August 23, 2003

Taking steps toward open idea development

- by Henrik Nilsen Omma -
In an article here on NewsForge, Jordi Carrasco-Munoz presented a scheme for pooling ideas. Following an open development model, several of us have
now started adding to and improving it. I really
like the idea of an information bank, and plan to support it. I have a few concrete suggestions, and I've registered a domain name to get us started.

For an idea to be truly useful, it must be good, well-developed, and available to those in a position to implement it. The fact is that very few ideas start out like this. Anybody can post an idea on an open forum that may not be any good, or even new, and the sheer number of half-baked ideas soon becomes unmanageable.
In the real world, the people who are 'doers,' who have the skill, resources, and drive to carry out ideas, do not have time to read through hundreds of badly formulated ideas on some Web site or to read the endless stream of SlashDot-style comments.

So the question becomes: What is the purpose of posting these ideas? Is it 1. to plant a flag saying: 'Hey, look at me! I had his idea first!', 2. to
develop ideas so that they become clearly formulated, debugged, and
eventually implemented, or 3. to document their proposal and specify them
in some detail so that they are protected from patenting. While #1 is
clearly childish, it might be the most common, but if #2 or #3
are the goals then some structure and discipline is required.

To archive a high level of quality in such a project, I suggest these steps:

Wiki and CVS-style development

This seems to work well for the Wikipedia and various documentation
projects. With a Wiki, which is a Web-based discussion application, someone can present a half-baked idea and others can actively develop it, not just post a long list of comments in a forum. This could be more than just text; if someone makes a simple sketch of an idea, someone else might come along later and do a proper 2D CAD drawing of it, and a third person might import that file, turn it into a 3D version, and give a proper stress test.

The open development model has proved itself in the OSS world, but it's crucial to facilitate and encourage contributions, not just debate. We need some sort of Wiki or Concurrent Versions System-style mechanism to manage contributions. In TheOpenCD project we spent a lot of time debating what the criteria should be for inclusion on the CD, and eventually we set up a list of criteria that each candidate program must be tested against. A similar set of criteria could be devised for ideas, including originality, practicability, and relative importance. The modified Wiki system must then be capable of ranking ideas based on these scores.

Keywords

Organising ideas by topics is a good start, but more flexibility may be
required. An improvement would be to add searchable keywords based on a
standard set. The original submitter of the idea would choose keywords
from a list, which would make it easier to group and search for ideas.
People could subscribe to email notification triggered by certain keywords or combinations thereof. Personally, as an astrophysicist, I
publish my research in a journal like The Monthly Notices of the Royal
Astronomical Society, and in doing so I must choose keywords from
a standard list.

Disqualification

Often, good ideas have already been thought of, and even published.
On existing sites like shouldexist.org and halfbakery.com you see
comments like 'this idea already exists, bla, bla.' That may be
true, or the person posting the reply might have misunderstood either of the ideas, or simply be wrong. Therefore, any such challenge must be
documented with links or other proper references to previous ideas.
A challenge must then be evaluated and voted on by others. If enough
people accept a challenge, the idea is officially declared
dead-from-non-originality. Similar challenges could be made claiming
an idea unpractical, but such challenges might not make an idea dead,
just give it a very low score.

Submitter rating system

When members vote on an idea, a challenge, or any other contribution, that vote
should be attached not only to the idea, but also the contributer. That
way you can choose to read only ideas posted or endorsed by well-respected
people, or likewise avoid those challenged by authorities in the field.
Most people don't have time to read everything and appreciate ways of
narrowing things down. This would also discourage the posting of nonsense,
as it would damage a poster's ratings. Specialists such as drafters, lawyers, and engineers would be rewarded for their valuable contributions. One day we might even see people listing their score on their CV!

Expert panels

Even though a growing percentage of the population is getting on the Internet, the likelihood of the 'right person' reading about a particular
idea in some obscure corner of the Web is rather slim.
In order to spread the ideas to where they might be useful, we should have a conscious strategy to distribute the ideas. We should identify key
recipients of the ideas in each category. This could be a newspaper or
magazine, a specific journalist or expert, a university department, or
whatever. These experts would be selected through a nomination and voting
process. The top 10 entries in each category would then receive a bulletin
of new ideas at regular intervals in an appropriate format for them, be it
email, a CD, or a printed copy. The media might not care about some
Web site, but if an editor receives a well-organised document called 'The 100 best ideas of 2004' he might just write about some of them. This would in turn do wonders for the open development model.

Idea requests

Ideas are often not simply brilliant bolts of inspiration from a clear sky,
but rather the clever solution to an established need. Sometimes an idea
is formed in seconds, sometimes it takes years of hard thinking. Often
identifying the problem is half the task, but the person who has the
problem may not see the solution. However, apply a few thousand brains to
a problem, and the solution may present itself. This is not unlike the
process of bug reporting and fixing in OSS development.

Much of this may have no commercial value, but that's fine. Importance and value need not always be measured in money. Someone working in an aid organisation in Africa may need to solve a specific irrigation issue for less than $100 and some farmer in Wales may have just the thing. And thus good has been done.

Going forward

Let's not worry too much about patents. Rather, let's take the moral high ground and promote the freedom of ideas. This approach, with its emphasis on the quality of ideas, mirrors the 'Free Software' vs. 'Open Source' dichotomy. The Free Software ideology emphasises the benefits to humanity of free software, while the Open Source idea stresses the merits of the open development process in creating a superior product. Personally, I feel strongly about the principles of information freedom, but I also feel that the creation of superior tools is the best way to build momentum and reach the 95% who don't care.

There are lots of people who have benefited from OSS and who would like to contribute to an open project but who are not programmers. Many of those have great ideas and other useful skills and would be glad to work on an idea bank such as this. The more active participants may choose to become moderators of an idea or topic in the same way that large projects like OpenOffice.org have a separate maintainer for various parts of the code. A completely automated system would be nice, but I suspect that a system clever enough to do this job is some way off.

To start us off, I've registered the name TheOpenIdea.org, and will be setting up a site with a forum and a Wiki so we can get started. Bring on the ideas!

Note: This article was originally written at three o'clock in the morning, after reading the original. It was first intended simply as a reply, but as it grew I decided to make the reply in article form. NewsForge editor Lee Schlesinger made some useful comments, but also some changes that I needed to change back. So in effect, this article is in itself an example of an evolving idea, and this note serves to document the changes that have been made.

Henrik Nilsen Omma is a graduate student in Theoretical Physics at England's Oxford University and the originator of TheOpenCD project.

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