Wikimania 2009 poster abstract: Opasnet - a wiki site for improving societal decision-making

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Poster abstract for Wikimania 2009 will be written on this page


Opasnet is a Mediawiki-based website and workspace for an open mass collaboration project that aims to improve societal decision-making. Original idea was to focus on environmental health related decision-making but as the method evolved the scope has been widened to cover policy-making in any field. Opasnet aims to collect, synthesize, and communicate people's values and scientific information by using Open Assessment method which is described next.

Open Assessment (OA) is an ontology-based approach to assessing real-world phenomena and communicating the assessment results to those who need or wish to use them. It consists of a conceptual method that defines both the assessment process and its products, and an information system to support the application of the method. Opasnet and Open Assessment has been developed by National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland.

As its name implies, Open Assessment relies on open participation and freely available content which makes Mediawiki an essential tool for applying this method. By using Wiki in OA we aim to offer a channel for the general public, scientists and policy-makers: D↷

  1. to gain information about assessments and the scientific processes behind them
  2. to provide information about their areas of expertise or personal points of view
  3. to take part in discussions about assessments or variables within them

We believe that by means of mass collaboration also the quality of content in the assessments will increase. It also increases the level of transparency, since, in an ideal case, all information related to a particular assessment is freely accessible in the internet and open to contributions as soon as an assessment has been started. In some cases there may be limitations to openness, e.g. if confidential data is being used in assessments. In such cases the level of openness just needs to be limited and only those parts of the assessment that are not confidential are set openly available.

Information structure used in Opasnet and Open Assessment

In order to make open participation to assessing complex real-world phenomena possible, a clear and systematic information structure for representing information and targeting contributions is required. Therefore we need to have different kinds of universal objects which all are wiki-pages in Opasnet. These objects include:

  • Assessment
Assessment tries to provide answers some specific information need in some decision making situation. For example, "Emission assessment of small-scale energy production in the Helsinki metropolitan area" is an assessment.
  • Variable
Variable is quite similar to assessment but a variable describes a smaller piece of reality. Assessments consist of multiple variables and same variable can be used in several assessments. Variables develop in time as knowledge about them increases. "Air pollution emissions from ships in the northern Baltic Sea" could be an example of a variable.
  • Method
Methods are "how-to-do" descriptions about how information should be produced, collected, analysed, or synthesised in an assessment. For example, a description how to create a causal diagram is a method.
  • Study
Study describes some particular research data and it's results.

All universal objects share the same basic structure with 4 main attributes (although there is slight differences with sub-attributes) which are explained in following table:

The attributes of universal objects
Attribute Sub-attributes Comments
Name Name attribute is the identifier of the object, which also defines what real-world entity is considered in the object. Name should be descriptive and unique so that two objects cannot have the same name.
  • Purpose (method)
  • Boundaries (method)
Scope defines the boundaries of an object - what is included and what is excluded. Boundaries can relate e.g. to time and space, but can also be abstract. For example a variable may be limited to cover only year 2007 when all the other years are excluded from consideration. In principle, scope explains what is the question about the reality that the object attempts to answer.
Definition Definition explains how the question determined in the scope is answered to. Definition is divided into 2 sub-attributes in studys, 3 sub-attributes in methods and into 4-sub-attributes in variables.
  • Causality (study & variable)
Defines what other objects affect (are causes of) this variable and how
  • Data (study & variable)
Describes what kind of data is used in this object (e.g. measurements or expert judgements). It may also contain links to available datafiles.
  • Unit (variable)
Defines what unit is being used in presenting the result of this variable.
  • Formula (variable)
Describes the formula used to calculate the variable result (if calculable)
  • Input (method)
Data types, formats, and sources used as input
  • Output (method)
Data types and formats used as outputs
  • Rationale (method)
Reasoning why the presented procedure fulfills the purpose
Result Result of the object, most preferably a probability distribution in case of variables. Result can also be non-numerical expression. Result is divided into 2 sub-attributes in methods
  • Procedure
Contains the instructions for the actual work
  • Management
Contains the instructions, tools, or software that make the actual work easier

In addition to structured objects, Opasnet also contains pages without strict structure. Encyclopedia articles are not formal assessment objects and they can have a flexible structure. Encyclopedia articles in Opasnet closely resemble pages in Wikipedia.

Nugget pages are not universal objects either. Nuggets contain pieces of information that are meant to be maintained in the original form and they have distinguished authors. Nuggets also differ from any other pages in Opasnet because they are not intended to be edited by everyone. They have a sort of a static content.

In Open Assessment almost all pages are open for editing and argumentation and outcomes of disputes may change the actual content of the variables and thereby affect the result of the assessment(s) it is a part of. We believe that by means of open participation we can obtain more data and take account of more points of view in objects and thereby achieve better results. Anyhow, we also believe that even without any public participation the information structure helps to improve the transparency of assessments compared to other approaches where most often only the final results of the assessments are published.

Technical facilitation

Open Assessment method imposes a few challenges to technical facilitation of applying the method. We needed to have a flexible system which enables mass collaboration and we also needed advanced computational capabilities with Monte Carlo analysis features.

We chose Mediawiki as the main software for Opasnet because it allows to develop objects in mass collaboration and efficiently communicate the results. Mediawiki is also widely used and has a good list of different extensions available.

Mediawiki is not designed for mathematical modelling so we needed another software for that purpose. We chose Lumina's Analytica which is a visual tool for creating, analyzing, and communicating decision models including Monte Carlo analysis. Analytica also has a free player-version available. Models are uploaded into Wiki database and they can also be launched directly from wiki (if user has at least the player version of Analytica installed). We are also soon offering a web-version of Analytica which should lower the barrier for an average user to run Analytica models.

Latest addition to the Opasnet is the Opasnet Base. It is basically a MySQL-database which is used to store and retrieve the results of variables and data from studies. This is needed because neither Mediawiki nor Analytica is capable of storing huge amounts of numerical data. Opasnet Base is designed to be flexible enough to store information in almost any format: probability distributions or deterministic point estimates; spatially or temporally distributed data; or data with multiple dimensions. Results and data are uploaded into the Opasnet Base directly from Analytica and later also the web-version of Analytica can be used for this purpose. From Opasnet Base results and data can be fetched directly into corresponding pages in Opasnet. Opasnet pages also contains links to Opasnet Base's user-interface where more detailed results can be provided. This feature is currently under development.

Future challenges and enhancements

One of the biggest challenges in applying OA method is that most scientific journals refuse to publish research results that have already been published in the Internet. This brings about limitations of what can or can not be made publicly available and when. This is quite a tricky question because many contributors to Open Assessments may also need or want academic credits for their work.

At this point we offer writing connections from Analytica to Opasnet Base's database. We hope that in the future it is also possible to use The R (open-source statistical software) for writing information into Opasnet Base.

User interface for Opasnet Base is also not ready yet and it is subject to continuous development.

At some point the growing Opasnet Base will probably lead to increasing demands for the database server. This challenge will be addressed by updating our platform from virtual server to a dedicated server in the near future.


Poster will describe the basics of Opasnet wiki site and introduce the Open Assessment method. It will also explain Opasnet system's technical solutions, their linkages and system architecture.


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