TED Conversations

Sonaar Luthra

CEO / Co-Founder Water Canary Inc., Water Canary


This conversation is closed.

If you could open-source one piece of technology, what would you choose and why?

*This Live Conversation will take place on January 18, 2012 at 3PM EST / 12PM PST

Perhaps you'd choose a feature on your favorite video game system, perhaps you'd choose a life-saving medicine, a means of transportation, a fabrication method or a communications protocol... This is an invitation to think big about what would happen if you could take things that already exist and open them up to the world.


Closing Statement from Sonaar Luthra

Thank you everyone for sharing your ideas - this was an excellent conversation.

What I find most striking as I look through the comments is how many scenarios we came up with where open sourcing existing ideas, technologies and systems could promote both efficiency and a better quality of life/social welfare, instead of requiring any compromise between them.

The benefits of open source scientific research can both eliminate waste in bringing more resources to bear on solving problems and developing cures to diseases, while simultaneously making the benefits of those solutions more accessible for everyone. Open agriculture won't just lead to better, sustainable ways to grow food, but systems that allow more people to get out of poverty. And opening up educational resources - like the "dyslexie" font that Kristine O'Connor-delgado mentioned - can both improve the way we teach and learn as well as dramatically increase how many people receive an education.

I'm particularly excited to see where the projects we discussed go from here - please keep us all posted. Thank you for participating!

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    Jan 18 2012: I'm looking at a scientific journal paper. The analysis result seems nice. Problems are (1) no proof that the authors actually did it or did it right, (2) if I want to confirm the results or further development, I have to write my own code, which is waste time of society in general, since the problem is already solved, and here I have to do it again, not grantee to be better..

    So my wish for open-source technology: demand all scientific journal papers which contains program code must be online and downloadable that code. This demand also forces scientist to write readable and precise code, encourage collaboration...
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      Jan 18 2012: That's an incredible idea and I think it would introduce a lot more transparency into the scientific process. I'm particularly interested in your mention of increasing collaboration - what kinds of problems do you think need more collaboration in the scientific world?
      • Jan 18 2012: AIDS.
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        Jan 18 2012: Medical research and treatment (Cancer, Lupus, MS, Parkinson's to name a few)
        • Jan 19 2012: I read one of the posts on TED about Oxitocin, I beleive that is how you spell it. It is the chemical in the brain that makes people "Nice" There are many things that are listed here that could be accomplished if people would just work together and cooperate instead of worrying about who is going to get the credit, the money, the power. That may be too much to ask from "NICE" but there is always hope.
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      Jan 18 2012: I'd LOVE to see journals flow into a Wikipedia-style (in format and access, not necessarily submission process - reviewed submission process?) journal clearinghouse.
      • Jan 18 2012: Categorizing scientific research in a hierarchical-Wikipedia style and allowing people to attach implementations to each article page could be awesome!
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          Jan 18 2012: There are a couple of journals going in that direction that I've seen in my college research (but for pay, of course). Very refreshing and much easier to navigate, read, cite, and use.
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      Jan 18 2012: To piggy back on your idea this would couple well with pushing forward with projects such as the Public Library of Science.
    • Jan 18 2012: First off YES! I totally agree with this idea. There is always ambiguity when reading journal articles, especially in the methods sections (again, leading to conditions in which reproduction of results are dismal at best). My idea to help solve this problem would be to film and upload actual time spent in the lab. This will not only make researchers more diligent in how they conduct research, but it also gives others visual contexts as to what the article is actually talking about (after all, humans use vision as their primary source to intake information).

      Is this idea perfect? No. But I think it is a step in the right direction. .
  • Jan 18 2012: Quite difficult for me to choose one but I would like medicines and medicinal related activities to be open-source.

    Living a healthy life should not depend on a persons financial status.
    • Jan 18 2012: The only problem is that, it would remove the capital incentive behind further medical research. We need to find a better way to push for further research which required funds, while at the same time making it cheap enough to make generics for the world market.
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        Jan 18 2012: Why should medical research be privately funded or capital driven?
        Shouldn't tax-based contribution to the benefit of the society that allows giant corporations and individuals to become insanely wealthy be just par for the course? If medical research and care & prevention provisions were seen as vital a public service as the military or police force are (and I would argue that the health of the populace is MORE important than either), then the government (that is, the government of and by The People) should be in charge of providing it at equal investiture.

