It’s been a rough few weeks for infrastructure.
Of course the collapse of the I-35 bridge over the Mississippi in Minneapolis last Wednesday is on all of our minds – how could the inspections fail and the road fall down? Significantly, there’s some videos that capture the moment, which hopefully will provide clues for determining the cause.
Closer to home, we had an eight-hour traffic jam on the I-93 loop in Braintree (a major highway south of Boston) a week ago Monday. A storm grate was thrown loose by a passing truck at the start of the morning rush, and landed on a near-by car. (Fortunately the driver survived.) Reportedly, the Massachusetts State Highway Department spent the rest of the day checking and welding shut all the grates on that highway. The next day, the same loose storm drain problem cropped up on a major road in Newton, near where I live. This time motorists were asked to dial a special code from their cell phones to report problems.
And then this morning New Yorkers awoke to a monsoon and a flooded mass transit system. The official M.T.A. web site could not keep up with the requests for information, and crashed when it was needed most.
You’ve gotta hand it to those hardy folks (and the New York Times) for that snarky, Big Apple attitude. Here’re a few priceless ones that I gleaned from NYTimes.Com during the day.

“Our transit system is not only frail but if it’s this vulnerable to rain attacks, then how vulnerable is it to terrorist attacks?”

“I walked from the Upper West Side all the way to work in Midtown, but thanks to Starbucks was able to stop in and cool myself every four blocks or so.”

(Now there’s somebody with brand loyalty!)

“And only the rats had no transportation problems.”

All this content about our physical infrastructure (user generated and otherwise) has the potential to bring social computing to a whole new level.
This got me thinking about the role of collaboration technologies for supporting our physical infrastructure. It’s great to be able to talk back — and let off a little steam. It’s even better to be able to call-in, and tell the authorities about the problem before there’s another horrible accident. But what else is possible? Could the bridge inspectors in Minneapolis have shared their observation reports, measurements, and perhaps photographs of the bridge’s structure over the past few inspection cycles, and had some semi-automated ways to detect the problems before the disaster? Unfortunately we’ll never know.
While I certainly don’t have it all figured out, I can begin to see some bread crumbs towards the workable solution we all want and need. We can no longer rely on human intelligence alone. Our worlds are much too complex and interdependent. We need to augment our understandings, and our abilities to take actions, by a variety of automated, concent-centric tools, such as semantic technologies. (With my colleagues Lynda Moulton and Frank Gilbane, we’re picking up coverage of this area, the ability to inject “meaning” and “context” into an enterprise environment. Be sure to check out the semantic technologies track at our upcoming conference in November.)
I’ve seen a couple of promising developments this month. SchemaLogic is finally reporting some progress in the publishing space, enabling publishers such as Associated Press to automatically repurpose content by synchronizing tags and managing metadata schemas. While pretty geeky, this is very neat! Now we need to see how this approach to managing semantics within the enterprise will impact collaboration and social computing.
Then project and portfolio management (PPM) systems — heretofore heavyweight (often mainframe) applications that are used to track resources for complex, engineering-driven projects — are being redeployed as Web 2.0 environments. In particular,eProject is now transforming its Web-based PPM environment into a broader collaborative tools suite. Seeking to capitalize on it’s expanded mission of bringing a PPM model to the Web, eProject’s also renaming itself in the process.
Where do these bread-crumbs lead? As a first step, we need to focus on how our collaboration infrastructure (fueled by our information architecture) can augment the work of people responsible for our physical infrastructure (ourselves included). At the end of the day, we need to be able to rely on this collaboration infrastructure to help us sense and respond to the challenges of simply getting from one place to another.