Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Universal Bug Tracker For Society

I have a problem. I have too many ideas for things that should be made or fixed to make the world a better place.

 Let me explain a little. I run the Serval Project, making mobile telecommunications available in many situations where it is not currently possible. In leading that project I have discovered that there are some serious problems with WiFi for supporting ad-hoc network that it would be great to have fixed.

Then I also discovered that it would be really great to make mobile phones with a built-in Arduino or similar micro-controller and accessible hardware port so that people can innovate with mobile hardware just like they do with mobile software. This could be used to make all sorts of things, from powerful yet cheap environmental monitoring systems, to supporting long-range mobile mesh networks, to creating really low-cost medical monitoring devices (for example, a pulse-oximetry machine is really just four LEDs plus some signal processing that a phone could easily provide).

This is already too much for me to do right now.  But I have other ideas queued up, and that I come up with over time.

For example, since being inspired by Prof. David Powers during my undergraduate degree, I have been convinced that we need to make laws machine-readable. This makes a lot of sense, since the whole idea of legal language is to be clear and precise. In the past legalese was the best we had to express the logic part of laws, but now we have computer languages and compilers that are so precise that it is almost annoying, but more importantly, can help us to visualise and transform legal logic into other equivalent forms that allows the intent and effect of the laws to be checked before being proclaimed.

With some careful construction, we could make a LawCompiler 1.0 that lets us do this kind of thing. Much would be possible with just a combination of definitions and logic blocks. For example, to work out if someone could legally work in Australia, we might have a logic block like:
FUNCTION CanLegallyWorkInAustralia BEGIN
 IF IsAustralianCitizen OR IsNewZealandCitizen OR HoldsValidWorkVisa THEN
  RETURN true
  RETURN false
Then all that needs to be done is to recurse back through the referenced terms in the logic block and define them also. The ideal would be that terms are defined as logic blocks themselves, but at some point there is probably a need to define some in legal terms, so you simply have a definition, e.g., we might cheat in the above and define IsNewZealandCitizen like:
 “A person shall be considered a citizen of New Zealand if  they are not a citizen of Australia, and if they currently hold citizenship in the nation of New Zealand.”
But eventually we could do things like:
IMPORT IsNewZealandCitizen FROM  NewZealand.CitizenshipAct.1992;
This would allow a flexible, bottom-up approach to harmonising laws between jurisdictions where it makes sense (some distinction between dynamic versus static binding of definitions would be necessary). For example, states or counties could reference common dog-ownership regulations, or countries in the European Union could harmonise laws by referencing definitions created by the EU, and such harmonisations could be made progressively.

The compilable laws would be no less readable than ones in legalese by the average person on the street, and would have the advantage of being subject to precise interpretation, irrespective of the human languages involved, thus aiding translation and consistency in jurisdictions where laws have versions in multiple languages. To aid interpretation, or to help find bugs in laws, such logical definitions of laws can be transformed, e.g., into a truth table, that allows for checking that the law does not create any strange corner cases, which is a very common problem in laws of any significant complexity. For our legality of working test above, the truth table would resolve to something like:


By definition each of the lines in the truth table are mutually exclusive, and so it becomes fairly easy to work out what will happen in any given situation. Of course for realistic laws, there may be dozens of input factors, and so the truth-table may grow very large, but that can always be avoided by creating intermediate definitions for common cases. This also helps promote the cleaning up of the logic in laws instead of perpetually tacking bits on the end that make the entire thing incomprehensible. Income tax laws are a good example of this. By being able to compare truth-tables before and after a patch, it becomes possible to know with complete certainty, that the patch to the law (or cleanup of the law) has not changed the meaning of the law in any unexpected way.

Anyway, I digress greatly, but that is perhaps the point. I need a place to capture all these ideas, so that they can be vetted, prioritised and actioned, either by myself or someone else. Similarly, it would be great to capture everyone else's ideas, and basically assemble a Universal Bug Tracker For Society (UBT4S)

This would make it easier for me to sleep at night, knowing that the ideas are captured. It would also allow me to be much more effective by being able to more easily focus on exactly one bug at a time, and to record any progress or thoughts relating to others. But again, I suspect that the impact will actually be much greater from other people entering the feature requests and bugs of society that they think of or notice.

The UBT4S also makes it easy for people who are not plagued by new ideas to join in the effort, but who want to make a positive impact in the world: They can simply go to the UBT4S, browse the bugs and feature requests, maybe vote some up or down, add some notes, or, hopefully, assign one to themselves and do some work on it.

The underlying philosophy that makes the UBT4S make sense is the realisation that if you are a social entrepreneur having someone else cut your lunch by doing something you had planned to gives you a free lunch in the form of releasing you to pursue other innovations. I'll write a blog post on this competition-is-a-gift aspect of social entrepreneurship soon.

But right now, this is what I am going to do: I am going to register and setup a bug tracker there, that will be open to anyone to register and contribute to. I will pre-load it with some bugs and feature requests for society that I have in mind (including those above).

I will also lay out some rules for the UBT4S. These rules will be subject to the UBT4S itself, and so if you don't like them, then please submit an issue that describes the problem and how they can be improved.

This is a very important point, because I don't want the UBT4S to be a whinge board about all that is wrong with society. I also don't want it to be a place where people say that country X needs party Y in power. The political domain is already quite saturated, and not a fun place to operate for the most part. 

The UBT4S, on the other hand, is a place where tools and personal-action is the approach. Think of it as a meta-project around various various existing and yet-to-exist open-software, open-hardware and life-hacking projects that has “universal peace and happiness” as its' goal (which I have purposely not defined), and then identifies tools that can be used to edge closer to that.

I immediately recognise that this approach has limitations, but then so does Newtonian Physics, but that doesn't stop us using non-relativistic rulers to measure how tall our kids are, and nor should the fact that the UBT4S has natural limitations prevent us from achieving as much universal peace and happiness as we can using that tool.

So now I throw the challenge out to you: visit, add bugs, issues and feature requests.  Comment on existing issues, and maybe start Wiki pages to begin marshalling resources for them. If you are part of a project that is providing a solution (or part of a solution) to an issue, then make a note of that in the tracker. That way people who want to help in that particular area can find the right projects to join, donate to or otherwise help.

I look forward to seeing you at the UBT4S.

(Also if anyone has a better idea than using Google Code, I'm all ears.  Add it as an issue to the UBT4S, and we can work on fixing it.)

No comments:

Post a Comment