[SIGCIS-Members] documenting or diagramming human computation

David Grier grier at email.gwu.edu
Tue Feb 14 10:27:09 PST 2017

	I found very few diagrams in my research.  The Planners tended to grids similar to spreadsheets.  Commonly the sheet would have some statement of the calculation on the left most column and the columns to the right would be filled with results with calculations from different starting values.  You can find examples of these spreadsheets going back to Maskelyne’s papers at the 18th century Royal Nautical Almanac.  

	I think that diagrams were not common for a couple of reasons.  First,  the computers rarely had to make decisions as you would in a program.    Second, the algorithms that they were using tended to be variations of interpolation and required no decisions.  For example, I found no good examples of Gaussian elimination for Least Squares being mass produced.  While you can find computing offices that did it, these offices usually assigned that work to skilled individuals who didn’t need or want such guidance.  Third, the one algorithm that did require decisions - differencing for error detection, was not managed by the computing staffs.  While less skilled computers did the work, the Planning staff reviewed the results and made decisions form it.  Finally, I can find no good example of a human computing group that operated in a Fordist manner - with the kind of assembly line that Richardson envisioned in his writings about weather prediction.  I can find no example of a computation that extended beyond the scale of a single worksheet and hence required the worksheets to pass through the office in a systematic way. As far as I can tell, the offices used a modified market model.  They would put worksheets in a central place, let the computers choose the ones they wanted to do.  

	It’s useful to compare the computing plans of L. J. Comrie in the 1920s or Gertrude Blanch in the 1930s with the industrial plans of the Ralph Flanders or office work plans of William Leffingwell.  It is clear that the human computers are aware of the work does in industrial organization but they are not using the kinds of flow models from industry.  The one big exception is, of course, the Columbia Astronomical group, but they are an IBM shop and IBM shops used diagrams to guide information processing.  


> On Feb 14, 2017, at 10:39 AM, Paul Fishwick <metaphorz at gmail.com> wrote:
> I saw Hidden Figures this weekend, which brought back some early days for me when I worked in
> Langley’s Structures Directorate as a systems analyst. After scouring the web for documents,
> and reading Grier’s book, I still wonder whether the computation steps were organized in some
> sort of diagram that would be used by a planner (?) to guide the human computers. I’ve also reviewed
> Pickering’s legacy, the Handbook of Human Computation, and Human Computation by Law and von
> Ahn. If you review Willey (1969) “Manual for Reduction of Data” by Helen H. Willey (Supervisory
> Mathematician), there are many equations but no visual guides as to who does wha,t and the
> structured flow of computed variables by computers.
> Here is a nice NASA site with citations: https://crgis.ndc.nasa.gov/historic/Human_Computers
> But I do not see anything resembling a time-ordered process. Today, we might expect data flow
> diagrams, business process notations, or something of the sort. What did they use back then, or
> perhaps they created computational and data flow order without explicating documenting it?
> -paul
> Paul Fishwick, PhD
> Distinguished University Chair of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication
> Professor of Computer Science
> Director, Creative Automata Laboratory
> The University of Texas at Dallas
> Arts & Technology
> 800 West Campbell Road, AT10
> Richardson, TX 75080-3021
> Home: utdallas.edu/atec/fishwick
> Blog 1: medium.com/@metaphorz
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