        AND that the corporations who become wealthy beyond imagining at the expense of The People should at the very least contribute to the care and protection of those same people.
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          Jan 18 2012: Great points Joshua and Warren - I think this cuts to the core of the dilemma we face when we consider the benefits and drawbacks of open source. We can certainly point to plenty of inventions (especially in the medical world) that have been fueled by a proprietary model of development, and it isn't easy to wish that system away when it :does: find ways to solve difficult problems. But perhaps we can consider ways that Open Source doesn't simply mean giving things away for free and getting rid of markets: maybe we can create systems of value that go beyond intellectual property. Maybe in the process of making things open source we can create even :more: value than is possible in closed systems.
        • Jan 19 2012: The problem with a purely government funding for the medical field is the international co-operation that would be required to keep it useful to people across the world. Many of the debates and struggles going on at the WTO meetings make me think that it's going to be a long way before this can be practical. All inventions and discoveries that can benefit mankind as a whole must be made the ownership of the UN and purchased from the inventor/patent holder. Anybody who is against it should be declared a non-citizen of this world and sent to live in the Sahara.

          On second thought, those selfish thugs would probably destroy the Sahara as well.
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          Jan 20 2012: Well Joshua, there you already point out yourself that the meetings and conferences of the WTO aren't quite successful, but on the other end you tell us that we should give more power to the United Nations. In my humble opinion it means that maybe we should try something else, instead of giving the organisations who fail at doing their jobs more power. I also don't feel great about giving a certain organisation the power over all the patents, all over the world. What I think we should do is decentralize the power over patents and discoveries, as we've already seen that centralizing the ownership over these (big corporations) hasn't exactly worked in the past for that matter.
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          Jan 20 2012: But if that makes me a selfish thug, than I'll move to the Sahara so you can bomb me with these:

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        Jan 18 2012: I agree with you. But I believe that capital incentive has no place in health care. It is a conflicting interest with the true goal of health care, which is health care. Many nations have figured this out already.
      • Jan 18 2012: As I understand it, all the expensive research and development for important medications is paid for by governments anyways. Industry only pays for the development of drugs with established markets so they can continue their patent monopoly, sometimes by pushing new drugs that are more dangerous than the generics. We're probably much better off without medical patents overall, some university researcher will still develop the medications, some company will still produce them, maybe you'll need more public funding for clinical trials, but that won't cost much, way less than the drug companies spend on advertising. See : http://falkvinge.net/2011/06/21/ten-myths-about-patents/
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        Jan 18 2012: There is a paradox in the 'capital incentive' behind health care which is that it is more profitable to fund research on treatments than it is to find cures. If the number of cases of cancer doubled in the USA, GDP would go up. Mo problems, mo money.
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          Jan 18 2012: What I find troubling in healthcare right now is that we're investing billions in treatments that are extremely high-tech and profitable, but that relatively few people need. It's beyond me to decide which diseases and conditions should get the highest priority, but what we keep forgetting is how many more lives could be saved if we put more money into basic care and treatments that already work, and are already in the public domain.
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          Jan 18 2012: This is a deeply infuriating fact of medicine, regardless where you are (I'm not American).

          1. Insurance model: if we fund prevention, then everyone will require it, whereas only a certain segment of the population will get sick and that costs less (not really, unless you deny reimbursement to a goodly chunk of those).

          2. Research - I run naturalhealthcare.ca. I cannot tell you how many times I hear the argument that there hasn't been research proving the health benefits of [x]. Let's pick pomegranates (because I just looked at another study on those). If it weren't for the California Pomegranate Growers, who the hell do you think would fund research into their benefits? Pfizer? Astra Zeneca?

          Then, of course, you have the issue of "is this research unbiased?" -- and good luck with that answer because we've developed a culture of suppressing results that don't say what we want them to say. (Had to look this up to refresh my memory: "fewer than half of a sample of trials primarily or partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) were published within 30 months of completing the clinical trial.")

