The Wisdom of Crowds
How social media can serve the research effort behind code development
NFPA Journal, September/October 2010
The Foundation is conducting a project for seven of the major standards-development organizations in the United States to help them understand the needs of tomorrow’s codes and standards volunteers. As part of that project, NFPA members were asked to complete a survey designed to determine what will motivate them and enable them to continue to participate in our standards-development process. It’s clear that electronic tools, particularly those that enable collective participation in document development, are key enablers.
How can the Foundation apply these concepts to our own mission, which is to enhance the technical basis for NFPA codes and standards? I must admit that I originally viewed the application of these collective tools to research and data synthesis with suspicion. When Wikipedia references began to appear near the top of my Google searches, I discarded them as unreliable; my belief in a hierarchical structure for accurate information has been the foundation of my training as an engineer. However, as I begin to see their power — in particular their global access to sources of information that might not be available in the traditional fire protection literature — I’m modifying my position.
We have begun a few experiments to test the applicability of these collective tools to our work in support of NFPA standards. One example is an initiative we undertook this year to explore a major new challenge for fire protection and NFPA standards: the mega-storage warehouses that are larger in footprint and height than any fire test facility can simulate. We invited seven leading fire protection engineering companies to develop fire-safety design concepts for a prototype facility, incorporating innovative fire suppression, detection, emergency response, and commodity-handling systems. The results were presented at the Foundation’s SupDet conference in March. An accompanying blog generated additional input and augmented the truly innovative systems that were presented. All of this information is stored on the Foundation’s website, www.nfpa.org/foundation, as a resource for future designers.
A broader application of collective intelligence to our work involves a new approach to a typical problem, where a technical committee is considering standards proposals around an issue but has little independent information upon which to base its decision. (Sound familiar?) The Foundation has undertaken many projects designed to collect available but hard-to-reach information, synthesize it, and determine gaps. The reports section of our website contains two recent examples: an assessment of the risk and potential hazards presented by antifreeze in home fire sprinkler systems and best practices for emergency response to solar panel fires.
This summer, with the help of Jonathan Hart, our Worcester Polytechnic Institute engineering intern, we are experimenting with a social media approach to a pair of problems presented by technical committees: one related to glove-box fire protection and another on fire department best practices at sprinklered warehouses. Using the collective intelligence of the NFPA community, including the NFPA library and its electronic reach, web research tools, our blog, and the experience of key volunteers, we seek to answer a basic question: What information is out there? We’ve already uncovered information in unconventional places that we would never have discovered had we limited ourselves to our more traditional sources.
In the end, our goal is to support NFPA committees with credible information. As standards-development organizations such as NFPA adopt social media and other tools to enable the participation of a new generation of volunteers, it is important that we develop a process to vet that information for use in research and the creation of knowledge. What that process will eventually look like is the subject of an ongoing Foundation discussion, but once we’re able to do it reliably and efficiently, I’m convinced that these new tools will become a permanent part of our information-gathering kit.
Kathleen H. Almand, P.E., FSFPE, is the executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.