Tools for Collaboration on Open Design


We are using a collection of free and open tools to create content for The Project, including the [WWW]wiki, the [WWW]main site, the [WWW]social network, the [WWW]Google Group, our Google Code page for the [WWW]Myopen Project, our [WWW] [Instructables page], and probably a couple more we've abandoned. It’s not perfect. We've made appeals before "for someone to help us build a fantastic Sourceforge-type project management and collaboration tool with social networking capability, as well as the next generation of collaborative open source CAD tools to drive this and other open design projects," but there are limits to what volunteers can do.

The meta issue here is how to conduct collaboration on open physical design and research in general for any underserved market. Open Prosthetics is a prototype attempt at addressing this core mission of our non-profit, [WWW]the Shared Design Alliance. Success in effectively engaging more and a larger variety of stakeholders would increase the impact of so many of the other things we're trying to do. In order for the overall mission to succeed, and for us to facilitate efforts similar to those of Open Prosthetics on behalf of some other underserved market, we'll need to have an integrated package of tools that solves as many of our problems as possible, with one-stop project creation. Content is certainly applicable to other problems, and we would also like to easily allow cross-pollination among projects. because This cross-pollination is perhaps the greatest potential advantage of the sharing of physical designs. [WWW]This talk by David Rowe points out several advantages of using open hardware in product development—imagine if there were an efficient way for people to make these connections between hardware projects.

A complete toolbox would include many of the things already in the Sourceforge tools, but some of which are not. We've settled on the wiki as a great tool for organizing and allowing user-contribution of content. Lacking from the [WWW]wikispot site we use is the capability to share files, and any kind of version control. These capabilities are present at [WWW]Google Code and [ Source Forge], but are mainly focused toward software, and not binary picture or CAD files. Because many CAD formats are encrypted, they don't support many of the cooler version control features, such as merging changes. This may not be a problem—concurrent editing is not a real issue with our small numbers of participants—but is one that could be solved with an open source CAD package.

We have used Google Groups to run our list serv, but unfortunately this site has been hacked several times and our users spammed with porn. Not optimal. Also, the Groups tools don't allow users to easily edit each other's content, and the organization is basically linear, and focused towards broadcasting messages whenever somebody makes a post. Sourceforge's mail tools might actually allow this functionality as well.

While I enjoy the wiki for adding and organizing content (and I'm [WWW]like the only one), the site that we have that is most successful in many ways is the [WWW]ning site. One of the most appealing things that we have done seems to be to allow people to connect with each other. It's just a shame that this site doesn't allow us to do some of the other things we'd like. As [WWW]I mentioned, [WWW]Google Friend Connect seems like a good solution to adding cross-portal social net capability to any web page, but we haven't heard back about our application yet.

The [WWW]original site was created with textpattern blogging software, and is run off of our own server. It has proved not entirely adequate to what we're trying to do either, although we kludged our way through.

So—I think that what we need to do is create a specification for our ideal tool for facilitating the sharing and collaboration on physical designs, and from there maybe we could get some help sketching out the framework for an open source project to solve as many of the problems as we can. We might get some Summer of Code help if we have a functioning project started, but we're a ways from that.

It's most certainly worth looking at existing ways to solve these problems, and [WWW]Instructables has goals like ours and one solution, there is Sourceforge, all the existing tools we've mentioned, Django-based tools, and probably many more.

Desired Features and Examples of Existing Models and Features

There are a lot of tools out there that do part of what we might want, and each does different things well, although none of them does all of the things that you might like. In order for anything like this to be successful, there has to be a gateway drug to get people to use it. Whether or not it's possible to monetize the users that you get hooked on the gateway drug is another thing entirely, as Myspace has discovered. Gateway drugs that I believe are key to the notion of facilitating academic and commercial collaboration on technical issues are several, including (1) managing and distributing references and papers, to include academic papers and patents, (2) grant information about past, current and future offerings, with electronic tools for applying (3) self promotion, including recommendations and a way to identify researchers and other players who share interests, (4) a useful way to connect with others doing the same sort of research, through basic social networking functionality, (5) content generation, remixing and discussion beyond academic publications—this includes information about commercial products, physical designs, interface documents and CAD files, computer source code and APIs, user ratings of existing products and more.
Add features here, and [WWW]vote for them. In fact, a voting tool for implementing a W L Gore type system of assigning value to different ideas, pages, or people would be fantastic addition. It's often surprising how frequently [WWW]Half-Bakery figures in searches for prior art.

Desired Communities of Participation

Currently, Open Prosthetics consists mostly of patient and family users, and a number of non-affiliated volunteer engineers and tinkerers. We'd like very much to expand our usership to include other groups, that include:

Academic Researchers

These users are primarily interested in information about academic publications, grants, and other sources of funding and knowledge. Self-promotion toward any of these ends should be easy to do.

Funding Agency Officials

Grant portfolio managers and program managers at a variety of federal agencies and non-profit foundations have grant offerings in prosthetics. Often, they are only vaguely aware of each others activities and do not coordinate well. Their interests would be better served by getting more and better grant applications. More transparent information about present, past and future grant offerings and the useful product of these grants would better serve everyone involved.


Likely our primary target audience of "lead users," prosthetists are primarily interested in information that can help them better serve their patients, self-promotion, and information about insurance, reimbursement and billing.


Information about products, consumer reviews and sources of supply are not always easy to come by. Industry would be better served by providing as much information about their products in a forum like this.


The secondary source of "lead users," no one knows better what patients want and need than patients. Forums where they can discuss these needs are sorely lacking.

Gateway Apps/Features

Integrated Cross-Portal Social Net

People seem to like using whatever social net they use, and it would be convenient if they were integrated through the [WWW]Open Social API or some such mechanism, like [WWW]Open ID. While it would be great to tag and categorize users by type, the desire to self-identify and promote is universal.

List Server Capability

Broadcasting messages to the entire group or a subset is likely a desirable feature, albeit old-fashioned. This exists in most social nets.

File Sharing with Version Control

Sharing physical designs involves the sharing of a wide variety of files, including pictures, sketches and drawings, and CAD models. Version control issues are different than with computer code, because CAD files are usually encrypted, and the number and relationship of files is different. Simply being able to check out, edit and check files back in would be great. Easily linking to files related to a specific idea would alo be good.

Interactive Collaborative/Communication Tools

Being able to collaboratively sketch for brainstorming would be nice, as well as archiving the results. Microsoft netmeeting used to allow this, and [WWW]Scriblink offers the same sort of whiteboard capability. Skype, Google Voice or free conference calling would be great to integrate.

Project Management

Having sub-projects with their own front pages, managers' blogs, and task assignment and tracking would be helpful. Given our small numbers of participants, dealing with hoards of volunteers is a problem we (unfortunately) haven't had to deal with. Here is a good [WWW]overview of project management tools.

Interface for E-Commerce

How great would it be to click a single link and get a ranking of shopping carts from parts suppliers for all of the stock parts for X number of a design from places like McMaster? Maybe with an option to order all of the parts or their equivalents from different suppliers sorted by price with shipping included? An API for vendors to suggest equivalent parts and to provide access to their inventories? [WWW]Octopart is actually a step in the right direction for electronic components. [WWW]McMaster Carr has a pretty good web interface, although


This is I think the most successful way that we have of organizing information. Integrating it with other features, such as file sharing, commenting, social net, etc., is the real challenge. There is a wiki on Sourceforge and Google Code, but it is not well-integrated with other content.

Social/Tacit Network Mapping/Indexing/AdWords

It would be very useful if we could measure the value of individual contributions to a community. Further, what if we could suggest connections that users were not aware of? For example, what if a Google AdWords-type stream of suggested connections to other projects, papers, individuals or blog posts were to appear in a feed beside the content that a user was accessing? Then the same types of metrics that Google uses to suggest commercial content could be used to suggest meaningful non-commercial connections.

One way to get individuals to help tag their own content in the form of papers, posts, etc. would be to get them to claim them in the same way that they identify their own pubs on Mendeley, or articles about them on ZoomInfo, etc. This could be quantified and presented as a badge that they could display on any social network, like facebook, Linkedin, etc.

Polling and Survey Tools

User feedback is very important to designing any product. An additional benefit to this is that survey tools can help with compliance with some regulatory issues. The Amputee Preference Census we're working on uses [Survey Gizmo] as a tool for administering and reporting the results of the surveys. They additionally provide [WWW]HIPAA certification, such that a survey could be used for record-keeping and complaint tracking, as required by regulation. It may be that these last portions are best left to commercial entities that wish to profit from the manufacture of the devices.


There's already stub for a page on the [WWW]CAD problem, which would be great, but is likely a much more challenging problem that is a separate issue. That said, as Mako Hill pointed out to us, perhaps an open source CAD program could make some headway if it offered a collaborative aspect in the same way that Google Docs does, causing users to overlook its limitations. I would call the availability of a free and open CAD package a near second to the problem of overall project management, organization and communication between participants.

Existing Portals


This portal at Cornell is interesting, because they have structured their data in a way that allows the sifting of the information in a hierarchical way. As far as new tools for tagging and interacting with the data and with others, there is nothing apparently developed so far. Another issue is that the Cornell Copyright agreement is basically like a CC Non-Commercial, and doesn't guarantee openness, and the non-commercial aspect may have a chilling effect, preventing useful extension by commercial entities.


A great start at integrating wiki tools with social networking.

Academic Citation and Tacit Network Info

CiteSeerX, ArXiv (also Cornell), Carl Bergstrom, et al (egienfactor), International DOI Foundation

This is a Wiki Spot wiki. Wiki Spot is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps communities collaborate via wikis.