Innovation & the Father of Oceanography

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Cory Ondrejka gave a speech at Wharton about Angry Dinosaurs and how LT Matthew Fontaine Maury used innovation way back in the 19th Century.  Cory is now part of the team at Facebook and was previously CTO of Linden Lab and a U.S. Navy submariner.  Cory talked about how LTMaury discovered a gold mine of data and tapped into it — much like the way Google is doing today with the collected search data from the internet:

Matthew Fontaine Maury

In the mid 1800s, LT Matthew Fontaine Maury used the standard FAQs of his time (Bowditch’s Practical Navigator) but he was frustrated when they didn’t provide the right navigational questions.  He wanted to know things like “What’s the fastest way home?”, “What’s the safest path?”, and “What’s the easiest route to take?”  So Maury looked to see what the kids were using…and discovered the Ruby on Rails equivalent of his time: spherical geometry.  He began applying it to navigation and practical exams with predictable results.  It went over the heads of his examiners and his naval career stalled and then things got worse.  He was injured in a stage coach accident that kept him on dry land.  Stuck ashore, frustrated with the status quo, what was Lieutenant Maury to do?  He started blogging…writing a series of articles entitled “Scraps from the Lucky Bag.”  He argued for the establishment of a Naval Academy to promote professional training, better process, and need for improved navigational tools.  But the outcome may shock you, his bosses didn’t like his blogging.  In fact they exiled him to the Navy Depot of Charts and Instruments (since there wasn’t yet a base in Adak, Alaska).  So Maury was stuck ashore, crippled, career over and banished to the most distant corner the Navy could find…except the depot stored more than just old navigational equipment.

1st tool of institutions: DATA.  In particular, customer data (aka “what are your customers telling you?”) and first institutional hack: finding oxygen.  Institutions collect data and nobody cared what Maury did with it.  Every U.S. Navy ship was required to submit its logs at the end of a voyage.  There were thousands of ship’s logs with location, weather, wind, and current for every day each U.S. Naval vessel was at sea, and Maury was free to start collating it.  He found patterns.  So in an inspired bit of institutional hacking, what did he do?  Maury blogged his results with “The Physical Geography of the Sea.”  He avoided angry dinosaurs and spread the wealth.  Instead of taking on Bowditch directly, he published data that made all navigators better and ultimately converted Bowditch into a fierce supporter.  So in 1844, we have a national project creating value from the aggregation of previously valueless data by understanding and measuring the actions his customers were already taking and then sharing those measurements, Maury created new products that helped them.

2nd tool of institutions: INTERFACES.  Maury realized how much better the results could be.  He saw great value in publishing the data “in such a manner that each may have before him, at a glance, the experience of all” and found an interested patron (our final institutional hack).  John Quincy Adams was arguing that Congress should fund lighthouses and support more effective navigation.  Maury wrote to Adams, proposing standards for reporting meteorological data.  Adams responded by endowing the Naval Observatory.  So collation was easier and more accurate.  Creating an interface for meteorological data meant every navy and ship, could collect data differently, but report in a useful way.  Interfaces let different parts of the organization operate with less entanglement and interference.  The interfaces made Maury’s data better.  A lesson here: when at all possible, make it easier to get more data, write less code — especially if you can get data more easily.  Let technology help you get more data.

3rd tool of institutions: BULLY PULPIT.  Maury had all of the U.S. Navy data, but wanted more so he did what anyone would do in this situation.  He created a conference and gave the keynote at the Maritime Convention in Brussels, where he offered his data to any nation that submitted their ships’ logs in his standardized meteorological format.  Within 5 years, nearly the entire world was sharing their data with the Naval Observatory via Maury’s meteorology API (quite literal example of rising tide raising all boats) including nations actively at war with each other.  Maury’s weather API brought agility into his system ensuring a cycle of data collection, release, measurement, and improvement all with feedback from customers of course.  More data and Maury’s obsessive eye for detail led to unexpected consequences.  Studying harpoon designs, he found that many whales in the Pacific had been previously harpooned in the Atlantic (and vice versa).  He saw this as strong evidence of a navigable Northwest Passage and was correct, of course (he just had to wait for global warming to open the passage in 2006 and 2008).

4th tool of institutions: GETTING OUT OF THE WAY. More than anyone, one group of Captains needed to go faster: The 49-ers racing around Cape Horn to connect New York City and San Francisco at the start of the gold rush.  Traveling from New York to San Francisco took 200 days.  Contests and challenges were published focusing on the 3-month barrier and within 5 years, the time had been cut in half.  In 1854, the Flying Cloud’s “89 days and 8 hours” set a record that stood for 136 years.  Flying Cloud’s navigator was unusual: First, her name was Eleanor Cressy.  Second, she read Maury’s blog and understood Maury’s data betting her life and the Flying Cloud on it.  Eleanor Cressy drove institutional change.  But experienced navigators in 1854 didn’t believe they needed Maury.  Cressy wasn’t limited by old thinking.  Flying Cloud cut the New York to San Francisco time in half.

The U.S. Navy of the mid-19th century leveraged viral marketing, metadata, and interfaces to change the world while using standards, openness, and sharing to create increasing value for everyone in the network and adapting to change with agility.

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