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Solution Revolution

The new economy “trades in social outcomes; its currencies include public data, reputation and social impact,” write William D. Eggers and Paul Macmillan in The Solution Revolution, as reviewed by Trevor Butterworth in The Wall Street Journal (1/9/14). The future of solving problems, the authors say, lives on the internet, within social networks. It is also played like a game on sites like Kaggle, a public exchange with some 85,000 members who relish the chance to mix and match their eclectic expertise to solve important riddles.

One such puzzle is to design an algorithm that can “grade a student essay as accurately as a teacher.” This is important, because essays are better than multiple-choice in terms “of assessing a student’s critical thinking.” It’s a cost: benefit problem because schools default to multiple-choice as the cheaper option. The problem was posted, and the winning algorithm was written collaboratively by a project manager from the National Weather Service from the US, “a particle physicist from Britain and a graduate student in computer science from Germany.”

Their algorithm wasn’t perfect, but it “came close” to a human result. Kaggle was founded by Anthony Goldbloom, who recognized that “governments now have lots of data – big data – and lots of problems that data could solve … The essential point of The Solution Revolution is that the internet has created a marketplace for solutions to social problems, and in doing so it is tearing down the wall between the public  and private sectors.” They write: “The business models are unusual, and the motivations range from new notions of public accountability to moral obligation to even shareholder value.”