Open-Source Research
Brian Gongol

What we know
  1. People in much of the Western world have lots of free time
  2. Many people have lots of free time and lots of intellectual capacity that goes unused during that free time
  3. Many people are willing to devote their free time to pursuits like Wikipedia, which offer no compensation except a sense of satisfaction and, perhaps more importantly, a sense of having contributed to something big
  4. The human race still has lots of unfulfilled needs, many of which simply require more effort or thought
  5. Despite the available supply of free time and intellectual capacity and the known demand for that intellectual capacity, there appears to be no central marketplace for coordinating the use of that knowledge
  6. The open-source computing community has shown that it is possible to coordinate large, disparate groups of people on organized projects, and uses SourceForge as its central marketplace
What that tells us

It should be possible to establish an online community or marketplace for latent talent, knowledge, and skills that can be applied to the useful social needs of the day. For instance, researchers like Franziska Michor (celebrated in the popular press as one of the "best and brightest") have shown that some problems require a multi-disciplinary approach. Michor, for instance, studies cancer by using novel mathematical approaches that usually aren't applied by other researchers. Surely there must be many other fields of inquiry similarly in need of cross-disciplinary cooperation. Yet, unless individuals from one field actively seek out individuals in others and ask for their help, very little cross-pollination of ideas ever seems to take place.

The value in coordinating such an effort in a visible, open-source style is that we simply may not know who possesses the best skill set to help resolve an issue -- or we may know, but not know how to find one. In either case, placing the need out in the open at a centralized space may help.

Given the sheer volume of time devoted by people to other online pursuits -- whether that's editing Wikipedia or documenting recreational interests like bonsai gardening -- it should be obvious that we have at least some available intellectual capacity that, if usefully coordinated, could be applied to solving these social questions. What's missing appears to be the coordination of such an effort so that the people who know what the needs are can find the people who know how to help.

In essence, this sort of open-source research can be thought of as a hybrid of Wikipedia, which invites participation by all, with SourceForge, which hosts a centralized marketplace for open-source computer programmers, with a little inspiration drawn from the SETI at Home distributed-computing project as well as the discipline of project management.

A skeleton outline of what's needed

To make a project like this come to fruition, what's needed is the ability to identify needs, catalog and organize them, and then put them on display for easy user retrieval. A skeleton outline of the process might look something like this:
Researcher submits need

Database assigns ID number to need

Editor reviews submission, marks for:
  1. Urgency
  2. Importance
  3. Classification
  4. Skills required
  5. Precedent tasks
  6. Successor tasks
Need enters database

Database appears on website

Multiple listings appear on website: Visitors can select for tasks related to their skills or classifications

As individual tasks are completed, the database automatically updates the status of the project

Participants are recognized for their contributions by having their completed tasks documented
The application

Ideally, a coordinated system for open-source research of this nature would be devoted to solving important problems, like aiding cancer research or finding new ways of mitigating disasters -- whatever would be most useful for reducing the impact of human suffering. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt:
"If you are rich and are worth your salt, you will teach your sons that though they may have leisure, it is not to be spent in idleness; for wisely used leisure merely means that those who possess it, being free from the necessity of working for their livelihood, are all the more bound to carry on some kind of nonremunerative work in science, in letters, in art, in exploration, in historical research -- work of the type we most need in this country, the successful carrying out of which reflects most honor upon the nation. We do not admire the man of timid peace."

-- Theodore Roosevelt, "The Strenuous Life", April 10, 1899
Those interested in helping with such an effort may contact the author.