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The Open Problem Garden

January 23, 2014

It is nearly time for our third “research retreat” where our research group goes away for a few days and sit down in various combinations to discuss some new research problems, preferably problems that require some combination of all our specializations, skills and interests. The aim is to broaden our joint knowledge, introduce graduate students to problems outside their thesis (at least for a little while), encourage additional collaborations, and of course just to have a nice time away from the daily routine.

Choosing suitable problems is hard of course, because anything too technical or specialized immediately makes it difficult for someone outside the immediate area to get up to speed. On the other hand, combinatorics is renowned for easy-to-state problems that are impossible to solve, so we want to avoid those as well.

So before each retreat, I find myself looking online for “open problems in combinatorics” and finding various lists of problems, such as Peter Cameron’s list, Douglas West’s list, and of course “The Open Problem Garden“, which was set up by Matt DeVos and Robert Samal to be a “crowd-sourced” list of problems where users could add problems, comment on problems, discuss solutions etc.

Even though everything on the site seems to work well technically (it is based on the notoriously massive and hard-to-learn Drupal CMS so I can only imagine how hard it was to get working), it simply doesn’t seem to have taken off, and I can’t really understand why. A good fraction of the problems were posted by Matt and Robert, and though I’ve added a few and tried to comment on others, the lack of activity from other people means that it rapidly dropped off my radar.

On the other hand, MathOverflow seems to work brilliantly and have created a real sense of community, but again I have no real idea why. On the other hand, when I first heard about Twitter, I thought it was the dumbest idea I’d ever heard, so my insight into what works and doesn’t is clearly not very finely tuned.

It would be really nice if something like the Open Problem Garden worked well, but what is the secret sauce it needs to take off? Could it really just be the gamification that MO has, complete with upvoting, downvoting, points and “medals”? Or something more sophisticated?

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