Thanks to the DownLoad Squad I bumped into a very interesting tool to mine collective knowledge. Avanoo is a social software tool that allows members to query others through simple Likert like scale items. Nothing too new here except that everyone gets to view and segment the results according to demographic criteria including gender, nationality, age, income level etc. For example I can create a questions and then determine if Canadians answered that question differently than non-Canadians, men differently than women or the wealthy differently from the poor. If I want I can augment my response to any question with a comment or explanation. Again nothing too new here, except that this type of analysis and results are usually costly to gather and remain the property of the survey owner, not the recipients.

But how does one get the respondents to provide the profile data that allows selective segmenting of the results? Here Avenoo shows a very smart technique of requiring you to enter that information about myself if you want to query the system on that demographic. For example, I can only do a gender breakdown, if I let the system know my own gender – and I am asked this information only when I express an interest in gender. Thus, as the Avanoo folks say “Give a Little, Get a Lot”. I only answer demographic questions that are relevant to my own interest – a great motivator to participation. The system requires a login, that is email authenticated (a low level spam deterrent) that allows me to mine information collected without having to resubmit my demographic information in subsequent mining of the data.

Avanoo provides one of the easiest ways to interact with and extract useful knowledge from the ‘Collective’ at low cost to the user. The capacity to sort and select questions by criteria such as use (most answered or most queried), temporal (newest questions) criteria and tagged question category, allows users to find questions and more importantly to get a sense of collective responses to questions that matter.

I see this as an important new tool allowing anyone to query and interact with the “collective”. Both formal educational applications and lifelong learning applications that exploit these affordances come easily to mind. A student could, with no cost, create their own subject related question and get a sense of the collective wisdom (or at least opinion) on that issue. They can then learn the importance of extracting clues and segmenting the responses based upon the context and personal characteristics of the respondents to appreciate that the average responses to many questions often hide very significant socio-economic and other individual differences. Informally, everything from market research, to predictions on sports or election outcomes to bar room arguments, can be resolved, or at least informed by gathering and analyzing the opinions of the many.

Like other user content dependent sites, critical mass is essential of creation of meaningful results and collective value. Avanoo has an ambitious goal of gathering 100,000,000 responses (deposits of wisdom in Avanoo jargon) in their first 100 days. Sixteen days into the experiment they have only 99,867,174 deposits to go- but we know the viral nature of this genre of application. But even with this tiny fraction of the goal achieved, I found the questions and responses on the site to be both amusing and informing.

But as we all know from first year statistics courses, the size of the sample determines the significance of any differences between populations. Thus, a useful addition to the Avanoo analysis would be automatic calculation of the probability of observed differences being significant within probability boundaries (and not due normal variations) within the sample surveyed.

In sum, I recommend a visit and a deposit of your own wisdom to Avanoo. The emergence of new tools to mine our collective knowledge (or at least our opinions) is very important to effectively and collectively managing our planet.