Transparency Camp thoughts: an ode to basic research

Several people have asked me what I took away from Transparency Camp, an “unconference” held this past weekend here in DC (read the Twitter stream to get an idea what it was like).

I did get a few concrete facts out of it, but fundamentally to me, it was all about basic research, not applied.

I think of basic research as work you do to figure out how the world works, without necessarily tying it to some concrete goal. As opposed to applied research, which tries to help you do something in particular.

The distinction can be pretty clear in science. For example, in Physics (my undergrad degree), basic research would look into the nature of fundamental particles. Applied research would try to answer functional questions, like “how do I use my knowledge of fundamental particles to build a nano-sized robot?”

In my current field (loosely defined as communications), basic research is very similar to networking: I’m just meeting people, learning what they do, hearing their general thoughts. But it’s not just about people. I’m also asking them questions about how the world works: what’s this tool, how do you draw people into that engagement, when do you think this thing will get big? Still not with a particular goal or project in mind.

it’s critically important to carve out time to do basic research. We get so bogged down in details and immediate goals, including really exciting stuff. Without some effort, we’ll always find new trees and make small changes, instead of finding whole new forests to explore.

For me, Transparency Camp was a fantastic basic research opportunity. I don’t know when stuff I learned will come in handy, but I’m convinced it will. At some point, as I’m musing about how to get something done, a person’s name or a website will pop into my head. I might remember I learned about it then, or I might not. But these tidbits will be there, waiting to apply themselves.

Now, as a co-organizer of Government 2.0 Camp, I was also doing a little applied research: simply learning how the unconference format works by experiencing it.

My top 2 takeaways reflect both types of learning:
1) There is a HUGE number of very smart, passionate people working to improve how government serves, relies on and talks to the public, both inside and outside. That inspires me and gives me hope. Some of their names and projects are the core of my basic research learning.

2) I’ve never seen 9-6 go by so fast, which gives me great hope for future unconferences. I’m struggling to remember the benefits of traditional set agendas. That applied learning helps me understand what to expect for gov’t 2.0 camp.

How about you? Do you do basic or applied research?

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Andrew Turner

I agree that there weren’t quite as much “actionable” things identified. But the value of these meetings is meeting people (sometimes new people, but first time face to face), the free exchange of ideas, and increased comfort levels of interaction.

It’s what happens after a conference like TransparencyCamp that all this research can be applied. We go back to our jobs and tools, let the ideas sift, contextualize, and solidify. We maintain our new found links via blogs, twitter, future conferences, and iterate on solutions.


Wish I was there but I’ll be in full effect for the Gov 2.0 unconference. Sounds like the conference was like any good speech where you come away with more questions than answers. But that’s a good thing.

Noel Dickover

I had a similar thought in terms of a progression. I tweeted that tcamp09 addresses “What does this all mean?”; and that gov20camp should address the question, “What should we do about it?” Also that we probably need to additional conferences, one which takes place after the 120 day data collection period where the Administration says, “This is what we ‘will’ do about it,” and a later event which sets the vision by showing, “This is what we already have done.”

David Tallan

The way I learned it was that basic research is science and applied is engineering. 🙂

WHat I tend to do is use the basic research to come up with a mental model of how things fit together. And then have that model inform my applied research.