What’s “open source knowledge management”?

December 5th, 2007 by dwentworth

One of the biggest challenges we face at Science Commons is explaining what we do — and, much more important, why it matters.

In many cases, the core problem is translation; what makes sense to a computer scientist is gibberish to a life scientist, and vice versa. We want to connect with as many people as possible, both within the scientific community and beyond. To that end, we’ve decided to publish a series of posts to bring more clarity to the terms and phrases we use. To make sure these posts are truly useful, we’ll be asking for your feedback. Got questions? Criticism? A better definition of a term than the one we’re proposing? We hope you’ll send us an email or add your comments to the post.

First up is a term we’ve been using to describe our Neurocommons project: “open source knowledge management.” This is a hybrid term that splices together concepts from the worlds of business and software development.

The first part, “open source,” is derived from “open source software.” Open source software is software that’s published with licensing to allow anyone to look under the hood at the underlying “source” code to see how it works. Any developer can copy the code and modify it — either to improve the original software, or build on it to create something brand new.

“Knowledge management,” or KM, is a term often used by businesses to describe the systems they have for organizing, accessing and using information — everything from the data in personnel files to the number of products on store shelves. One reason that it’s “knowledge” management rather than “information” management is that the word knowledge connotes use of information, not just its availability. Having the ability to use information is what makes it valuable. One classic example is Wal-Mart, which used real-time data about its inventory to realize tremendous, game-changing efficiency gains and cost-savings.

So how is our Neurocommons project an “open source knowledge management” project? In a nutshell, Science Commons is developing all of the key elements for a free, web-enabled KM system for biological research that anyone can use, and anyone can build on. Right now, scientists don’t know “what’s on the shelf” — either in terms of research data or materials. They don’t have an easy way to sort through or make sense of the terabytes of data being produced in laboratories around the world. They certainly don’t have “one-click” access to materials like cell lines. We want to change that. Our goal isn’t (simply) to increase efficiency in the research cycle and magnify the impact of investments in research. Ultimately, we hope to speed the pace of discovery — unlocking the value of research so more people can benefit from the work scientists are doing.

If you’d like to learn more about the Neurocommons project, check out our project page. If you have questions, send us an email. We’d love to hear from you.

5 Responses

  1. Rufus Pollock, on December 12th, 2007 at 5:36 am

    I agree very much with the points being made here and share some substantial similarities with the views we put forward in an essay we published a little over a year and a half ago entitled “The Four Principles of Open Knowledge Development”:

    As we wrote there:

    “Open knowledge means porting much more of the open source stack than just the idea of open licensing. It is about porting many of the processes and tools that attach to the open development process — the process enabled by the use of an open approach to knowledge production and distribution.”

    The Four Principles

    Open knowledge allows (and requires for its success) a development process that is:

    Decentralized (and asyncrhonous)
    Componentized (and ‘packagized’)”

    Since then we’ve been particularly focused on the last of these four items: “Componentization”. Componentization is the process of atomizing (breaking down) resources into separate reusable packages that can be easily recombined. As we wrote in the original post:

    “This probably the most important feature of (open) knowledge development as well as the one which is, at present, least advanced. If you look at the way software has evolved it now highly componentized into packages/libraries. Doing this allows one to ‘divide and conquer’ the organizational and conceptual problems of highly complex systems. Even more importantly it allows for greatly increased levels of reuse.

    The power and significance of componentization really comes home to one when using a package manager (e.g. apt-get for debian) on a modern operating system. A request to install a single given package can result in the automatic discovery and installation of all packages on which that one depends. The result may be a list of tens — or even hundreds — of packages in a graphic demonstration of the way in which computer programs have been broken down into interdependent components.”

    Further detailed discussion of what componentization involves can be found in the follow-up post:

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  4. knowledge management, on November 14th, 2009 at 5:21 am

    It was a very new thing related to KM.I was completely unaware of it.But the detailing about the open source knowledge management done in this post is very much informative.Reading it my knowledge about KM is enhanced.

  5. BeergoGoroumB, on December 31st, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for the article.