IBM 'jam' technology goes global

Big Blue powers a global collaboration event focused on security

It’s early Feb. 5 and about 100 hours remain of Security Jam, an online, international brainstorming event that organizers hope will advance the cause of peace and change the world forever.

If you think that sounds ridiculously ambitious, you’re probably right. And very possibly wrong.

Security Jam has some major heavyweights in international affairs behind it. Official support comes from the European Commission, NATO, and the governments of France, Sweden and the United States.

The experience, which runs on technology developed by IBM Corp., roughly parallels a five-day conference, with individual discussion groups and forums hosted by subject-matter experts. Getting the right people to host discussions is crucial, said Liam Cleaver, leader of IBM’s Jam Program Office. “You want people who will be a strong draw."

Helping to kick off the event Feb. 4 was forum host NATO Supreme Allied Commander of Europe Adm. James Stavridis. “It was brilliant,” said James Kevin Mac Goris, communications manager for international think tank Security and Defence Agenda (SDA).

Logging in from a military aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet, Stavridis described his security concerns and “just sort of threw out the question: ‘What really matters?’ and waited for responses,” Mac Goris said.

Entrance to the free event is by invitation, but registration is open to qualified professionals via SDA’s Web site.

“We and the other nine think tanks wanted to look at a broad spectrum of ideas,” Mac Goris said. Brussels-based SDA is the lead sponsor of Security Jam. Invitations went to tens of thousands of “the thinkers, analysts, leaders — the doers” in all aspects of international security, he added.

No one is anonymous; everyone must include his or her title, affiliation and e-mail address, “so we have that sense of it being a credible discussion,” Cleaver said.

But the online structure lets participants feel free to say what’s on their minds, Mac Goris said. “I was looking at one thread, which had 300 posts and replies and conversations, and thinking that if we had a conference in a room, no way would we get 300 comments in three hours.”

A view into the data cloud

On Day 2 of the six-day Security Jam, more than 4,000 were people logged in and nearly 2,000 comments posted.

Connecting with an idea or person in such a rising sea of posts and threads could be overwhelming. It was an issue IBM addressed early in development, Cleaver said. The answer was a “theme cloud,” which visually represents concepts of interest and appears at the bottom of the page when a participant logs in. About every four hours, a new theme cloud is generated.

“What we liked about the approach of the theme cloud vs. the tag cloud was that a tag cloud gave you a single word or how a singular word was used,” Cleaver said. “A theme cloud represents conversations that are knitted together from across the jam. It’s just a very logical way to represent the discussion in a way that let people engage quickly.”

Being able to quickly see how discussions have evolved and what new themes have emerged helps keep participants coming back, he said. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve found people will come in and out of a jam maybe seven or eight times, and each time they will spend from 45 minutes to an hour and a half,” he added.

But even with thousands of participants and posts, Security Jam only qualifies as a minijam, Cleaver said.

In 2005, IBM ran Habitat Jam for the United Nations. It focused on solving some of the world's most critical urbanization issues and attracted 39,000 participants in 158 countries.

IBM’s internal Innovation Jam in 2006 brought together more than 150,000 people from 104 countries, including IBM employees, family members, academicians, business partners and clients from 67 companies. In two 72-hour sessions, participants posted more than 46,000 ideas, which resulted in 10 new businesses and $100 million in funding.

“How do you have a meaningful conversation with that many people, understand what they’re talking about and then take action on the results?” Cleaver asked.

The technology underlying the theme cloud also helps make sense of the data at the end. Cobra, a text analytics tool from IBM Research, provides the data mining capabilities.

After Innovation Jam, Cobra helped winnow the ideas down to 36. Those 36 went back online for 72 hours of further brainstorming before being trimmed to 10. Of those 10, about half now constitute the company’s Smarter Planet campaign, which works on new solutions in energy, infrastructure, epidemiology, emergency response and other areas.

The best ideas from Security Jam will be compiled in a report that will be presented at an event in April and sent to the European Union, NATO and 50,000 people worldwide.

Jamming for change

Since its first internal jam in 2001, IBM has conducted more than 30 jams — 20 for other organizations, both public and private, Cleaver said.

Typically, organizations decide to do a jam when there’s a platform for change in place, he said. “They’re trying to think through what the new ways of working are.”

It’s about understanding the problems, said Nicholas Donofrio, IBM’s executive vice president for innovation and technology, in an interview after Innovation Jam. Sometimes, it’s not “an invention, a creation or a discovery,” he said. “Sometimes it's just seeing things that other people missed. It's looking at these deep intersections or interstices and seeing something that nobody else saw before.”

Nokia approached IBM about doing a jam in 2007 as part of an initiative to re-examine the company’s business strategy, Cleaver said. The jam let the company get ideas from all its employees, not just those directly involved in the effort, he said. “One thing you get out of that is an amazing array of great ideas.”

No IT leader is hosting Security Jam — although Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, is reportedly something of a tech head — but a strong cyber thread purposely runs through the proceedings. “We’re not technologists, so we asked IBM to invite those it felt could make contributions to the discussion,” Mac Goris said.

“One of the points that someone made was that the importance of cybersecurity is widely underestimated,” he added. “That opens a whole discussion of what will our model be? Will it be like China with everything controlled by the state, a closed model? Or will it be like ours, which is permeable but can be damaged?”

In the final report, he said, “I think one of the results recommendations will be in the area of IT and what is typically referred to as cybersecurity.”

Although proceedings are visible only to those registered for Security Jam, several participants are tweeting or creating Facebook pages about the event.

To register for the event, go to Organizers will manually process requests for individuals and organizations that have not been whitelisted or specifically invited.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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