Thursday, April 06, 2006

Open Think Tanks

Given the exploding readership and influence of political blogs out there, it is apparent that there are a lot of very capable, talented writers who are passionate on policy and political topics who do this just for the sheer interest in the subjects. Of course, many of the contributors are journalists and lots of the biggest blogs are staffed full-time, but I would guess that there are still lots of people who read and contribute smaller amounts who have otherwise unrelated employment.

At this point, though, most of the blogs seem to focus on up-to-the-minute news, fact checking, book reviews, and some shorter policy debates. Some posts can get lengthy, but there doesn't seem to be much in the way of position papers and studies like those put out by think tanks. Would it be possible to create an "open think tank" that uses the open source software development model? Maybe something like this: someone proposes a topic for the study and people can join up. The lead or the core of the group organizes the project and divide up the work, and people can contribute components, from doing research, data analysis, writing, graphics, editing, etc. Group members rely on each other to double check the contributions by each other.

I would set it up like Sourceforge, where there's a project webpage that contains info on the project, group members, maybe a blog or wiki for discussion and other communication. For the actual materials of the study, like raw data, analysis, or the actual text of the report, it's all managed through a version control system just like source code is. You can have various stages of release of your documents, alpha and beta drafts or something like that, and a final release (although if it follows the open source trend, nothing ever makes it out of beta).

Of course you'll never be able to match the speed of real think tanks because they're working full time and have more research resources available, but I bet it'd be surprising the number and quality of ideas that come from an open think tank. The people who contribute may be amateurs, but there are a lot of very well-educated and thoughtful amateurs out there who could create top quality studies. Who knows, maybe it could end up like Linux or Firefox and carve out a niche and give the established players a run for their money.


At 6:25 AM, Blogger Thomas said...

i am always somewhat a cynic of "open source" ideas outside of software (and usually including software)

I don't think the proliferation of blogs is a very good example. 99.999% of blogs our there are rarely posted to and about content that really takes little research (This is how my day went, i like this movie, or even this is where i see technology going)

I think the closest thing you are going to get to this is wikipedia. People can add their own content about the things they care about (facts about my town, civil war battles, famous people) - the key thing to note is that wikipedia never really goes into a deep dive on any subject matter (and is usually just facts from a book or other information source). which leads right into my next thought

In general (and this is just my theory) that "open source" projects are rarley inovative they are usually much better at copying ideas out there (with possible improvements) which makes sense since it is peoples side "job" - The best open source projects usually are sponsored by a company to have some full time people working on it.

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Dan Craig said...

You're right, 99.999% of blogs are of little value, but that's part of the beauty of the internet: that it costs nothing and harms no one. But when I wrote about proliferation of blogs, I meant more the very good political blogs that are well written, timely, and some of which are cited (or should be) by professional news outlets. The point is, that while a only a small fraction of the total bloggers, there is a small, but non-trivial number of very capable people who are devote significant time to topics outside their career that interest them.

The same reasoning applies to the point that most open source projects are not innovative. There are thousands of projects open on sourceforge, many of which are stagnant or never produced anything, but because there is no cost to it, it's not an issue. But there are a small but non-trivial number of sucessful and innovative projects. Most of those are now supported by companies or non-profit foundations, but they had to start somewhere. Linux had its origin in a newsgroup posting.

I would envision the open think tank the same way. It may be that the vast majority of study projects never make it beyond the initial idea phase, or most may pale in comparison to professionally done work, but since there is no cost, you can afford to have them along if it also provides a community that can produce a small amount of high-quality work. If there are a handful of people who consistently do good work, chances are they'd get hired by a real think tank or maybe for their own foundation to support the work full time, just like in software. It just seems to me like it would be a really cool, low-cost forum for letting people explore their policy interests.

At 6:13 PM, Blogger dian said...

One issue that I see with political papers is that unlike a computer program, people have fundamentally different ideologies and thus don't often agree on an issue. Contributors would have to be in almost complete agreement on a policy paper before even starting it. There would probably a lot of going back and forth, and I don't know if substantial reports of the sort that think tanks produce would be possible.

Which leads me to wonder if such an idea were launched, you would end up with a bunch of academics writing about something they agree on. This reminds me of the academic research community, where colleagues and researchers collaborate on papers and talks, so I think this would be a great home for your "open think tanks" idea. Perhaps world-renown political strategists wouldn't participate because they probably have their own research staff and network of trusted individuals to do this sort of thing, but certainly graduate students and other researchers could more easily collaborate and find ideas and people for their projects.


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