Thursday, March 28, 2013

Learning organization

Anyone who knows anything about modeling knows that you cant just be the best at any one modeling system. You have to be in an environment of learning, with a clear vision of not only how to improve your models via feedback from customers, but also agile to know the limits of your modeling system and move on when the problems dont match the techniques. This is hard to do.

The ECMWF has chosen to do one model and do it well, organizing a myriad of people to attack fundamental problems. They have focused resources, a clear vision, and well defined goals. In the US we have many modeling systems, a robust set of testbeds, and as a result a diversified community of modelers. We have a broader learning organization that is by definition less focused due to diversity. We have goals but our problem is the lack of agility despite this diversity. Diversity can be equally paralyzing because there are too many options and we become distracted and governed by our perceived priorities and focus heavily on our limitations. This results in quick approaches that pay off in the short term but not in the long term.

In essence we will ask our best people to always be playing catch up and not give them enough time to be forward thinking. The time spent reading papers, going to conferences, making connections and exchanging ideas is well worth the cost of travel. It provides an outlet, an entry into the creative process through collaboration, and a realization of perspective that you cant get internally (e.g. the purpose of achieving new perspectives is for growth which can quickly stagnate in low morale environments). It is effectively a way to get other people to invest in your problems without using your money. We all benefit when these folks make successful, mutually beneficial collaborations and has been a hallmark in the aerospace industry!

This is precisely about creating a learning organization that has agility and flexibility of choosing good methods without being hampered by custom or culture to implement good ideas. This is all about interaction between researchers and forecasters, to make sure that the best methods, the best techniques, and the best mutually beneficial interactions occur to get the job done. This is an iterative process, and is a hallmark of a learning organization. But learning organizations have well defined, forward looking goals that equate to a solid vision and they have tactical support to implement, refine, and iterate.

Bogging down the system prevents even good intentioned people from creating a vision, crafting a strategy and developing a tactical approach to get the job done. Hiring freezes when organizations are already short staffed, or cutting corners on travel and interactions only serve to amplify the long term impacts. And when those impacts surface they will be unbearable.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


I really like using hashtags (i.e. obsessed). They are short and sweet communication tools laced with sarcasm and emotion amongst other things. The computer version of Kevin Nealon's Mr Subliminal (from SNL for you young people #spoiledkids). Subtle, sharp, confrontational (thank you yes I am), and honest. It resonates because people think it but dont say it. Its a glimpse into someone elses reality. An attempt to drop social norms and just be you, the you in your head. #vulnerable

Which brings me to science and communication. Communication is effective when blunt and honest but not jam packed with facts (or you know #science). Science is not communication. Science informs communication, communication may inform science, and there is even a field of the science of science communication.  People get this confused. #includingme We train our brains to think in terms of science but we have not trained ourselves to translate that information into someone elses perspective. Obviously that is one of the hardest things to do. To be cognizant of someone elses perceptions, views, maybe even feelings, gut instincts and be sensitive to their level of comfort with risk.

The risks evolve with time sometimes without us knowing or realizing. Such is the case with weather and climate. We are adaptive beings and as such have adapted to that which is most familiar. In all cases we have adapted to seasons. #notlookingatyoufloridians #70 #coatwx  We have not adapted well to longer term drought (lasting more than 2 years); of course I dont have direct evidence but some OK towns are rumored to run out of water in the next 10 months. #tornadosummit

#meanwhileatthemesoscale So I attended a great seminar about real people #shudder caught in flash floods in France. The framework established by Isabelle Ruin was all about space and time scales of actions (e.g. real people making decisions, estimating risk, perceiving risk, and experiencing danger). The cool part was estimating the time at which people had to anticipate and react to the threat, based on the phenomena. My interpretation of this was a sort of internal or personal calibration to the threat. When the people react or take action to mitigate a risk we hope they are doing such things at a pace faster than the phenomena. in that case they will be in mitigation, any slower and they will be reacting. In both circumstances, people can make poor decisions whether they be well informed or not.  It was concluded that lead time particularly its suggested increase may not be any good. This has been eluded to in other work by colleagues so it isn't much of a surprise to me.

The notion that we should provide more information to help people make decisions is right on. But that doesnt mean more or better information of the scientific variety. It may mean, for now, cues that resonate with people to help them personalize the risk. To make it real. #itcanhappen #itIShappeningtoyou Extreme events happen suddenly and put you in a state of shock and awe. #surreal You can prepare for it, but until it happens, you really dont know how prepared you should have been. #doesthatevenmakesense

More importantly we need to slow down how we change the current system. Everyone has solutions but not everyone knows the unintended consequences, or else we wouldnt call them unintended consequences. The point of going through the motions of evaluating any potential solutions is to identify those consequences, those times where things wont work well, and those times that they do. But also to ensure that we establish learning along the way. Iteration is the key to success. #lightbulbs And iteration requires failure. If all you do is derive #solutions, then you have succeeded in failing to learn. And you implicitly acknowledge that your intent is to be done with this for a while once you get a result that is "good enough" or "close enough".

The challenge we all face is to inform, organize, plan, and react based on the risk. Solid communication and solid science can get us there, but we have to be truly organized and informed to make that a reality. To accomplish this we will have to be vulnerable, blunt, and honest in our communication tactics, and we will need to be accessible in our vision, strategy, and tactics to keep people well informed. And that is the goal of scientific communication: To keep people well informed.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tornado Summit

I had the chance to attend the Tornado Summit with attendees from emergency management (EM), physical and social scientists, and Insurance representatives. I couldnt be everywhere so I missed all the Insurance breakout sessions. I usually enjoy seeing a different perspective but there simply was no time. My main mission was to conduct short surveys of EM professionals for our NOAA grant relating to Social and behavorial influences on weather driven decisions. That mission was accomplished and I got to meet some interesting and dedicated professionals.