Thursday, July 22, 2010

Open Source and Socially Beneficial Projects?

Some time ago a colleague suggested to me that the Open Source movement was "socially beneficial". I have been pondering the claim.  With cross country flight time on my hands yesterday, I took the opportunity to read The Cathedral and the Bazaar . (Fittingly, it is also available online free from several locations. Just do a search for the many ways to get it.) Published a few years ago, it has become a de facto "must read" for any one interested in the history, philosophy and  future of Open Source.

There are the economic arguments, and the philosophical arguments for the societal benefits of Open Source, which are well laid out in Eric Raymond's book. I learned a lot about Open Source which I did not know, some of which surprised me. Quiz question: What is the difference between "free software" and "Open Source software"?

I recommend the book as a fast and informative read if you have even the slightest interest in Open Source, the history of computing, hackers and hacking, or if you are working in software development of any sort. Or if you could not answer the quiz question without doing a search for the answer :)

After finishing the book, somewhere over the Grand Canyon, I was still not satisfied that I had the answer to my initial question: How has Open Source had a direct, indisputably positive social impact?  In the sense that I am interested in. What I am looking for are examples. Examples of where Open Source development has been used to directly benefit specific people, or the planet. Or some other definition of "society" - the term can be interpreted broadly. I'm not suggesting that it has not done so. I simply am not familiar with any examples. I would like to learn about some solid fully operationalized projects.

Do such projects exist out there? Recent projects - within the past couple of years? Is anyone working on something right now?


  1. Lisa,
    Is hard to find (have been looking for a while: There's lots of noise about sustainability of_, and social benefits of_ open source, but it is almost entirely about the open source community itself.
    I attended a workshop on Humanitarian FOSS during SIGCSE Portland - have details somewhere (maybe)let me know if you can't find it.

  2. Hi SaM,

    I found the site which is the homepage of the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) project, an NSF CPATH funded project. Thanks for the pointer.

    This is a site with many resources for academics to help them incorporate Free and Open Source s/w into their classes.

    Something I am always curious about with academic research projects, is how well they operationalize once the project funding is over. It looks like this group is doing its best to disseminate their work - the SIGCSE conference being where you located it. It will be interesting to keep an eye on this group and see where the project takes root over time.

    My next line of thought is if anyone has taken a FOSS-like project beyond academia? In other words are there examples where people (aside from academic educator/researchers, who are definitely people) are making a living doing such projects in the corporate or non profit world?

  3. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project is an example of one such initiative that utilizes open source software as a basis for a project that has had serious societal and social impact. See for details.

    This also is something that would go along with your overall topic on interdisciplinary computing and projects that can bring about positive change.

  4. Hi and thanks for the reference. I am familiar with the OLPC project - it is def. an interesting attempt to make a large and positive difference in people's lives.