Small research questions within open source == good student projects?

February 4, 2010 – 2:39 pm

For those in academia: I’m wondering whether this might be the kind of mini research problem (or even non-mini research problem) that university students might be excited about picking up.

From Matt Domsch’s post to the Fedora advisory board list:

I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last week fixing up the scripts that generate Fedora’s worldwide user maps including the worldwide map for all Fedora versions currently in use as determined by yum requests for mirrorlists… we currently have no way to know, within even a 2-4x margin of error, how many current installs of Fedora there are. But this number, and it’s growth (positive, or negative), would be interesting to know, if only it were more accurate.

Now… it seems to me that this is an interesting technology-related problem requiring technical fluency, development of keen analysis skills, and with immediate potential real-world (i.e. would-actually-affect-the-work-of-thousands-of-people) implications. And it also seems to me like it would fit nicely into the format of an independent study or a small thesis – actually, my first reaction (before starting to think about potential solutions) was “huh, this is something I could work on, write a paper about, and turn in for school, if I were still in school.”

Thoughts? Would these sorts of “huh, we wonder how we’re doing on this front?” introspective semi-research-ish questions coming from open source communities make good material for student projects (independent research, class projects, whatever format it would fit in)? If so, how could we help students get started on them? If not, why not – and what sorts of problems would be better?

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What do you think?