The Zombal Scheme for democratizing research and development
A new approach to facilitating research and enquiryDavid Noel
through web-based world-wide interaction at the individual level
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.
This article describes a new approach to research, development, and information provision which is under current development under the name Zombal (www.zombal.com).
Zombal presents as a web-based service for putting people with needs in scientific, technical, and industrial research and information activities in touch with people who may be able to assist them. Instead of using web searches to locate information sitting in websites, Zombal aims to locate people who will compile technical information or carry out stepped research procedures.
Behind Zombal is the concept of building up a Community of user-Members who interact to help each other promote research and development activities in varied fields. A simple but flexible financing scheme is built in, working on analogues of points or tokens. In Zombal, these points or tokens are called 'quans', and though they have aspects of a currency system, they are a meta-currency rather than a real currency.
In today's world, research and development work is constrained within rather inefficient bounds. The pure researcher, usually working within a university, typically needs first to submit research grant applications which, whether successful or not, involve a great deal of work.
A successful grant applicant will need to comply with grant conditions, usually involving a fixed budget amount, a fixed term of use, and appropriate audit conditions to avoid rorting. An industrial developer, working within a company's research budget, will have parallel restraints. The procedures involved might be made much simpler by breaking up projects into smaller parts and outsourcing these to individuals at low cost.
Zombal seeks to tap big unused sources of expert labour in the form of qualified people looking to take on extra work outside their normal jobs, students looking for extra cash, people unable to take on normal employment because of family commitments, retirees, and people between jobs. There is also a pool of expertise in people who enjoy researching ideas for their own sake rather than to supplement incomes.
A schematic of the Zombal Scheme
In the operation of the scheme, users who have registered as Zombal members may operate in either or both of two roles, as Launchers or Catchers.
Launchers are those who need research or development work to be carried out, or who need information to be gathered or derived on a topic of interest.
Launchers package up their requests into a 'zomb' (rhymes with bomb). The zomb contains brief details of the work needed, plus various 'Labels' which describe the topics or subject areas of the zomb. When the zomb package is complete, it is launched into 'Zombal Space', where it can be retrieved by Catchers.
To the Catcher, it is as if they were sweeping a Net through Zombal Space, with each Net constructed from traps for Labels defining the topics with which they are able to operate. Of course, terms like these are only metaphors, the visual images invoked may be helpful to some in understanding the processes involved.
Web-based systems enabling desired work to be carried out on demand have been a feature of the Internet for some time. An example is ODesk (www.odesk.com), which offers "Remote staffing for long-term work", so a user can "Hire, manage, and pay a distributed team as if everyone were in your office". Buttons to press include "Search Contractors", "Post a Job", and "Looking for Work?".
The philosophy behind services such as ODesk is different to that of Zombal. In effect, ODesk is like an employment agency for one-off contracts, mostly in the office or software fields, and is putting an employer in touch with an employee. Most of the employers and some of the employees will be companies or other corporate entities.
In contrast, Zombal members are all individual persons, 'real persons' in the legal jargon. This distinction has repercussions throughout the system.
For example, there is no call for advertising popups in Zombal. Advertising is carried on almost exclusively by corporate bodies such as companies or governments, an individual will only very rarely advertise on the web. The whole scale of projects will be much smaller at the individual level, though surprisingly ambitious projects can be carried through by breaking them up into smaller parts. Many of the bids for zombs will be less than the equivalent of $100, sums which are within an individual's budget.
The combination of small, individual-budget outlays and the member-community framework means that any disputes that arise can be handled internally to the community, without the need of recourse to the courts. However, successful completion of zombs, and user satisfaction, is monitored continually within Zombal, and members strive to rack up stars recognizing their proficiency in using the system. Successful Zombal members will be those who best build up profiles demonstrating their abilities and cost-efficiency.
As well as the individual-to-individual relationship, and the use of a meta-currency, Zombal has other innovative features. One of the more important of these is the Label Matrix, used in defining the subject areas of a zomb.
There are two general approaches used in defining subjects or topics. A search engine like Google uses the string of words in the search box directly, matching these words with comparable strings in its store of web material. The enquirer has complete freedom to insert any words or character strings, Google uses them in their raw form, with only minor structural manipulation (such as equating singular and plural forms of words).
The opposite approach, which is highly structured, is familiar in the form of the Dewey Decimal Classification used in many libraries. In classifying a book, or finding a book on a given subject, a picture of all fields of knowledge is used which resembles the roots of a tree (in jargon, a hierarchical structure). This is the classification itself, each point where a topic may be further subdivided is marked by a decimal number, three digits plus a decimal point plus further digits.
A Tree-Root indexing hierarchy
As an example, books on Science in general will have the number 500, ones on general chemistry, 540. As the subject gets more detailed, significant digits are added on. Organic Chemistry is 547, Analytical Organic Chemistry is 547.3. So the path Science > Chemistry > Organic Chemistry > Analytical Organic Chemistry > .... is like following a tree root down into the earth, every level you go lower, another digit is added.
As well as the hierarchical structure, DDC will have one or more indexes, words or phrases which direct you from, say, Analytical Organic Chemistry, to 547.3. The indexes are an aid to use of the hierarchy, and if they have words missing or defectively placed, this does not affect the main structure.
Now the DDC approach can be useful, but it has limitations. The whole structure is completely rigid, the product of work by teams of trained cataloguers, who end up with a printed Edition, say DDC 16th Edition. As new words or terms are introduced into English vocabulary to describe new concepts or relationships, or redefine old ones, the Edition becomes more and more out of date and a new one is called for. It's a huge labour to produce a new edition, and because there are only 10 different digits, some of the new subject numbers will have to re-use older ones, so books on different topics will sit together on the library shelves.
In Zombal, a new approach is used. The tags applied to define subjects or topics in a zomb are called Labels. Labels are essentially free-standing, though most will have links with other labels, the links denoting more general or less general subjects, parallel subjects, equivalent terms, and so on. The whole complex is called the Label Matrix.
Because the Labels have links up, down, sideways, etc, by tracing links from one particular Label you can derive something like a DDC tree-root structure. But, there is a fundamental difference. In DDC the hierarchy, not the index, is the defining structure. In Zombal, the Labels and their links are the defining structures, and these are still valid even if links are missing or defective.
A complex ad-hoc index
In addition, Zombal incorporates a powerful updating feature into its Label Matrix. New labels can be created, and links between labels refined and extended, by the users themselves. The reasoning is that people working with a topic are the very ones who know best how the associated vocabulary is used and related. They are likely to be more skilled at this than any professional indexer or cataloguer.
In this way, the Label Matrix is automatically kept continually up-to-date and improved through use. This feature (in the jargon, 'heuristic') lies at the root of how the human brain learns, and how its machine equivalent, the neural net, can figure in the most successful approaches to problem-solving.
Successful and extensive research and information provision will be at the basis of many social engineering ventures. Zombal, with its aim to democratize R & D, making it available at low cost throughout the world, should therefore be invaluable for improving the world we live in.
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Version 1.0 on Web 2011 Jan 12
Version 1.1, minor amendments, 2011 Jan 19