Open Projects: Some Draft Ideas

What are the key elements of successful open source projects that engage hundreds of people?

Imagine an almost ideal information model of human – every element (gene, particle, organ …) is described and its characteristics are stored in form of parameters. There are relationships defined between those elements, which can take parameters on their own. Furthermore, imagine a group of people who volunteer to be described by means of this model. They provide their genetic code, and allow for storing information of actual parameters recording the state of their body.

Now think of the potential uses of such a database in the field of medicine. How many theories could we validate with such model? How many ideas could we test without endangering real human beings? How many insights and discoveries would come out of scientific analysis of the model?

If you are following my way of thinking, you have probably come up with some really powerful benefits linked to this idea. If so, why doesn’t it exist? This is no rocket science – any large database would do from the technology standpoint. But to gather all of this information in one place, it would require consensus from thousands of independent researchers, each following their own interest. The big discoveries would likely not come from the same people who contributed to building the model, so why bother?

This seems like a dead end, but experience from the world of open source software development shows that construction of complex artifacts by voluntary collaboration of independent individuals is possible – think of operation systems like Linux or application development platforms like Eclipse.

So, what are the key elements of successful open source projects that engage hundreds of people? As indicated by the title of this post, I will share my initial ideas on the topic.

Modularity. Thousands of people who wrote Linux did not meet, talk and sit one next to the other while writing the software. Instead, one guy wrote the system kernel, and others followed by implementing components to extend the kernel. By creating modular structure which can be easily extended, you make it possible for a singe person with limited capacity to contribute significant results. You also unleash the potential of contributors by giving them free hand as to what they do with your project. Best practice is to create a platform and mechanisms to extend or customize it freely.

Quality Assurance. How do we ensure the deliverables are of high quality, given the fact that we want almost everyone to be able to contribute? Wikipedia is famous for hoaxes, if we develop a product for example for the medical market, we cannot allow for quality incidents.

Trust. Would you contribute your time for free to write software that you would later need to buy in order to use it? If you want people to participate in your project, make sure they trust your intentions!

Value Proposition. To ensure adoption by sufficient number of users, the project needs to offer some unique value. You will not get attention if you attempt to create just another open encyclopedia, since Wikipedia is already there.

I will follow with more detailed insights on these elements in the future, and an investigation into a complete list of similar success factors.

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