          The entire system is screwed up.
        • Jan 19 2012: There is afterall a conspiracy theory that most ailments have been cured and that they medical industry is keeping them away only to ensure that their markets remain. I somehow believe it, to an extent.
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      Jan 18 2012: I mulled over making all research open source.

      Stop having competing teams with redundant efforts especially in the area of understanding disease.
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        Jan 18 2012: That's the interesting part to me about closed systems: they can be so inefficient when they create competing efforts that could get so much farther, so much faster if they encouraged more collaboration.
        • Jan 18 2012: I think in today's world the closed system seems to be inefficient and the open system seems to be efficient because of the ICT facilities we have. 50 years ago, it probably would be the other way round for big projects.
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          Jan 19 2012: Yes. The common interests we share, such as the finding of cures, or feeding the starving, or even governing ourselves, seem a natural fit for open collaboration.
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        Jan 18 2012: Redundant efforts are not /necessarily/ bad (within reason), since multiplicities of ideas, viewpoints, and experiences do actually improve the system - part of exactly why open sourceing is so important so that people working in similar veins can learn from each other and flow those experiences to each other faster and freer.
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          Jan 18 2012: Oh, I don't think that everything is redundant - definitely there are different approaches and different techniques.

          And I don't mean to imply that there shouldn't be checks and balances (for instance the study of a couple of weeks ago that found that the practice of assuming that benefits/detriments were scalable when looking at effects of a product on an organic being leads to inaccurate results in testing, casting an entire field under a light of suspicion).

          But when you have huge amounts of money (often from donations) being poured into a goal where there are high value patents at stake, leading to many, many research teams doing the same steps rather than building on the information that others are generating -- that is obscene to me.
  • Jan 18 2012: Patenting genes of anything that occurs naturally is absolutely unconscionable and must be abolished! No naturally occurring animal or vegetable genetic code should ever have been allowed to be patented. It must stop. If you did not create it, it is not yours to patent. Simple.
  • Jan 18 2012: I'd open-source transportation systems in general. What we have now is largely out-dated and could have been far more efficient and evolved by now if oil corporations did not hold all the cards in that department.
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      Jan 18 2012: There is an open source car project or tow out there, but they lack funding (or much in the way of success). They also have an issue of making a vehicle is still pretty expensive, even if you know everything you need to do.

      All that being said, hells yes I want to have the knowledge at my fingertips to be able to build my own vehicle!
      • Jan 18 2012: If engineers around the world could start an open-source network of projects relating to transport solutions im sure we would see a lot more interesting systems come out. First of all improvements on our current systems and at the same time great leaps forward in private transport, such as floating and flying vehicles that can be coordinated by computer systems or advanced networks of vacuum tubes that carry "pods" inside them.. high speed, highly efficient systems that can all be very practically organised with our current computer technologies. They are thinking about these things in cars but as a mass medium of transport cars are just not a sustainable, viable choice for a growing population.. I love cars and im sure they will always be around but Im damn sure there are better ways of doing things, and pretty quickly too!
      • Jan 18 2012: Just do it... I'm currently building my own... it's really not that hard! drop me a note and we could talk if you'd like. Timothy805 at yahoo
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      Jan 18 2012: Car sharing is on the rise. Austin is a leading area where cars are available for use at minimal cost. All you need is a license.
      • Jan 19 2012: A global website for car-sharing would be amazing.. Lot's of obstacles to getting it right but sooo worth it in the end!
  • Jan 18 2012: I would like to see climate modeling become available for study at a more local level. In response to climate change, water conservation and retention could be improved per watershed, forestalling or preventing drought from wiping out existing water suplies. Jurisdictional overlap and 'water rights' laws written during vastly different times now make such information unusable, except by hundreds of nodes of super computers.
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      Jan 18 2012: That would be incredible, and overlaps with an issue that's very close to my heart: could putting more information within reach fuel demand for a better quality of life at both a local and global level? It amazes me how abstract climate data remains for average people, it's one of the greatest problems we face and yet, I don't see data driving conversations as often as it could!
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      Jan 18 2012: Couldn't agree more with sentiment, but the idea of distributed supercomputing is ultimately flawed. What we need is a (small number) of incredibly powerful computers (Zetta-FLOPS machines) specially built to be fit for purpose. See www.simundo.org for some background.

