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IssueLab's Lisa Brooks on Opening Up Research

Open Education

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Logo by Gabi Fitz | CC BY-NC-SA

ccLearn recently spoke with Lisa Brooks from IssueLab. Instead of crossing telephone lines (who does that anymore anyway?), I caught up with her via that archaic method of correspondence known as electronic mail…*inside-oer-icon

*Similarly archaic, but not outdated in coolness factor, are comics. The first comic issue of Inside OER is this same interview in comic form. Instead of the same-old and streamlined text with interspersed pictures, we decided to experiment. Let us know what you think! For those of you on hand-held devices (or a preference for just text), read on here.

Who are you and what do you do at IssueLab?

I’m Lisa Brooks, co-founder and co-director of IssueLab – a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that can’t get enough of nonprofit-produced research.

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Photo by Gabi Fitz | CC BY-NC-SA

The biggest chunk of my IssueLab to-do list centers on technology and programming. Essentially, I handle anything tech on- and offline. I have no background in computer science, information systems, etc. — I have a degree in sociology and a year’s worth of public policy graduate school under my belt. In my experience, a liberal arts/jack-of-all-trades background is a typical pedigree for a nonprofit IT professional. I owned and operated a website/web application design company that worked exclusively with and for nonprofits for about nine years before doing IssueLab full-time. In that time, rarely did I meet an IT or IS staffer who had formal training in tech.

Along with all the techie work, I handle bookkeeping and accounting, client support (we have a couple of newly launched services — “SubDomains” service and our Custom Dissemination service — with a client base that increases monthly). It’s fair to say I am an office manager of a sort — I’m the one who gets Cheetos for staff meetings, chooses our VoIP provider, grabs the mail, deals with a virus invading a computer, makes sure that we don’t run out of water for the office water cooler…. I love my job(s)!

What is IssueLab? (And why is it called that, anyway?) How did it come about?

IssueLab is an open source archive of research produced by nonprofit organizations, university-based research centers, and foundations. We track research across thirty-four social issue areas. Research contributors categorize their works in up to three issue areas and further sub-categorize as needed.

Archiving is part one; part two is dissemination. Daily we get in touch with people (nonprofit professionals, researchers, policy professionals, academics, etc.) who have expressed interest in the work we collect. As well, we start new relationships with people interested in social policy, or the sector, or research, or all of the above. We maintain a number of communication channels including our website, RSS news feeds (one per issue area plus a comprehensive give-me-everything-you’ve got feed), e-newsletters, we Twitter, we have a Facebook fan page, we run a LinkedIn policy discussion group. We also have an Open Archives Initiative-compliant data provider set up at for data sharing. And we have data partners that carry titles from our archive that fit with their mission.

About our name, here’s a fun fact: while she’s grown to love it, co-director and co-founder Gabriela Fitz hated the name “IssueLab”at first. I take full blame for the name. I read the New York Sunday Times and the magazine often has a section called “IdeaLab” which I just find catchy. We deal in social policy issues….so….”IssueLab”. I’ve noticed that has hit a stride online in recent years; for once we were surfing on top of the wave! Anyway, regardless of her feelings at the start, Gabi created a killer logo and designed the rest of the site to suit. It has all hung together rather nicely I think. People really like the name — and the buttons we hand out at conferences that say “I’ve got issues!”

IssueLab was inspired by exasperation! Gabriela and I spent many years putting together websites and online communications plans where the knowledge created by a nonprofit in the form of case studies, white papers, issue briefs, etc., was just not high on the site redesign list of priorities if it was on that list at all. We would run into these great collections of research and have to fight to get it valued as worthwhile content and included in a site. We started to think about better ways to handle this body of knowledge. Centralizing it was a given, relating it across issue areas was a priority, defining and cultivating audience — taking the works to people who would find it of interest and useful rather than hoping folks stop their busy lives to come to it — has always underpinned everything we do.

We launched a prototype website in late 2005 and maintained it in our spare time on week nights and weekends. The concept started to catch on and we started to be overwhelmed. Luckily we were able to secure funding through the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in 2007 and that allowed us to pursue IssueLab full-time. As of today IssueLab has four full-timers, a couple of part-timers, and (when lucky) a few interns. Oh – and our office pooch, Twyla.

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Photo by Gabi Fitz | CC BY-NC-SA

On your About– “But IssueLab is not simply an online archive.” That’s cool. So your “efforts are evenly split between aggregating research on social issues and pushing that research back out to other online communities and end-users.” Based on this, I have a three-part clump of questions:

a) Are aggregating research and pushing that research back out IssueLab’s main goals? What other goals, or vision, does IssueLab work towards?

