What if President Obama could talk regularly to ordinary people and scientists to ask them about issues? That's the vision of ThinkTank, an open source project to use a technique called "crowdsourcing" to get answers to America's problems.
ThinkTank's server software is available to everyone, not just people whose address is 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It's designed to let a user put out a question on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and collect and curate responses. Users can then separate responses by category, note the source of the information, and collate the comments into useful knowledge, said Gina Trapani, project director at Expert Labs', the not-for-profit developing the project.
Gina is a blogger, author, developer of productivity tools, and founding editor of Lifehacker. She currently blogs at Smarterware. She hosts the This Week in Google podcast with Leo Laporte and Jeff Jarvis. Her most recent book is The Complete Guide to Google Wave.
I interviewed my friend Gina on my podcast, Copper Robot. Listen to it here:
Gina says she started ThinkTank as a personal project, to help her manage her own conversations on Twitter, where she's @GinaTrapani and has 53,000 followers. She'd put out a question on Twitter and get a huge number of replies. She developed ThinkTank to help her collate those answers, and then she realized the tool could be generally useful.
ThinkTank is a Web app that installs on a server. Right now, it still only supports Twitter, but the plan is to broaden it to Buzz and Facebook.
The first client for ThinkTank: The White House. "The White House goal is to use ThinkTank to put a question out to the public on its verious social media profiles. The first question is going to be about its Grand Challenge initiative," Gina said. In the Grand Challenge, the President is looking to identify big scientific and technological achievements the U.S. should prioritize. These are Moon-landing-sized goals. Potential achievements: Early detection of diseases from saliva samples, solar cells as cheap as paint, educational software as compelling as games, even teleporting matter. "Really big insane cool scientific achievements," Gina said.
The White House blogged about the Grand Challenge, and its partnership with Expert Labs, in February: "Grand Challenges of the 21st Century"
"Expert Labs' purpose, its loftiest goal, is to help connect policymakers in government with scientists and the public using technology," Gina said.
The way Think Tank will work is that people working for the President will organize the responses by similarities, and also identify the people sending in responses, to sort responses by ordinary people, scientists and lobbyists.
"The metaphor we're using is iTunes smart playlists," Gina said. "I want to make a smart playlist of the hundreds of replies we got, and surface the ones that are interesting or useful." All the views will be public, so people can see who the policymakers are listening to.
I asked Gina whether Think Tank solves the real problem in Washington. As I see it, I said, the problem in the federal government isn't bad information. It's that government officials are no longer serving the people, but instead they're serving corporate interests and the Religious Right. Will Think Tank actually make government more effective for Americans -- or will it simply help government do a better job serving corporations and the Religious Right?
Gina said, "My hope is that it's going to bring more people to the table when decisions are being made than are currently there." If a politician can only fly five people to DC to have a conversation, that results in a limited range of opinions being heard, but Gina hopes that if Think Tank succeeds, politicians will be able to hear form a broad swathe of the American people, as well as scientists.
"The goal is to open up the doors a little bit and get input from the public and from scientists and more diverse sources than there are now. The goal is in a little way to solve some of the problems you're talking about," she told me.
Expert Labs is funded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the MacArthur Foundation.
It was co-founded by Anil Dash, a blogging pioneer who previously served as chief evangelist of Six Apart, where he was the first employee. Six Apart develops one of the first commercial blogging platforms, Movable Type, and operates the Typepad blogging platform. Dash writes one of the oldest blogs on the Internet, at Dashes.com, which he's published since 1999.
Photo by Dan Tentler