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Computer Science

Promises of intermediation platforms for services frugal in resources

The research project is under the co-supervision of
Stéphane  GRUMBACH                                  ZHOU Aoying
(Computer Science, ENS Lyon)                      (Computer Science, ECNU)         


Context: What is intermediation?

Intermediation platforms connect people, services, or things, which have common or complementary interest and would benefit from getting to know each other, to be acquainted. The beneficiaries might seek such connections, but it can also be the platform, which takes the initiative to suggest connections. The relevance of the intermediation, which relies not only on sophisticated algorithms but also on agile business models, ensures the success of the services of the platforms.
The first deployment at a very large scale of an intermediation platform was demonstrated in the late 1990s with search engines, whose primary service is to connect people to information they are looking for. Their business model relies on their secondary service, which consists in targeting ads efficiently. Search engines rely on very complex algorithms to rank data, to provide relevant answers to the query of users. In the last decade, intermediation platforms have penetrated an increasing number of sectors mostly in the social arena with great success.
Platforms create ecosystems on which users and economic players take part. Platforms follow two fundamental rules: (i) ensure the gatekeeping for their users, thus intermediating them to other services with no other middleman, and (ii) allow the easy development of services on their API for economic players. These two rules are fundamental to ensure the capacity to collect the data that fuel their services. Data is their crude oil.
Platforms are now economic powers of top importance, at the level of energy corporations. They offer services, which became essential utilities. They are indispensable not only for simple citizens, but as well for corporations, which rely on their services for their relation with their clients or other fundamental aspects. As for other essential utilities, such as water and energy supply or telecommunication, platforms ensure continuity of service, non-discrimination, and adapt to changes. Their business model is two-sided, with on one side users, who for the time being get free access to services, and on the other side, clients who access special services offered to them, which are currently mostly constituted by advertisers.
No doubts platforms will help to answer contemporary issues such as educational or environmental ones. Evaluating their promises and finding ways to implement such promises and making them economically viable is thus necessary. The project will strive to answer these challenges.

Objectives of the project: Experimenting with educational and environmental platforms

There already exists a wealth of platforms. On the whole, our goal is to identify and tackle the technological and economic issues that platforms raise. The objective of the project is to experiment with platforms in the context of (i) education, including Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), and (ii) environment, and frugal use of resources. The project will include:
• Research on the data technologies required
• Development of the platform
• Experimentation in real environments in the field of education and environment
Educational platforms
On the technological plane, several brakes to the development of educational platforms are of interest. Firstly, such platforms remotely present course materials on devices, sometimes in mobile contexts. The format of such materials must thus be adapted. Interactive media, short videos, user-friendly interfaces must thus be investigated. Using learning data to enhance learning may be a promising opportunity. Learning data could also help to enhance user experience. For most users, however, identifying MOOC resources of high-quality in limited time is a challenging task. Profiling users, extracting pieces of information from MOOC services as well as supporting services such as social media, and organize them into a knowledge graph where information pieces are connected by mining their relations from multiple data sources of different format and different quality could help to present users with suitable resources. Data integration and noise reducing, for instance, are crucial for the success in this application. They remain theoretical challenges.
Eventually, the business model of educational platforms may be yet to come. Many educational platforms are free for students. They thus need creative modes of financing. Current platforms make money out of partnerships with universities and companies or by billing users when they want an official certificate for the classes they have taken. Monetizing learning data and opening them for research could also be a way to finance platforms.
Environmental platforms
Environmental issues are top challenges for policies at all levels of the world organisation. Saving energy, notably fuel, and diminishing pollution are stringent issues. Transportation platforms, such as carpooling ones, might contribute to tackle these issues. They connect drivers and passengers. They get data about the journeys and the habits of both types of users. They also get comments about drivers and journeys. Such platforms face challenges in terms of usability, and trustfulness and integration with official institutions, such as for tax collection.
Journeys must be trustful for both drivers – they must actually get the money passengers promise them – and passengers – who must be able to choose journeys which meet their preferences in terms of safety, time, price, etc. Platforms must collect the relevant data (such as the history of journeys or the profiles of drivers) in order to present users with the relevant passengers and journeys.
On the economic and legal sides, most countries enforce regulations on carpooling, taxi-driving and transportation. Tax collection is another hot topic in the field. Integrating tax collections to platforms may be a fruitful way to comply with regulation. Such means could also apply to other platforms dealing, for instance, with real estate renting.

Originality in the field, expected scientific and institutional impacts

The project is interdisciplinary as each participant will bring a unique expertise.
On the French side, the DICE team at IXXI has developed a strong expertise in intermediation platform, both on their “economy”, as well as their technology. A platform is under development with educational plug-ins currently running. The Institut Michel Serres is addressing the issue of natural resources in an interdisciplinary approach, and develop solutions for decision-making systems with a participative, pro-active civil society acting to manage human activities while meeting the specific territorial potential and resource capacities, and ensure a fair re-allocation of such resources according to vital human needs and coherent public goods policies.
On the Chinese side, the Institute for Data Science & Engineering focuses on Big data theory and tries to foster the development of Big data technologies.
As a result, the project will foster interdisciplinary work on big data and their consequences. It will lead to theoretical and practical results which will be published in selective international journals and conference.


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