Aggregating and disseminating — mainstreaming — research are primary goals, but they aren’t our only goals.

IssueLab is very interested in the open sharing of information, ideas, and technologies. Collaboration is high on our list and we would like to be a conduit for the creation of original data and research. We are currently involved in a project that will hopefully result in new analyses of an extensive data set on hunger and poverty. The analysts hail from academia; the data set comes from a national hunger relief organization. We are the “middle-ware”, cultivating the partnership and facilitating the data share. In the end we’ll handle dissemination of the results. We’re very excited about this type of partnership and hope to do much more of this type of work in the future.

We also have a front-burner goal of fostering debate on the issues. We are working hard to get perspectives on social issues from across the political spectrum. We have plans to do more original content that showcases the diversity of opinion and approach that can be found in the missions and work of the organizations that contribute research to IssueLab.

Another goal is to archive the research of defunct nonprofits. What a shame it would be if the work of these organizations were just to disappear. We currently house the work of several defunct organizations — Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, Center for Impact Research, Girl’s Best Friend Foundation — and keep our eyes and ears open for news of other organizations that produced research and are going out of business.

b) How do you go about aggregating research? For instance, how do you decide the kinds of organizations you will work with? Example: Your home page feature is currently “Teaching About the Birds and the Bees”, which I guess demonstrates the range of research out there…

There is an enormous range of research produced by the third sector. Enormous! While we do take work from any nonprofit, we focus a bit on smaller, lesser known nonprofit organizations that don’t typically get the spotlight. These are groups that do direct service and have a hands-on perspective on an issue. Or groups that find meaning and relevance in the qualitative aspects of social issue research and create insightful case studies and ethnographies.

I listen to public radio all of the time and I hear the same nonprofit players over and again — Urban Institute, RAND Corporation, Human Rights Watch, American Enterprise Institute. We actually have work from all of those groups archived at IssueLab and we are happy to have them as participants. But these groups don’t — can’t — tell the whole story about an issue. That’s the wonder of the nonprofit sector — it’s as diverse as the people and communities that are served by it.

We do have a bit of a soft spot for the “little guy”, the “underdog” if you will. But truly, when you read the work these organizations produce you will come away with more ways to think about an issue, and maybe — hopefully — get closer to what is really going on.

c) What do you mean by “pushing” research back out to other communities? Do you, for instance, circulate research publications somehow? Or do you simply host the research and let the cross-pollination occur organically?

We do host the research and provide tools that let folks browse, search, and learn about the archive. But we didn’t start out with a “build it and they will come” notion. We’ve been doing online communication for years and know that you have to get the message to the people rather than wait or rely on the people to stumble upon you.

Here’s what “pushing research back out to other communities” means at IssueLab. For our last CloseUp on adolescents and reproductive health (, we reached out to legislators who had sponsored or co-sponsored legislation about sex education, hundreds of practitioners of health and sex education at state level boards of education, Facebook, Yahoo, and Google groups where individuals are discussing sex ed and abstinence, bloggers covering the topic, and nonprofits who are working on this issue but don’t necessarily do research themselves. In addition, we commented on articles and blog posts about the issue, linking readers back to the special collection on IssueLab. Depending on the collection and the issue covered we sometimes also do outreach directly to educators and students. We are now set to go back to many of these same audiences with a special podcast we produced about the collection. This is typical of the kind of outreach we do around nonprofit research and is what we mean by “pushing it out”.

“In fact, we are fans of Creative Commons and have decided that all IssueLab-generated content is subject to a Creative Commons license.” Thank you! All your content is licensed CC BY-SA; any thoughts on why CC and, more specifically, why BY-SA in particular? (Also, what kind of content does IssueLab generate?)

IssueLab generates a couple of e-newsletters that go out to our research contributor community and subscribers. We create a bi-monthly “CloseUp” feature where we reach out to organizations that work on a particular issue and build a special collection around the research we collect. We create companion podcasts for our CloseUps as well (and we use a remix by a CCMixter contributor as our podcast background music!). And we just launched our IssueLab blog, called FootNotes.

IssueLab is an open access archive; it would be ludicrous of us to create content and make it difficult or impossible for people to access and share it. We use a Creative Commons license because we want to share what we do. We follow Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) in our data collection practices for the same reason. We chose BY-SA because it makes it crystal clear what people can do with our content — share and/or remix — and we want people to do just that.