      Cheers, Richard.
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      Jan 18 2012: So many of the laws concerning the water supply predate existing ecological conditions. So many of these laws combined with excessive consumption of natural resources CREATED the problems we have now.

      We need to revisit the flow of major rivers, examine the validity of some of the dams and adjust our perceptions of what we as humans want to change on the planet. The ecosystems of the Gulf of Mexico and the survival of the wetlands of the Mississippi delta depend on an examination of these things. My college geology professor explained that the wetlands are disappearing at a dramatic rate. Yes we are protecting populated areas by daming and releasing only as needed, but we are damaging the ecology of the entire delta system.

      This is just one river and one gulf...translate that to the entire planet.

      Our need to control nature and her resources should be studied and changes enacted to slowly adjust and allow the planet to thrive.
  • Jan 18 2012: I'd like to make all copyrighted material older than 20 years, completely open for the world to build on. Not the best timeframe, but it's what I feel is a good compromise between the capital needs of the copyright owners and the development needs of the 21st Century.
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      Jan 18 2012: One can argue about the threshold, but the concept is great.
      • Jan 18 2012: The implied interest rate applied by corporations and investors to discount future cash flows is objectively provable. The value of future cash flows beyond 20 years is negligible. No corporation or investor values them at all-- NO R&D, or creative or artistic investment is made in pursuit of revenue streams so far in the future. Society is getting NO benefit by such long copyrights. The economic cost of copyrights AND patents even at 7-10 years exceeds the economic benefits by a wide margin. The heavy hitters in Copyright lobby are motivated by the need to maintain monopoly positions in distribution, and by advertising and content revenue paid by political actors in the media landscape.
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    Jan 18 2012: Everything.

    Economics, religion, education, politics, social policy, technology, law ... etc.
  • Jan 19 2012: Emphaticaly, all forms of birth control. Overpopulation is our number one world problem
  • Jan 18 2012: Water purification technology. 1.7 million people die preventable deaths every year due to untreated water. That's around a person every 20 seconds.
  • Jan 18 2012: I would like to see a university supported online, open sourced college education program. Supported by a majority of universities that covers at least some range of basic degree programs. Scheduled and completed at your own pace with online testing, that simialar to say linux kernel developer program, has a support community to the agreements of the program. This will give everyone the opportunity to at least get a college education. Start with a few programs maybe at the 2 year lvl for an associates degree.
  • Jan 18 2012: Library catalogues! I'm a librarian, and I find our vendor library catalogue a complete embarrassment. I actually tell people to look first on Amazon or Google Books, then just search our catalogue for the title once they've found a book they want. I wish we could open up these products to make them easier to search, and even add social media capabilities.
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      Jan 18 2012: When I worked at a small bookstore (now closed - sadness), I frequently went online to Amazon and Google to figure out what book a customer was looking for in order to grab the correct title or ISBN to see if we had it i nthe store.

      The kind of database cooperative you're talking about is pretty trivial, to the point of not really needing to be "open sourced" - it's just common knowledge in the computing world. What libraries NEED is to all get together into one interconnected system. (I think Google Books is interested in this kind of cooperation, you should see about talking your library into joining that project and linking your internal catalogue to them.)
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      Jan 18 2012: Good idea. The way I find books is that I have to type the keywords on Google Books, then use the title to search again on library's website.

      If we can combine them in one system, it's more convenient.
  • Jan 18 2012: The designs for a liquid fluoride thorium reactor: http://www.ted.com/talks/kirk_sorensen_thorium_an_alternative_nuclear_fuel.html
    • Jan 18 2012: Alex, I completely agree. The idea already crossed my mind when i first read about thorium-based nuclear energy. I'm surprised no one else responded to this yet, but i suspect that without a more complete explanation of what this would mean as an open-source project, it may strike most casual readers as a quite a frightening idea. If i have the chance later i will attempt to outline why i think this is such a brilliant idea and perfect fit in this case.
  • Jan 19 2012: The Patent and copyright system.
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    Jan 18 2012: I believe climate science and modelling should be open sourced. Our environment is the ultimate shared resource (commercial, national, or special interests do not belong). I’d site three good reasons for this...

    Firstly, this whole area must maintain respect and to do so it is fundamental that it be transparent, scrutable, and accountable – not to mention plainly rational!

