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ACT global, ACT local

Andy Havens and Tom Storey /

What does a text-message news service in rural India have to do with how your library will meet the challenges of a radically changing information landscape? Two words: innovation and cooperation.

No matter where you go in the world, startling technological transformations are happening almost instantly. Innovators with no idea of "what’s impossible" from a traditional standpoint are doing extraordinary things with communications and information technology. Entrepreneurs in the private sector, government employees, people at nonprofits or in schools, universities and libraries... they’re all using the globally available tools of the 21st century to solve local, regional and global problems.

The Web has turned the refrain "Think global, act local" on its head. It is now possible to think and act at the global level and the local level simultaneously and transparently.

As the Web scales, our world scales

The first wave of the digital revolution was about altering workflows to improve efficiency using computers at the level of the corporation or government. The second wave personalized this shift, giving everyone the ability to use computers in their daily lives, studies and jobs. The third wave was the Internet and World Wide Web, which connected computer networks and people using a standard protocol. The fourth wave was social networks and hand-held devices and tablets—the digital media and technology that consumers use to interact digitally with each other and organizations. The world is now just beginning to understand what it means when all of those tools are connected to each other across the entire globe.

In short, the Web scales. And it allows our organizations to dynamically increase or focus capacity.

In the OCLC discussion document, Libraries at Webscale, the authors make the point that both the world, and the Web, now provide—and encourage—new opportunities and applications that scale up from individual efforts to include groups and even global participation. As the authors wrote:

“Barriers have been lifted on how we can communicate, conduct commerce, conduct research, share data, create communities and deliver products. Leaders can now apply the dimensions of geography and scope to almost every decision they make. Their organizations can tap into tools and resources, and serve communities and markets that are global, national, regional, local—and even personal.
In short, the Web scales. And it allows our organizations to dynamically increase or focus capacity. Organizations now have access to infrastructure and platforms that enable them to reach broad, geographically diverse communities and at the same time scope their services to focus on meeting the specific needs of a single person.”

When working on addressing either global or local challenges, it is now necessary to include scalability in our thinking as we research, plan and implement programs. This means considering how individuals can impact large, regional or even global efforts—scaling solutions up from personal interactions—and how global resources can be applied hyperlocally—scaling down from worldwide platforms.

Scaling down

coverimage: Brilliant, Crazy, CockyIn her book Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky, Sarah Lacy, an award-winning reporter who has covered high-growth entrepreneurship for more than 15 years, talks about her extraordinary journey through the developing world and her encounters with entrepreneurs who use global technology to effect incredible local changes. In her words, “The emerging world isn’t a fad. It contains half of the world’s population and more than half of them are under the age of 25. They will be the force that shapes our world.”

She continues: “Unlike America, where there is a shrinking middle class, in the emerging world there are growing middle classes. When people think about the emerging world, they tend to focus on big countries like China, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia—because the numbers are so staggering and it’s such a no-brainer that something big will be built there.”

About Sarah


Sarah Lacy sees entrepreneurs in the developing world overcome incredible circumstances to create new opportunities in their communities.

“But the best innovation,” she points out, “doesn’t always come from huge companies. Think about Israel: A tiny country whose entire population is half the size of one of Asia’s megacities. And yet, Israel had more Nasdaq-traded companies in the late 1990s than anywhere other than Silicon Valley. In Western Europe, Sweden has had one of the better track records of innovation in Western Europe. Chile and Colombia have recently been aggressive with ‘smart policy’ to attract entrepreneurs and investors as well. This is not a prize that small, nimble countries are ceding to the big markets. They want jobs, too, and they know local, high-growth entrepreneurship is the best way to get them.”

In short, the Web scales. And it allows our organizations to dynamically increase or focus capacity.

Innovative delivery: the story of SMSOne

Sarah tells the story of her favorite example of global-to-local entrepreneurship: SMSOne. This company provides a village-level, local newsletter using SMS technology on low-cost cell phones. A local reporter texts out daily news stories, announcements and ads to hundreds or thousands of readers. And while this sounds like a (relatively) low-tech way to deliver information, the implications of this simple technology have been literally life-changing for members of the communities SMSOne serves:

  • In villages where government water pipes are turned on for one hour a week at irregular times, SMSOne reporters alert villagers to show up to get their week’s worth of water.
  • Birth and death announcements and marriage invitations go out over SMSOne, connecting the community.
  • When the DMV or healthcare workers come to villages to provide services, everyone can find out and stay in from the fields when they are coming. This often saves them from missing one or more days of work to go into a city to get these services.

