Hunchworks Harnesses Social Networking with a Scientific Twist

Experts can share their hypotheses with their peers.

What happens when you take the philosophy behind social networking and use it for something other than catching up with old friends and sharing funny videos of your cat?

Hunchworks is an online tool that allows experts from a variety of fields to submit a hypothesis (or hunch) that they wish to examine further. This hypothesis can then be viewed and commented upon by other experts.

The goal is that when these experts get together, their experiential knowledge, gut feelings, and their expertise will coalesce and allow them to discover whether or not to accept or reject the posted hypotheses.

In addition to promoting a space in which researchers and their ideas can come together, Hunchworks also exists to make the exchange of knowledge and information both inside and outside the United Nations more effective.

Here’s how it works:

First, an expert proposes a hypothesis. He or she attaches evidence to support their “hunch,” and since it is supported by an online platform, such information can go beyond the written word. Support can appear in various forms of multimedia content, like video or audio files and even tweets.

Then, the expert shares her hunch with whoever she wants, be it the entire network, or a select set of invitation-only members. These invited users can share their input and comment on the hunch or the evidence, and then offer new evidence or suggest other experts whose expertise might be beneficial to the project at hand.

The hunch then grows or transforms through the contributions and conversations between other users until it is discarded or accepted. Finally, if an action is taken on the basis of the hunch, it is recorded.

Similar to a social network, the idea is that instead of bringing old classmates together, experts and professionals can easily connect with one another.

While the positive aspects of social networking would definitely expedite this peer-review process, what effect would the more unsavoury flaws inherent in tools like Facebook have on the system? The Hunchworks team insists that privacy and security are of paramount concern, and report that an expert’s control over her privacy extends to the ability to make her profile open to anyone, or by invitation only.

Another unfortunate characteristic of social networking and the internet in general is the ease with which one can fake an identity. Again, the Hunchworks site insists that there are “trust and creditability mechanisms” in place to guard against false information, conflict, and what seems to be the inevitable “trolling.”

A final concern would be one of the legal issue of intellectual property. However, it appears that the hunches shared would exist under the Creative Commons licence, and will be made publicly available.

What’s enticing about this project is what’s attractive about any tool that emphasizes global connectedness: an instantaneous exchange of ideas, and the ability to meet and engage with individuals who may have been previously inaccessible. When people from far-flung realms of experience come together in discussion, new ideas can be generated, fresh perspectives introduced, and facts previously overlooked could be shared. Obviously experts have collaborated in the past, but a far-reaching online tool could help them do it more efficiently and effectively.

Again, the threat of theft of intellectual property exists, as does the potential for misleading information being disseminated by imposters and fakes. It even occurs that its databases could be hacked, and hypotheses prematurely leaked, which could lead to unnecessary mass hysteria if something inflammatory reached the news.

But if the Hunchworks crew is serious about their commitments to privacy and security, the project sounds like a wonderful way to expedite the research process and bring great minds together.
We can only hope that they won’t learn from others and mess with their security settings every other week.

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