    Secondly, where we are today with modelling is nowhere near far enough forward. A huge amount of work (and financing) is required to build next-generation models, to start to model vital things such as clouds and ocean currents. Credibility rests on this.

    Thirdly, as a cornerstone of strategic thinking and politics, there’s no better place to get people involved. It’s fun, it’s educational. It may just save our bacon.

    I note with a broad smile that the previous poster said much the same thing in the time it took me to register on TED! We are actively pursuing an open source model with Simundo.org which is getting off the ground as we speak.
  • Jan 18 2012: All software --- Way back SCOTUS ruled that utilitarian items like clothing weren't copyrightable, which helped the fashion industry enormously. We should clearly apply this precedent to software as well, especially any non-entertainment oriented software. We would however permit copyrights on software source code, much like clothing designs are copyrightable. We could then permit source code copyright holders to derive a copyright on binary code if and only if they published their source code in a usable form. In short, no copyrights on software unless the software is open source. See : http://www.ted.com/talks/johanna_blakley_lessons_from_fashion_s_free_culture.html
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    Jan 18 2012: Any technology that assists in determining the outcome of elections should be open-sourced. All voting machines and processes would be included. If we can make the internet secure enough to do online banking, we could probably figure out how to not only hold elections over the internet, but much more communication between the people and their elected representatives is possible.

    I actually think our government should be open-source, too. For example, the Dodd-Frank bill provides some regulation for the banking industry, but it is not very effective when the investigations and hearings are held behind closed doors. Transparency can be a remedy for cronyism.
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    Jan 18 2012: Scientific and health investigations of governments because I think is a way to improve the speed to find solutions in this issues. Doing this through collaborative way.
    Great question!
  • Jan 18 2012: Mobile phone technology (the whole infrastructure). It's ridiculous with tele companies eavesdropping, monitoring and overcharging basic communication.

    Example of an ongoing project:
  • Jan 18 2012: Tesla's designs for free energy generators. Modern versions that allow cars to run on water, engineered by Stan Meyers, David Dingle, etc.
    We would no longer have a reason to fight wars over oil. We might be able to stop fighting over anything, because we would be able to meet the needs of all peoples. Everyone's homes could be powered with a free energy generator that emits no pollution, just some water vapor. No dangerous hydrogen tanks sitting around. Large-scale versions could power water de-salinization plants, farming operations, etc.
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      Jan 18 2012: Those are simply out of copyright, and most of them don't work.
      • Jan 18 2012: Our government has bought up the patents to a lot of related developments, and suppressed further development. It needs to be developed. Stan Meyers had a dune buggy that would run on fresh water, salt water, or snow. Obviously, a dune buggy doesn't weigh much, but that's technology that should be improved and made generally available so we can stop burning gasoline.
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      Jan 18 2012: I have this very unorganized idea (based off the movie IRobot) energizing the planet with the energy created by moving cars. We are all taught kinetic/potential energy in grade school. We ran a car down a track and watched lights light up. Why not harness that and create a new roadway/energy system based off a non-polluting water powered cars that run over a road that captures the energy created and turns it into useable energy to power our homes and businesses.

      Our cars aren't going anywhere, we should find a secondary use for them other than hauling us and our things around.
  • Jan 18 2012: Today because of diminishing resources, we need to build a smart planet, which will involve lots of Information Technology, Artificial Intelligence, Optimization, Mathematical modelling etc....This massive work is possible only if the researchers around the world share their ideas and models openly. So, I would like to Open-Source the research behind build the smart planet.

    This will lead to speedy developments. The effect of this will be far reaching, and it will change the world from how we perceive it today.

    Nikhil Agarwal
    IIT Bombay, India
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    Jan 19 2012: At the last minute (been thinking about the primary open source project I'd love to see at this moment, so beside "the Government"...):

    I'd love to see an open source social network.
    I'd love to see an alternative to facebook.
    I'd love to see an alternative to sharing my (personal/business) info with friends and others without other people making a profit out of it.
    I'd love to see people coming together and work on this project.

    Problem is, in my humble opinion, that most projects which currently exist are still to immature to meet my demands that I'd like to see in a social network.