Sarah also shared even more personal stories. For example, a robbery that the community might have previously turned a blind eye to was foiled when several men in the village—inspired by the newfound sense of community SMSOne provided—risked their lives to go stop the robbery. They were written up as heroes. And in a slum just outside of Pune, India, where SMSOne had united a neighborhood, an older woman tried to commit suicide because she felt so alone, and so hopeless about her economic situation. The local SMSOne editor, Anil, found her after she’d poisoned herself, rushed her to the hospital and posted a story about what happened. A neighborhood full of people who barely knew the woman personally all came together and donated whatever they had to pay her bills, ultimately convincing her that she wasn’t alone and that her life was worth living.


The 140-character story bursts published by SMSOne, a mobile news company in India, brought communities togethr to save the lives of a depressed woman and a little girl born with a hole in her heart.

Scaling up: the global flipside of personal computing

Just as technology now allows individuals to harness the power of the Web, so too can the Web leverage the combined power of many individuals. And Luis von Ahn can tell you something about that. An associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, he has been combining people and computers on a global scale for 10 years to tackle large-scale problems that can’t be solved by individuals alone. He calls it Human Computation—a brand new area he is defining and developing that studies how best to harness the combined power of humans and computers.

Massive, online collaborations are helping to digitize books, create metadata and teach foreign languages using hundreds of millions of people on the Web. You may be familiar with his efforts: CAPTCHA , a Web security application; ESP, a game to describe images on the Web; and Duolingo, an online effort to translate the Web. They are excellent examples of using the scale of the Web to connect individuals in ways that accomplish global goals.

About Luis


Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Luis von Ahn wants to channel via the Web the collective brainpower of millions of people to work on tasks that are useful for humanity.

“At the height of its construction, 44,733 people worked on the Panama Canal,” he explains. “The Great Pyramid of Giza required 50,000 workers and the Apollo Project 400,000. Humanity’s largest achievements have been accomplished with less than a few hundred thousand workers because it has been impossible to assemble—let alone pay—more people to work together until now. With the Internet, it’s possible to coordinate the efforts of millions of humans.

“If 400,000 people put a man on the moon, what can we do with 100 million? What would be the Internet equivalent of a moon shot? We just can’t think big enough.”
Luis Von Ahn, Associate Professor of Computer Science
Carngie Mellon University

reCAPTCHA sampleLuis is the creator of the CAPTCHA program (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart), the world’s most ubiquitous computer security application. A CAPTCHA program prevents automated spamming by making a human decipher and enter distorted characters presented in squiggly lines—something a computer cannot easily do—at the bottom of a Web registration form. With more than 200 million uses every day, it is a highly successful Internet standard.

In Luis’ mind, however, this successful security protocol represented something else: 10 seconds of time to enter the text, multiplied by 200 million uses a day. Which amounts to more than 150,000 hours of work. He wondered: how can he make that effort useful? To any individual, a 10-second piece of work may seem insignificant. But 150,000 hours a day? That’s some serious brainpower. The answer was reCAPTCHA , a new and improved way of recognizing humans... and digitizing text.

With reCAPTCHA , users decipher two words from distorted characters, one of which comes from a book digitization project where the computer could not distinguish the word. The unrecognized word is paired with one that the computer knows. If you type the correct word for the one that the system knows, it has some confidence that you typed the other word correctly. And if you repeat this process with 10 other people, and they all agree on what the new word is, one more word is digitized accurately.

Luis says that reCAPTCHA is digitizing about 100 million words a day, which is the equivalent of 2.5 million books a year, without the users even knowing it.

“My favorite number is 750 million,” says Luis. “That is the number of people who have helped transcribe at least one word out of a book through reCAPTCHA, which is a little over 10 percent of the world’s population; 750 million people have helped us digitize human knowledge.”

Luis’ calculus of scaling many individual efforts into a useful global service is the flipside to Sarah’s chronicle of local, high-growth entrepreneurship. The innovative projects Sarah discovered take globally available technology and apply it to unique community situations, while Luis scaled the individual efforts of millions of people into a massive, global online collaboration. Both use the scale of the Web to reach beyond traditional means and do new things cleverly and quickly.

New ways of thinking

What does the increasing scalability of resources and services mean for libraries? As Karen Smith-Yoshimura points out in our OCLC Research story for this issue, many individuals can work together to provide social metadata for a library collection, vastly improving its collective value. She provides several examples of how library projects allow individual efforts to “scale up,” including that of the National Library of Australia’s Historic Australian Newspapers 1803 to 1954 project, where more than 9,000 digital enthusiasts have edited 50 million lines of scanned text in 40 million articles over the past four years. While the digitization of newspapers gets part of the way to filling the need of the project, small and distorted text makes many articles less useful. Just as in the case of reCAPTCHA , the project harnesses the work of many people who make corrections to one word, phrase or sentence at a time. And, similarly to the ESP game, users can also tag photos to help provide more context and historic information.

