W. Ben Towne
Faculty Advisor: Mark Klein

Title: The Open Source Policy Project


W. Ben Towne is a first year student in Carnegie Mellon University's PhD program in Computation, Organizations, & Society. He is interested in exploring the details of how computers, networks, and related technology transform modern society and organizations. He is specifically interested in introducing a tool for improving the quality of policy and decision making, and is beginning that academic journey through this V-Unit. Ben received a B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering and a B.A. in Community Development with many honors from Lafayette College in Easton, PA. His overall research is advised by Jim Herbsleb.

Project Synopsis

Every day, policymakers in many contexts are called on to make myriad decisions across a broad spectrum of topic areas, each of which has both near- and far-reaching consequences. In many cases, it is not possible for each policymaker to know all the consequences of his or her decisions, due to finite limits in time and resources, even if the knowledge is present within the legislator’s constituency. Individuals often have valuable knowledge they can contribute in one or a small number of subject areas, even if they avoid seeking out policymaking positions due to responsibilities in other areas. Existing work shows that individuals are also willing to share their knowledge and expertise under certain conditions. This is evidenced by projects like Wikipedia, Aardvark, and millions of online discussion boards where experience and advice are exchanged every day.

I believe the time is ripe for an Internet-based, “open source policy” tool which allows people to discuss the pros and cons of policy options. As Wikipedia is a collection of articles about what is, this site would be a collection of discussions/proposals (‘“Let’s do <something>”) about what could be or should be. The main point of the Open Source Policy Project tool is to “Inform the Debate.” Atomic arguments for and against the proposal, past experience, and a diversity of perspectives can help bring up, and solve, important considerations and conflicting interests to improve the quality of policy decisions. The tool could be used across a wide variety of domains, ranging from politics, to geographically-distributed special interest groups trying to address far-reaching challenges (e.g. sustainability), to engineering teams who must reach decisions as a group (e.g. Health IT, also requiring medical & other professionals, or a lunar lander team). In order for a tool like the one proposed to succeed, it will need to be user-friendly, searchable, scalable, secure, fault-tolerant, intuitive, and properly introduced, among other specifications.  This tool could also be used by researchers to study decision networks, examining the links between discussions.

Others have independently attempted to build such tools, with varying degrees of success.  This V-Unit will survey those tools to learn about their approaches, strengths, weaknesses, and experiences in particular domains where they were tested. Two of particular interest include the Peer-to-Patent system, which is detailed in a textbook on Wiki government and the Deliberatorium, which is headed up by advisor Mark Klein from MIT.