OpenLibrary.org

There’s enormous promise in the Open Library project, which we’re hearing about today at Berkman’s lunch event from Aaron Swartz. The idea is wonderfully simple: to create a single web page per book. That web page can aggregate lots of data and metadata about each book. In turn, the database can be structured to indicate very interesting relationships between books, ideas, and people. The public presentation of the information is via a structured wiki.

I’m most interested in hearing what Open Library thinks it needs in the way of help. They have a cool demo here. It seems to me that one way to succeed in this project is to combine what start-ups call “business development” with what scholars do for a living with what non-profits think of as crowd-sourcing or encouraging user generated content or whatever. There’s a lot that could be done if the publishers and libraries contributed the core data (should be in everyone’s interest, long-term anyway); scholars need to opt in an do their part in an open way; Open Library needs to get the data structured and rendered right (curious as to whether OPML or other syndicated data structures are in play, or could be in play, here); and human beings need to contribute, contribute, contribute as they have to Wikipedia and other web 2.0 megasites.

A note from a participant: “libraries resist user-generated cataloguing.” This seems to me a cultural issue that is worth exploring. We do need to balance the authority of librarians in with what the crowds have to offer. But I’m pretty sure it’s not an either-or choice, as David Weinberger makes clear through his work.

One thing that makes a lot of sense is their plan for supporting the site over time. The combination of philanthropy (at least as start-up funds, if not for special projects over time) plus revenue generated through affiliate links over time makes a lot of sense as a sustainable business plan.

One could also see linkages between Open Library and 1) our H2O Playlists initiative (hat-tip to JZ) to allow people to share their reading lists as well as 2) what Gene Koo and John Mayer at CALI are doing with the eLangdell project.

It’s not a surprise that the truly wonderful David Weinberger — I can see him blogging this in front of me — brought Aaron here today to talk about this.

Where I’m left, at the end of lunch, is with a sense of wonder about what we (broadly, collectively) can accomplish with these technologies, a bit of leadership, a bit of capital, good communications strategies, and some good luck in the public interest over time. It’s awe-inspiring.

Throwing Code Over the Wall to Non-Profits

Total blue sky, inspired in part by a wonderful gathering pulled together by Jake Shapiro at PRX and Vince Stehle at the Surdna Foundation, picking up on thoughts from various contexts:

If I could start (or otherwise will into existence) any non-profit right now, what it would do is to develop and apply code for non-profit organizations that are under-using new information technologies for core communications purposes. The organization would be comprised primarily of smart, committed, young coders and project managers, primarily, who know how to take open source and other web 2.0-type tools and apply them to connect to communities of interest. (Perhaps some coders would volunteer, too, on a moonlighting basis.)

There are a bunch of problems it would be designed to solve. There are lots of non-profit organizations, such as public media organizations or local initiative campaigns or NGOs in fields like human rights, for instance, that would like to leverage new technologies in the public interest — to reach new audiences for their work and to build communities around ideas — but have no clue as to how to go about doing it.

I think the stars are aligned for such a non-profit to make a big difference at this moment of wild technological innovation. There are lots of relevant pieces that are ready to be put together. Ning and many others have developed platforms that could be leveraged. SourceForge has endless tools for the taking and applying to solve problems. Blogs, wikis, social networks (think of the Facebook open API), and Second Life (or whatever you’d like to experiment with in the participatory media space) are also easy to put to work, if you know how. Most small organizations know that Digital Natives (and many others) are spending lots of their lives online. There are others who do things like this — consider the wonderful Tactical Tech in the global environment, as well as those who do development for political campaigns, like Blue State Digital — whose learning might be leveraged here. There is plenty of “pain in the marketplace,” as venture guys might say. There are smart coders coming out of schools who want to do well enough by doing good in a mission-driven organization (think of the geekiest members of the Free Culture movement). The goal would be to take these technologies and making them work for carefully targeted customers in the non-profit space.

The non-profit would require a reasonable pile of start-up capital to get set up and to have ballast for lean times, but it would have a revenue model. It would charge for its services, on an overall break-even basis. It would not develop things for free; it would develop things for cheap(er) and with real expertise for non-profits that need access to the technologies. (One could imagine a sliding scale based upon resources and revenue and so forth.) It would also have a training services arm. Clients would be required to pay for some training, too, so that the organization would have an internal capacity to keep up the tool that’s developed for them.

I could imagine it loosely based in a big, open, low-rent space in Central Square in Cambridge, right between MIT and Harvard, with collaborators around the world. I suspect there are others doing something like this, but I am constantly surprised by the number of times I am at meetings or conferences where prospective customers tell me they don’t have a provider for their needs.

At The School at Columbia Today

I’m with a group of 20 wonderful educators talking about technology in the classroom at a NYSAIS workshop. It’s taking place at The School at Columbia University, a totally beautiful, wired school built three years ago. We’re looking now at the debates on a wiki format right now.

We’re talking also about what tags are. (David Weinberger has a book coming out in May, Everything is Miscellaneous, that will answer it for you!)

A few new firsts at the Berkman Center

Charlie Nesson and his daughter Rebecca Nesson are hosting the Tuesday lunchtime session at the Berkman Center today.

- One first is that this is the first video webcast lunch event. We’ve regularly webcast these lunches audio-only. This week, with the help of Indigo Tabor, we are offering a live feed with video as well as audio. (The real-time webcast is 12:00 – 1:30 p.m. EDT today, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2006.) So, too, is it being offered in Second Life, where 24 people are tuning in at the moment from Berkman Island, we’re told.

- The other first (actually, I’m certain there are more than two, since Becca and Charlie are involved) is that the class that they are talking about, Cyberone: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, is being taught IN Second Life, a first for Harvard Law School and Harvard Extension School, anyway. If you haven’t seen the promo video for it yet, it’s a must.

It remains to be seen if these firsts will stick. It remains to be seen if these firsts will lead to other good things, as the establishment of Creative Commons by Prof. Lessig or the first podcast series hosted here by a combination of Dave Winer, Chris Lydon, and Bob Doyle. But it’s fun to be sure. Charlie and Becca keep the Berkman Center young and just a bit hip, and the likes of Rodica, Dean, Gene, and John Lester from Linden Labs keep giving things like these experiments life.

(John Bracken called this first first, way before me, and added more about a Berkeley example.)

Wikimania is here!

The excitement is mounting at Harvard Law School as the first attendees of Wikimania 2006 have begun to arrive. The Berkman Center is abuzz. The Phoenix wrote a preview and Tom Ashbrook, at WBUR’s On Point, took up the topic of Wikipedia today on the radio, with Jimbo Wales, among others, as a guest. (Of course, The Onion also has its own spin on this matter.) We are so fortunate and honored to be able to host this event and to welcome the Wikimaniacs to our fair city.