Is OpenIDEO a good model for a research community?

Crowd applause taken at the Liverpool Arabic A...

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It looks like just at about the same time I started this blog, Haiyan Zhang, who blogs at the awesomely named and beautifully designed site:, was putting together OPENIDEO, an online community-based development platform. It is similar to Quora in principle but rather than solving lots of little questions, it is focused on individual large questions. And also unlike Quora, it is much more focused on delivery. All of the challenges seem to be sponsored by someone who can then take some of the ideas generated into account.

Each process of collaboration starts with a challenge that proceeds in clearly defined and timed stages: Inspirations, Concepting, Applause, Refinement and Evaluation – some challenges seem to even have Implementation. It is always clear how many challenges there are and what stage they are in. Anyone can create new Inspirations or Concepts and comment on or applaud others’. There is also a Build on functionality, that seems very promising but it’s not clear how much it is being used.

So my first impression was very positive, and I was almost feeling that the problem I outlined at the start of this blog has been solved. My second and third impressions were also very positive but I did temper my initial enthusiasm by realizing (to no surprise at all) that what is in OpenIDEO is only a part of the solution for what I have in mind.

The design of the site is beautiful and it has many delightful features such as a sidebar that makes it easy to get to your bookmarks and see challenges you participate in. But in some ways the look and feel gets in the way. Why visually captivating, it’s not always clear what to do. For instance, I expected more out of the brainstorming stage but there were only comments. There was also a downloadable PDF for people to print out and to use to brainstorm in small groups – that’s actually a great idea, but I would still prefer an online equivalent to this. As it is, the only functionality for brainstorming is commenting. But this is only at the bottom of a long list. The GLPv3 consultation process showed a much more interesting system for inline commenting and if this were enhanced through some LucidChart-like group flowcharting, we might have something more interesting.

There is a social element to the site but it does not have a strong system to manage reputation – which I think is crucial for a community like this. It does have testimonials and keeps track of contributions but I think more would be needed to make it work to support something like peer review.

I couldn’t find an easy way to spin away ideas into separate challenges and projects (apart from the build-on community), collaborate on them, get separate funding, etc. Contributing an inspiration or a concept is easy but many great concepts do not get selected.

Some sort of a graphical tool that would allow for individual sorting and connecting of ideas would also be veSome sort of a graphical tool that would allow for individual sorting and connecting of ideas would also be very useful.

A folksonomy of ideas is another thing that is missing. I would love to be able to highlight a piece of text in an idea and tag it or link just that to another idea. Also, sharing of different kinds of objects such as research references or web links would be essential.

But most importantly (unlike Quora) there is no way for normal users to post questions. This can be a good thing (a lot of the questions on Quora are not all that interesting) but this could be happening in the background – similarly to the way new links are promoted on Digg. Then the really engaged community members would have a Quora-like experience and the less engaged would have an OpenIDEO-like experience.

I’ve found the site to be a bit sluggish at times and would prefer a text only option. The images that are included in the display of all ideas are nice but to scan through 400+ inspirations, I (and I know others) would much prefer a long list of text. Not perhaps as default but certainly as an option.

I couldn’t find any information about the platform OpenIDEO is built on – my obvious preference would be for Open Source so that others could start similar communities and contribute features.

But none of this diminishes the fact that OpenIDEO is a great platform for its purpose and offers many inspirations to the concept of community-based research. It is a platform I will be recommending to charities and institutions that want to make the most out of the wealth of ideas out there. And if anybody ever designs a truly online research community, I would be sending them to OpenIDEO for inspiration. And I will be certainly thinking more about the implications of the model OpenIDEO created for projects like these.

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