Call us naive nerds but we do think the world would be a better place if everyone adopted an attribution standard that has sharing, not commerce, as its first concern.

As the education program of CC, we love that you have specifically set up an OER Research collection ( Is most of the OER research in this collection licensed openly? (Ironically, not all research on openness is licensed openly.) Why do you think this is? Is IssueLab taking any steps towards greater openness of all the resources it hosts?

We partnered with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to make that particular project happen. It’s a great project and we are happy to host it. And no! – most of the research in that collection is not licensed openly. I just did a quick advanced search on the entire IssueLab archive and, of the 2,128 available research listings, only 252 carry a CC license. Ironic and a bummer.

I think that a lot of individuals and groups simply do not know what to do when it comes to licensing, copyright, rights, whatever you want to call it. Much of what we archive has totally restrictive “All Rights Reserved” rights information (and it many times comes to us with that capitalization which makes me wonder if people simply look at a work by a group they consider legitimate and copy the language).

We do push our contributors to at least consider using a CC license. We’d love to implement CC’s license chooser so that people can select a CC license as they create a listing but that gets tricky. When a group creates a research listing with us they fill out a form to describe the object they are archiving. They must fill in rights information for the work they are sharing. I’d guesstimate that 98% of what we archive are PDF files that incorporate copyright info in the text of the file. When our users create a research listing they can put whatever they want into our system, but the file that gets downloaded will show the copyright info that was embedded in the PDF. Switching to a CC license on the IssueLab site doesn’t revise the text in the downloadable PDF file and so a conflict is created should they enter rights data that appears on an IssueLab listing page that differs from the rights info you see in the PDF. Even if we were able to change the metadata in the PDF file on upload, there would still be a need to change what people reading the text of the PDF file see.

I think for most folks copyright is about pursuing or protecting capital and they do not know that alternatives to stringent copyright notification are available. This is so unfortunate because, in the end, I believe people really do want to share their work. No one wants to spend all of their time researching and writing a whitepaper only to make it impossible to share, access, use, reuse. Truly maddening.

Copyright law is such a pain in the brain. Agree or disagree?


By setting up this separate collection for OER Research, it appears that IssueLab recognizes the importance of openness in education especially. What are your thoughts on open education and OER generally? Do you think OER will solve a lot of problems in education? Come to think of it, what do you think are the problems facing (formal) education today?

I live in a big city — Chicago. Education and education reform is on the news nightly. We have a lot of public schools that are suffering from a lack of funds, a lack of human capital, just lack. We also have a lot of experimental education projects going on such as small schools, charter schools, and the like. Some are getting a great education, many are not.

As someone who has been into the Internet and its potential for a pretty long time (remember Pine Mail? Amber letters on black screens – no graphics?), I have hope for OER, in particular as a field leveller post-high school. I don’t think it is a magic bullet, but I do think that OER can fill a need and a niche.

The current global economy is making higher education impossible for a lot of people to pursue. This reality may very well be the opportunity that OER needs to get over the obscurencia hump (at least outside of some academic circles) and become something that is more commonplace. I know that OER is being deployed more and more in community colleges which I think is great. I’ve often thought that where OER’s real opportunities lie is in wide deployment in non-traditional learning spaces — incorporated into adult literacy training, deployed as community based learning groups akin to book clubs but structured around learning and discussing concepts rather than reading and discussing books. The nonprofit sector will play a vital role in the take-up of OER, and I hope that academia and foundations, in partnership with nonprofits, start to dream about and propagate experimental OER learning projects.

How about in IssueLab’s own future? Any exciting developments in the pipeline, such as a snazzy tool that maps all content contributors in neon colors?

If only we had time to do “snazzy”! We have to focus on the nuts and bolts almost all of the time. But a girl can dream!

I’d like to get an API assembled that will plug into common open source content management systems and allow organizations to manage their IssueLab accounts alongside their other CMS-based online initiatives. I can imagine some of your readers do not find that to be sexy; but around here, we think it’s burnin’ up HOT.

Finally, do you have any last thoughts? Any questions or concerns for us? (What should ccLearn be doing?)

Only that I see a number of documents on the ccLearn Productions page that are not included in our OER Research Repository. Happy to help get those into IssueLab and out to our many audiences! And also, it would be terrific to get an IssueLab feed of OER titles onto ccLearn’s Resources page. I’ll e-mail you!

Posted 16 June 2009