Even The Pentagon Shares 'Open-Source' Approach




 
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Even The Pentagon Shares 'Open-Source' Approach
 
September 3rd, 2008  
Team Infidel
 
 

Topic: Even The Pentagon Shares 'Open-Source' Approach


Even The Pentagon Shares 'Open-Source' Approach
Kansas City Star
September 2, 2008
Pg. 1

By Scott Canon, The Kansas City Star
The Pentagon this past spring launched its so-called Minerva initiative - a hunt for more information on the Chinese military, ways to marginalize al-Qaida, new anti-terror strategies.
Thirty years ago, it might have been top-secret stuff. Today, the military is asking everyone for help - and will post the results in full public view.
It's another example of a new world of problem-solving that seeks answers in the public square.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates calculates that the transparency of Minerva is also its strength, that by looking to everyone for advice and letting the crowd weigh in on the results, the communal know-how will be that much richer.
"There will be no room for 'sensitive but unclassified,' " Gates said in an April speech to university presidents about the project. If it were cloaked in secrecy, he warned, "you could end up with mediocre, uninventive results."
Scientific or commercial, civilian or military, business or hobby, there is a new emphasis on sharing problems and ideas in ever more public ways in hopes on hitting on more brilliant solutions.
Self-styled inventors are weighing in - for cash and intrinsic satisfaction - to solve puzzles vexing industry and government. Aspiring entrepreneurs are seeking fortune not by hoarding ideas but by sharing them. Spurred both by the endless interactivity made simple by the Internet and the all-ideas-welcome culture it has nurtured, an explosion of what one author calls "crowdsourcing" is offering new ways to get things done.
When former tennis pro Steve Timperley learned of a budding new system for handicapping tennis players - a method clubs could use to better match players of similar abilities - he chose not to hold the idea close to the vest.
Rather, he put it to a team in the University of Missouri-Kansas City's New Venture Challenge Competition to work out the kinks and develop a business plan that might bring his Tencap Tennis to market. In turn, that team opened its strategy to other business people for critique.
Now Timperley has about 3,000 players in the Kansas City area entered into the handicapping database and is set to use Facebook-like social networking elements to spread the tennis match-up gospel. Soon, he hopes to sell to tennis clubs across the country.
"The ultimate goal is that everybody makes more money," he said.
While Tencap keeps private the clever algorithms that give players a strong idea about who might make good competition - an advance on an old system that relies on subjective scores by tennis pros - the firm's development in some ways takes a cue from the idea of open-source software and its reliance on interactivity.
The mother of the open-source world is the Linux computer operating system fathered by Linus Torvalds in 1991 with help from developers around the world. Linux source code is open to anyone, and people fiddle with it all the time. They then share their improvements with other computer programmers and, by and large, the most elegant improvements take hold.
"In the open-source world," said Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach, "respect is earned, not assigned."
He recently collaborated on open-source software designed for voting machines. It's technology that Wallach believes will instill more trust in the elections by providing transparency to ballot counting.
Such open-source models have already driven commerce. Take Internet search giant Yahoo, which runs atop a Linux operating system. The company continually has its programmers working to remove bugs from Linux and shares those fixes with the rest of the world. Because Yahoo's refining of the computer code continues to improve the operating system, more people outside the company stay on the same Linux path. And because many of them improve the system as well, Yahoo gets use of those upgrades for free.
Software is ideally suited for the ongoing collaboration. The 1s and 0s of binary calculations form an international language. The problems can be massive, and they can be broken down into bits for programmers - both professional and self-styled - to ponder. It has also inspired an open-source model to other arenas.
To improve its capabilities at sending unmanned firepower into combat, the Pentagon has sponsored off-road competitions for full-sized remote-controlled vehicles. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering $1 million for the invention of artificial meat. Google's still-incubating "Android" cell phone system will work on an open-source software operating system. The company hopes that will generate enough spin-off applications to make the iPhone look antique.
Politicians have even gotten in on the act. Barack Obama's primary race got a boost when will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas put his rousing "Yes We Can" speech to music in a video that became a YouTube sensation one week last fall. John McCain wants the government to offer $300 million a lure to anyone who can create a battery robust enough to replace the internal combustion engine.
The National Research Council recently suggested the National Science Foundation make its resources stretch further by using prize money to untangle riddles rather than just farming out work to one researcher at a time.
In Kansas City, computer consultant Brian Turner heads the KC Space Pirates group angling for a $2 million NASA prize. The money will go to the first group to make a device climb a cable 1 kilometer high in 100 seconds without an onboard energy supply. (The space agency awarded $200,000 earlier this summer to a school bus driver in Maine for designing a more flexible glove for astronauts.)
Turner's group has been working on the challenge for nearly three years, as have other self-recruited groups across the country.
"You've got to figure lots of people have dropped hundreds of thousands already in money and labor" without NASA handing out a grant, Turner said. "It's an interesting challenge. but I'm in it for the money."
Massachusetts-based InnoCentive has made a business of matching companies and tinkerers, or what it calls "seekers" and "solvers." Companies post their dilemmas - mostly anonymously - on the InnoCentive Web site and dangle prize money to people who come up with fixes. The tasks run from highly technical chemistry problems to queries about how best to sort big potato chips from little ones.
Physicist David Tracy of Norwalk, Conn., has attempted to be a "solver" six times, succeeded twice and pocketed about $40,000.
"What I have to do now is decide if it's a fluke that I won that money and whether it's worth my time to keep trying," he said. "But the psychic rewards are just as important."
At Fort Leavenworth, the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center is experimenting with blogs as a way for troops to share tips more freely, and is soliciting papers from anyone with some deep thinking about topics ranging from how the U.N. can cope with insurgency in Colombia to the Albanians immigrating illegally into Kosovo.
"Most of what we do with counterinsurgency is not classified," said Maj. Niel Smith. "The enemy wouldn't gain an advantage from understanding how we understand what's going on. Sharing information just leverages what we know."
But in business it may be that process of sharing that is the biggest burden to open-source problem solving. Randy Knipp, a product innovation manager at Hallmark Cards, took a still-to-be-launched version of the company's musical greeting cards for development to the UMKC New Venture class. While the process helped the company refine its product - and Knipp said the results were impressive both in their Generation X insight and in speed - it meant drafting precise legal language to protect against theft of the concept.
"We had to be careful," he said.
And that caution can pose a hurdle. In developing his DigiRace Inc., which aims to give fans of short-track auto racing a way to follow their sport in real time on the Internet, Seth Meinzen said he's only moved forward by asking scores of people for advice.
"People are mostly too busy to steal your idea," said the aspiring entrepreneur from Mission. "They're more likely to help."
 


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