Streamlining Social Decision Making for Improved Internet Standards

I'm pleased to announce that EPSRC has agreed to support our new project on "Streamlining Social Decision Making for Improved Internet Standards" (EP/S036075/1). This is joint work with Matthew Purver, Patrick Healy, Gareth Tyson, and Ignacio Castro at Queen Mary, University of London, and will run for three years starting January 2020.

Many decisions in today's world are made through a complex, dynamic process of interaction and communication between people and teams with different interests and priorities - so called "distributed decision-making" (DDM). For example, many businesses work across multiple geographically dispersed offices and time zones, with teams specialising in quite diverse areas. Each team may have its own goals and reward models, which do not necessarily coincide, and may be spread across multiple organisational units (e.g., different businesses or governments). Communication may happen via several different modalities with very different timescales and properties (e.g., email, instant messenger, and face-to-face meetings).

Unfortunately, although many organisations have started to document these processes and even make records available, we have no way to automatically analyse these records. If we did, we could produce tools to automatically summarise decisions, trace who made them, and why and how they were made (and why other decisions weren't made). From a societal standpoint this would help make these processes more accountable and transparent. We'd also be able to identify collaborative failures, biases and other problems, and thus help improve decision-making in future.

This project will develop these urgently required methods, using a combination of natural language processing and social network analysis. We will collate, annotate and publicly release the first multimodal dataset of real-world distributed decision-making. We will devise techniques to take natural language and semi-structured data to recognise the dialogue and interaction structures in decision making, and analyse those structures to produce summaries and evaluate the efficacy of the decision making process. We will then use the outputs to inform strategic interventions that can streamline and improve decision making.

Our methods will be suitably generic to span several domains. However, the project will focus on one particular global organisation as its main use case: the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). This is an international forum responsible for producing Internet protocol standards - formal documents which specify the languages by which software and hardware "speak" across the Internet. To produce these documents, extensive international collaboration is performed - this spans several modalities including email discussions, collaborative document editing, face-to-face meetings and teleconferencing. Importantly, all of these modalities are documented via transparency reports ranging from public email archives to minutes from meetings. This project has partnered with the IETF to help model and streamline their decision making process. We will borrow from their experience, and employ our methods to extract decision making bottlenecks. We will devise tooling which will provide advice and proposed interventions to relevant parties within the IETF. Amongst many other things, we directly benefit the IETF, and the global Internet standards community, by helping them to uncover biases and help make important decision processes accountable.