    I know we can do this, I feel it's necessary.
  • Jan 19 2012: I'm looking for the ONE app that combines ALL my messages and communication: phone, mail, tweet, facebook, linkedIn, Skype, texting, WhatsApp, etc, etc. That would really make things easier!
  • Jan 19 2012: Few people think of agriculture as technology; however, it is the single piece of technology that put us humans on the map. Also agriculture is a field in which too many people and continents are lagging behind. I would open source agricultural research since this would have the greatest potential to quickly make an impact on global poverty and hunger in all of its forms.

    Also, the incentive to contribute would be greater since (except for GM crops) most agriculture is done by farmers and relatively smaller companies in an almost perfect market.
  • Jan 19 2012: Anything by Buckminster Fuller.

    I'm actually not even sure if his designs are copyrighted... I just wish they were put into practice, or that people would collaborate on them to incorporate more modern technology to his work. He was crazy innovative, I have no clue why his plans weren't put into practice.
  • Jan 19 2012: Great question: I would open source government or at least parts of it. Legislation could definitely stand to be open-sourced. I don't know exactly how it could be done, the process would have have ground rules, like Wikipedia's NPOV policy and self-corrective processes. Each bill can be iterate through hundreds of revisions, each law could leverage previous laws by reference (reusable code). Elected representatives would still vote on the bill, but the open sourcing the process of writing the bill should help us avoid making laws that are unconstitutional, short-sighted, or ill-conceived in the first place.
  • Jan 19 2012: In short... legislation. Require any bills passing through congress to be managed with the same sorts of revision control systems used for managing software development. All changes must be checked in and signed with someones name on the changes and the public should have read access to everything. Transparency... accountability.. and no more of these backroom deals in regard to the law.. and end the doctrine of 'pass it to see what's in it'.
  • Jan 19 2012: I would open source the newly unveiled but as yet unavailable, weighted "Dyslexie" font for helping children with Dyslexia, discern similarly shaped letters since their brains can't process the sqiggles of written language the same way as most. I would open source programs like FastForWord and similar phonetic awareness training programs because despite the plethora of research which establishes Dyslexia as a neurological disorder with neural oscillation synchronization problems, I've yet to find a medical insurance plan that will assist these kids with the therapy that they need so badly. Insurance companies apparently prefer to treat the depression with which many of these kids will ultimately contend due to their struggle. I'm happy to see the innovative products targeted for the Dyslexic population, but sad that they remain out of financial reach for most children who need them.
  • Jan 18 2012: For me it would have to be a free and open way of doing peer reviewed science. The price of subscription to scientific journals is both a barrier and generally a strange concept. Scientists produce and report the research, then sometimes even pay to publish it or charts as part of a paper, followed by a hefty subscription fee to the journal.
    I've always wondered why it's not possible to open this up and use an open, but still credible peer review system Maybe its not so much a technology as just a concept - but still would be nice to see (i know there are some out there, but in terms of impact factors etc. the established journals still far outweigh these in many areas).
    • Jan 18 2012: If I'm not mistaken, it already exist.
      • Jan 18 2012: It does exist - but it's a long shift, and there's still a predominance of the "closed source" journals - at least in the fields i work with
        • Jan 18 2012: Very true! Maybe we can do our part to contribute to these and let more people know about these,
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    Jan 18 2012: Also worth considering is the movement that is pushing for internet censorship. Bills such as SOPA and PIPA could stifle and possibly even block our ability to open source technologies.

    Today there is a protest against internet censorship, people and internet sites have been taking action by blacking out their sites.

    So that we may continue to talk about this topic in particular its important that we do our part to oppose the existence of these American bills. Sign a petition, black out your pages, spread the word, etc.
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    Jan 18 2012: I've pondered for a while and I can't pick one single item to open source. There are too many.

    What I would like to do is give electric shocks to the morons at the US Patent Office who keep doling out patents on things for which there are clear examples of prior art.

    I think that were I to go through the list of patents and every time I found one that clearly violated this single concept I issued a good jolt to the person who approved it, things would change quickly.

    Of course, I also think that as Queen of the Internet I should be able to send electric shocks to people's keyboards when they annoy me with their stupidity, so no one is likely to go along with my idea. Dammit.