The Ostrom Rules and Online Projects

Sydney Uni has an enlightened organisation within it called CHAST that organises science talks of wide general public interest. We recently hosted David Sloan Wilson who spoke on “Evolving the city: using evolution to understand and improve the human condition“. The talk touched on a number of cool ideas. At the end he spoke of self-organising social systems – that often social groups can run very efficiently without the need for excessive top-down regulation. In order for this to work there needed to be certain rules to prevent a system from using up its natural resources and withering. This is a biological argument that he was applying to a social network, such as a city neighbourhood. He referred to Elinor Ostrom‘s 8 principles for resource management. There need to be:

1. Rules

2. Reward systems

3. Collective choice arrangements

4. Ways to monitor the system (by people who are involved or who have a stake)

5. Graduated sanctions for bad behaviour

6. Mechanisms for conflict resolution

7. Rights to self-organise recognised by a higher authority (not God, people)

8. Scalabilities – the rules above need to apply also to the relationship between groups

As I was listening I thought – “These are excellent principles for the operation of any open source project”. I’ve been thinking how to carry out research projects in the open (such as these ones), and how to write papers (such as this one that’s in progress). The Polymath project sought rules for good behaviour which seemed to work. The Ostrom guidelines are a nice take, from a different field, but they articulate something important about productive online communities. It’s interesting to think about whether these rules apply to recent online successes such as Foldit and GalaxyZoo.