Saturday, March 27, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - floods, NBN and Collective Wisdom

A follow up this morning on two issues.

The Big Floods

The big floods from Queensland continue to move south. From the formal start of the Darling River, the junction of the Culgoa and Barwon Rivers, it is 2,300 kilometres to the Murray mouth, with the land falling by a little more than 100 metres. That's flat, so the water spreads out and backs up; it will take three months for this water to reach the Murray mouth.

As with life today, the pattern of life in Aboriginal times adjusted itself to the cycle of flood and drought. The size of the pre-European inland Aboriginal population was strongly linked to the carrying capacity of country during dry periods. As the country dried out, people (and animals too) concentrated around rivers and other permanent water sources. Along the Murray, a very densely populated area, analysis of skeletal remains shows evidence of periodic malnutrition during hard times.

As the country bloomed after the periodic floods, Aboriginal groups spread out to take advantage of the new riches. This was a time of travel and plenty.rain_national_lr

While the Darling may be flooding, the outlook for the bigger Murray is not so good.

The latest three month rainfall projections from the Bureau of Meteorology suggest that while the big wet might continue in New England and southern Queensland, chances of rainfall exceeding the median are 50% or less across much (not all) of the Murray catchment.

National Broadband Network

My post Broadband, Telstra and the future of Australia's telecoms drew an interesting comment from Kangaroo Valley David. It's a good comment that made me laugh, so I thought that I might repeat it here in full.

You quote the following points about the NBN:
It will provide “90 percent of all Australian homes, schools and workplaces with broadband services with speeds up to 100 megabits per second”
It will provide “all other premises in Australia with next generation wireless and satellite technologies that will deliver broadband speeds of 12 megabits per second”
It will Cost “$43 billion over eight years”
- in a blog post of 9470 characters (including spaces) which took me a few minutes to read, and a bit more to absorb.
So, I am thinking that this new whizbang technology will enable me to access:
a) your post in x/1000ths of a second, but still take me 2-3 minutes to absorb;
b) an entire “I Love Lucy” episode in less than a minute which will take me 20 minutes to watch;
c) the entire contents on the National Library of Australia in a day or so which will then take me 20 years to read.
This is probably all good, except that in eight years’ time the standard comm. speed will be 100 gigabits, and the cost will have trebled, and “I Love Lucy” will still be the benchmark for entertainment, BUT I will still need 20 minutes to watch her.
Please let me know when fibre optic can deliver any one of:
bread, or water, or vegetables, or medicine – in my hand, ready to ‘consume’.
While the delivery and regulatory process might be fascinating, I just think that it is important not to lose sight of the proposed end result:
an already out of date means of delivering almost useless information to 98% of households in Australia for the present cost of a Cray computer in every hospital, university and school in Oz.
imho and I hope you have a lovely weekend.

In writing, I was actually fairly careful not to get too much into the question as to whether or not the proposal represents value for money. I actually don't know at this point.

David's point about the length of time taken to absorb information or entertainment once accessed is an important one because it sets a final constraint on value. In broad terms, the net benefits from the NBN will be determined by:

  • Savings in download and upload time, time that is then available for other things.
  • Capacity to do new things presently prevented or made difficult by transmission speeds or in some cases capacity constraints.
  • The cost of the service, not just to customers but also including any direct or indirect subsidies.
  • Any side-effects, including exclusion of alternative better/cheaper approaches.

KVD is right to raise concerns in these areas. However, we also shouldn't play down the potential benefits.

The Collective Wisdom example

Some years ago I was involved in what we called the Collective Wisdom Project. This was an attempt to create an electronic network to link all of Armidale's schools, colleges and universities. The rationale was that this would facilitate cooperative work and resource sharing within the network and beyond.

To show the value, in early 1996 we mounted a major display in the Armidale Town Hall in which a large number of kids from a number of Armidale schools including primary schools prepared web pages from material provided from outside. Other locations were meant to be able to watch the demonstration in real time. This was actually a pretty big deal for the period and only possible because one school, The Armidale School, already had highly developed computing and communications facilities that it was prepared to make available. This included provision of training in web creation to primary school students from Drummond Memorial Public School.

The project did not get very far at that point. The reasons were partly technical, partly institutional. As an example, during the demonstration itself, the outside lines failed at one point. We really were pushing the limits of the then technology.

I remain convinced that this type of educational cooperation offers very significant benefits, especially where distance is involved. Staying with the Armidale case, it could allow a small school hundreds (or, for that matter, thousands) of kilometres away to network with Armidale schools and colleges and to access Armidale resources. Interactive student information sessions from the University of New England could be beamed in to participating schools.

Many of these things have been tried. I attended a trial in 1995 where UNE students at several locations participated on an interactive lecture delivered from Armidale. Many are now in place. Yet problems of cost and bandwidth continue to limit potential in general and especially in specific cases.

If you look at this history, you can see why I was in fact so excited when West Armidale including UNE was selected as one of the initial NBN company test sites. Now, fourteen years after the Collective Wisdom demonstration, we may finally get the infrastructure needed to support the original dream.         

No comments: