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A theater metaphor

Originally, Opasnet was designed to improve risk assessments and health impact assessments. The old way of doing it was like a monologue. Experts and assessors behaved like authors who spent one to three years on a topic, collecting material, data, and models and produced a unique piece of art: a monologue. In these monologues, an expert talks about risks and health impacts using a highly sophisticated language and structure. These monologues were produced for a putative audience, but in reality risk assessors were mainly interested in publishing their scripts in journals highly respected among other risk assessors. Whether someone actually presented their monologues and whether anyone ever learned from them was of course important but out of the hands of the assessor; therefore, he was not concerned about it.

Open assessment was developed because we realized that what is needed is a learning process between assessors and the audience, the practical users of the information. This was not a unique idea, as the need had been identified years before us and several attempts had been made toward this direction. What was unique with open assessment was that we opened up the whole process of making an assessment to anyone. Previously, only some parts were opened e.g. in the form of public hearings about draft assessments. The metaphor in our minds was a lively discussion at a dinner table about an important topic, but organized in such a clever way that not only the six nearest people could participate, but six hundred people could participate equally.

We designed common rules for all participants. The rules would guide the assessment and the participation and make the assessment converge towards the best shared understanding of the participating group. We thought that the learning process stimulated by this participation is the key thing in assessments. We developed Opasnet, the web workspace for open assessments, and a lot of tools into it to facilitate participation.

Despite our efforts, we had a continuous lack of participation even in projects where the key users of the assessment were involved. The problem was partly about tools that were still too difficult to use, but it was not solved when the participants could comment the contents using any methods they wanted. The problem was partly about complex structures of the assessments, making it difficult to know what to comment about. But there was lack of participation even among experts who already knew the topic well. Our conclusion was that the vast majority of people seemed to be unable of unwilling to find the time, skills, devotion, or effort that is needed to make a meaningful contribution in an assessment. Most people are simply too tied up with their daily lives and daily tasks so that they are not interested in changing that routine.

Although this may sound discouraging, we take it as an important guidance rather than a proof that our concept of open assessment has failed. The guidance is that for most people, open assessment is like theater. Their role is to come to the theater every now and then (probably not very often) and be the audience. The audience has two tasks: to learn about the things the assessors have found and written into the play, and to clap their hands to show the assessors that their efforts and outputs are respected.

The open dinner table discussion is still there, maybe in a park near the theater. There, the assessors gather to discuss what new things they have learned about the topic of the play and what comments they have heard from other people about it. The audience may be unaware that their comments about the play were carefully listened to during the intermission, and these comments are now actively being included in an updated version of the play in the nearby park. This work is done by the group of open assessors.

Although we have noticed that most people will not participate in assessments, we still have methods to collect information and opinions they have about the topic of the assessment. There is a need for a group of people who will go to the world to collect the information and then synthesize it into an assessment (or play in the metaphor). Even if this group is fairly small, it can collect most information needed in a fairly short time. The 80-20 rule applies here: you can do 80 % of the work by spending 20 % of the resources (and you need 80 % of resources to finish the 20 % of the work). Open assessment aims to produce fairly good guidance to a lot of decision-making. With these numbers, open assessment can produce four times more with the same expert resource, and because there are a lot of other participants than experts (say, five times more), open assessment can actually produce 20 units of fairly good quality guidance per one expert, when the old school produces one unit of good quality guidance per one expert. And this is only about the quality of content; open assessments are likely to be more relevant, because the assessment work is guided by the needs of the users (audience) unlike in a common situation with the monologue approach.

The open assessors should organize themselves in two different ways. First, there is a need for groups of expertise. Each group has a specific skill needed in performing an assessment, e.g. skills to moderate Opasnet pages, to make quantitative models, or to collect information from the audience. Second, for each assessment there is a need for a team who organizes itself to actually make the assessment happen. Many different skills are needed in each team.

Short history of Opasnet

The work started in the late 1990's from an idea that decisions in the society are made with poorer information than what actually exists. Several reasons were identified, including the disperse and siloed nature of information, lack of practices among information owners to make the information available for others, and lack of informed decision-making ability in society in general. The work to improve the situation started in early 2000's by utilising and improving impact assessment and decision analysis in environmental health which deals with the interplay of human health and the environmental factors that affect it.

Opasnet is hosted by THL (National Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland), The Department of Environmental Health whose motto underlies the original focus of Opasnet: Man must be able to breathe, drink, eat and live in the environment trusting on its safety. This is both an individual's civil right and a prerequisite for a functioning society and economy. This requirement constitutes a major information generation exercise as well as policy planning and implementation task at a societal level.

Opasnet has grown beyond the original boundaries of environmental health in the recent years. Yet, most of the original motivations still hold. Now, as then, Opasnet provides understanding on societal problems and offers guidance for decision making regarding them. The problems are usually very complex and they tend to cross administrative, geographical, and scientific boundaries. Therefore information and contributions from many different disciplines and areas of societal action are needed.

What is Opasnet?

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Opasnet is a wiki-based website for supporting societal decision-making. The website collects, synthesizes, and communicates people's values and scientific information. We believe that wise decision-making is based on both expressing our values about what things are important and understanding how decisions affect those things. This is why we need to consider both values and science in decision making.

This website is built in a way that hopefully makes it easy for anyone to add their (quantifiable) information and (qualitative) values. These are the basic inputs of the Opasnet. Values and facts are used as inputs for open assessments. Open assessment is basically a collaborative study of any question of interest, typically applied to common societal problems. As its output, the assessment process produces knowledge for informed decision-making that can be utilized freely by Opasnet users. More specifically, the outputs can be policy suggestions, recommendations and critical analysis of solution strategies, for example.

Structure of Opasnet

Probably the most obvious point of comparison to Opasnet is Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Both of them are web-based information storages and workspaces building on the idea of open mass collaboration. The main difference between Opasnet and Wikipedia is that, whereas Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, a relatively freely formatted information repository of any topic for any purpose, the purpose of Opasnet is specifically to provide information for supporting decision making by means of systematic analysis. Due to this difference, both the information within Opasnet and the use of Opasnet is somewhat more structured than they are for Wikipedia. For a more detailed comparison between Opasnet and Wikipedia as well as more information about the structure of Opasnet, see a separate page that explains Opasnet in more detail.

The Opasnet website has also been built in a way that attempts to mimic the real world. Many of the web pages describe things that are usually real, measurable quantities. And if something affects something else, these two things should also be linked within Opasnet. The real, measurable quantities, which have been given their own web page and name, are called variables. By building links between them, it is possible to answer complicated causal questions related to real world problems. Opasnet supports the building of these spider webs through the concept of open assessment by utilizing practices and tools to be described below under the title Short guide to open assessments.

How to use Opasnet?

There are several possible ways of making use of Opasnet:

  1. Read Opasnet. Browse through the pages and obtain information of your interest. A good way to get started is by following the links on Main Page. Another efficient way of getting acquainted with the information content is to have a look at portals about different topics, or pages belonging to different categories by following the Main category link in the navigation toolbar on the left hand side. One can also make word searches using the search text box in the navigation toolbar on top of the page. Opasnet is in the open internet and reading Opasnet is unlimited. You can also browse for variables in a database called Opasnet Base, which has been integrated with the wiki.
  2. Comment Opasnet content. Every page in Opasnet has a corresponding discussion page. In order to be able to write to Opasnet, one needs to be registered and logged in. Create an account and click the discussion link on top of the particular page whose content you wish to comment. Then click the edit link on top of the discussion page and write your comment in the edit window. See help pages for guidance on writing to Opasnet. Opasnet recommends a formal argumentation format for discussions, but also freely formatted comments are acceptable. However, be aware that your comment may be transformed into a formal argumentation structure by some other user. It is also possible to use the informal 'Comment' button at the bottom of each page for less structured argumentation; this does not require registration.
  3. Participate in polls. Polls are a fast and convenient way of getting feedback or other input from users. Some Opasnet pages have user polls about specific issues, and you can simply click options or type in your brief texts that reflect your opinions. You don't need to be logged in to do this.
  4. Evaluate pages about their scientific quality and usefulness. Advanced pages have an evaluation box in the top right corner. You can simply read the page, evaluate it, and click the scientific quality and usefulness bars at the points you think the page deserves. Evaluation is about your own opinion, so be bold and tell what you think. However, you need to be logged in to evaluate.
  5. Edit Opasnet pages. When logged in, also the actual content pages become editable. Note that it is often recommended to write down comments on the discussion page before proceeding to edit the page itself. However if you are convinced that you know what you are doing, please go ahead and make your edits. Opasnet records a complete version history of all pages so no need to be too worried about causing any irreversible harm.
  6. Create new pages to Opasnet. In the navigation toolbar in the left, there is a create articles link that takes to a page where a name of a new page can be given and an object-type category can be chosen for the page. It is recommended that before proceeding to create new pages, one becomes sufficiently acquainted with the object types and their uses in Opasnet as well as the principles and methods of open assessment.
  7. Use the information created in Opasnet. After all, the purpose of Opasnet is to provide support to decision making and thereby guide actions.

Short guide to open assessments

The core functionality of Opasnet is to help self-organized groups of people to make open assessments. An assessment can have different goals. For example, one aim could be to perform a critical comparison of policy choices (e.g. those presented in the media to see which ones of the claims can be justified and to which extent). Another goal could be the collective construction of possible solutions to a practical problem faced by the stake holders participating in the assessment. Opasnet supports the assessment production through various conventions and tools. A path to making a simple quick-and-dirty assessment contains the following steps.

  1. Define the question you want to study.
  2. Make a new assessment page for your question (if someone is already working on that topic, it's easier to join existing assessment).
  3. Write down your question as the scope of the assessment, and categorise the page to relevant categories.
  4. Add the text {{participants needed}} somewhere on your page.
  5. Wait for people to show up, start editing your page, and help you out.

When you get more experience about open assessments, you can perform more elaborate assessments like this:

  1. Define the question you want to study.
  2. Find out what kinds of variables are needed to answer the question.
  3. Record all the needed variables. Some of them may already be found as wikipages in Opasnet. The wikipage explains the structure of the variable. The quantifiable content of the variable is stored in a database called Opasent Base, integrated with the wiki. If there is no description of some variable it should be described by creating a web page for it and then it must be quantified somehow. The quantification can be done by searching values for the variable from the literature, performing measurements or doing simulations.
  4. Collect data for the quantification. The data can be e.g. government provided open data, data that the users have stored in Opasnet base, or data that the participants produce by using simulations of different sorts.
  5. Store results in Opasnet Base, the database, which has been integrated with the Opasnet wiki.
  6. Make a model. The model is a causally linked collection of the variables, each of which now has a wiki page for its description and whose quantifiable content has been stored in the database. This is the part that usually requires some sort of expert advice on the type of model, data, etc. that could be used. Of course, these questions should be already though of in the beginning to reduce the work load in collecting the variable data.
  7. Simulate the model. Typically, many of the assessments are represented as large Bayesian belief nets. These are the 'spider webs' containing the linked variables. However, other types of models, such as fully deterministic models can also be utilized.
  8. Store the results of the assessment in the database as a new variable to be used by others in future assessments.
  9. Analyze the data, solicit for values of the participants if necessary (needed for defining the utilities in risk-benefit analysis, for example), and draw conclusions.
  10. Form the output: policy suggestion or solution strategy for the end users.

See also

Advice for using Opasnet
Basics of Opasnet: What is Opasnet · Welcome to Opasnet · Opasnet policies · Open assessment · What is improved by Opasnet and open assessment? · FAQ
How to participate?: Contributing to Opasnet · Discussions in Opasnet · Watching pages · Open assessment method
How to edit pages?: Basic editing · More advanced editing · Quick reference for wiki editing · Wikipedia cheatsheet · Templates
Help for more advanced participation: Copyright · Archiving pages · Copying from Wikipedia · ImageMap · SQL-queries · Analytica conventions · Developing variables · Extended causal diagram · GIS tool · Risk assessment · M-files · Stakeholders · Heande · Todo · Text from PDFs and pictures · Word2MediaWiki · Glossary terms · Formulae


Opasnet, open assessment, collaborative work, mass collaboration, web-workspace


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