google Flu Trends).

I’ve heard this elsewhere — that the next big thing in technology is sensors, or the automatic detection of everything. The plant that sends a tweet when it needs watering, and the sensor-based planetary skin that’s being built by NASA. In the next generation of social apps, we won’t have to do anything, because the apps will learn us. “Brightkite would like to use your current location.”

But the best part of the talk (for me) was when Tim spoke about using the social web to do more with less in the fields of government ( Government 2.0)  and in health care. These two enormous money sucks can be revolutionized by social software, and they will be.

Government goes without saying since the Obama campaign. O’Reilly’s health care example was a site I’m very familiar with from my Health 2.0 work: PatientsLikeMe, a community of patients started by a family touched by Lou Gehrig’s disease  that looked out on the web to find treatments.  The site now helps not only ALS patients, but also people with other neurologic conditions, as well as mood disorders. Patients self-report  what they’re doing for their conditions, how it’s working, and what side effects they have endured. They crowd-source the treatment of life-changing illnesses and have created a huge clinical trial. The site is five years old now, and 33,000 patients report their progress.

Tim points out correctly that the cost of such a trial, if a pharmaceutical company wanted to undertake it, would be prohibitive, and the patients have produced better research with less by using each other and the social web.

In an upbeat environment, I think the praises of Web 2.0 would have been sung m in a more exaggerated fashion. But O’Reilly chose to take the bull by the horns, recognize the place we are in, and celebrate it appropriately — with badge tags that say “Twitter Addict,” “UX Expert,” “I’m Looking,” and “We’re Hiring.” This is not his first rodeo.

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