“Libraries have a massive user base and both broad and specific subject areas that have wide appeal,” says Rose Holley, Digital Library Specialist, National Library of Australia. “Libraries could get hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Anyone with an Internet connection is a potential volunteer. A shift in thinking is required by libraries to fully embrace the potential of crowd sourcing. Crowd sourcing has not been attempted on any significant scale by libraries to date, but could prove to be the most useful tool a library can have in the future.”

On the other end of the continuum, there are examples of large-scale cooperative library projects such as WorldCat, HathiTrust and Europeana, which allow local libraries to leverage global databases in order to meet the specific, personal needs of students, researchers and citizens. And while we have been more accustomed to worldwide data collection efforts, it is only now becoming apparent that activities as well as information can be scaled using Web-based tools.

Robin Murray, OCLC Vice President for Global Product Management, puts it this way. “More and more people have moved their information-seeking behavior to the Web. In parallel, more people have started contributing to this global information network. This means that a growing audience of people are becoming accustomed to both getting things done on the Web, and developing services for others to get things done on the Web.”

“Technology platforms,” he continues, “such as Amazon’s cloud services, Apple’s iOs for mobile apps and OCLC’s new OCLC WorldShare Platform, provide a way to leverage local talent in a global environment. Any developer, from any organization, of any size, now has access to tools and data that were available only to large corporations just a few years ago.”

“These platforms,” he concludes, “are the key to the scalability of today’s most important services.

“When the same technology can connect millions of people to a central set of resources while also empowering individual, local innovation... that's a powerful recipe for change.”

Where will your ideas come from?

What is clear from studying the work of Sarah Lacy and Luis von Ahn is that innovation and cooperation are the keys to success for any entity that hopes to survive in our new, rapidly changing information ecosystem. The capacity of Webscale platforms to enable easy scalability is an important part of that equation.

As libraries move forward in this environment, it is instructive to look at the two ends of the scalability spectrum embodied by reCAPTCHA and SMSOne. How can millions of users, connected by shared technology across the world, work together to solve large-scale problems? And how can global platforms and cooperative data sets be focused down to provide striking, life-changing solutions for individuals and their communities?


Webscale services allow organizations to scale up for global and regional uses... and down to local even personalized solutions.

“Because of when these people [entrepreneurs] were born, where they were born doesn’t matter.”
Sara Lacy, Author
Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky

In an information environment where people and organizations can now act both globally and locally at the same time, understanding how Web-based platforms can efficiently scale local, group and global efforts may be what distinguishes truly successful innovations.

About the Author

  • Andy Havens

    Andy Havens

    Andy Havens is OCLC’s Manager of Branding and Creative Services. He is Managing Editor of OCLC’s NextSpace magazine, leads the OCLC Cooperative Blog team and is “head tweeter” for the @OCLC Twitter account. He frequently works on the writing, editing, design and production of OCLC Membership Reports, white papers and symposium materials.

  • Tom Storey

    Tom Storey

    Tom is an Editor at OCLC and works on NextSpace, OCLC’s membership magazine, as well as OCLC Abstracts, a weekly e-news update, and the OCLC Annual Report.

A game? Build Web intelligence while you play

Also developed by Luis is the ESP game, a two-player, online game where people label images on the Web with descriptive keywords. Luis wanted to channel the billions of hours that Web users spend on games into something more useful: image description. Having proper labels associated with each image on the Web could allow for more accurate image retrieval, improve the accessibility of sites and help users block inappropriate images.

Here’s how ESP works. A player is paired with a total stranger elsewhere in the world and given a random image. The goal is for you and your partner to type the exact same word, given that the only thing you have in common is that you both can see the same image. The faster you make that happen, the more points you are rewarded. It turns out that the word the players agree on is usually a very good label for the image—since it comes from two independent sources—and provides searchable, descriptive text.

The game went viral and became very popular. In one four-month period, 13,000 players produced 1.3 million labels for some 300,000 images. Over time, the game attracted 200,000 regular players, and Google licensed it and used it as the Google Image Labeler to improve the accuracy of the Google Image Search.

“Although the main application of the ESP game is to label images, the main contribution stems from the way in which we attack the labeling problem,” Luis says. “Rather than developing a complicated algorithm, we have shown that it’s conceivable that a large-scale problem can be solved with a method that uses people playing on the Web. We’ve turned tedious work into something people want to do.”