Understanding and participating in open source culture

There are direct and anticipated outcomes of running relatively big projects like Orbital – outcomes which are integral to the success of the project, such as those listed in our project plan: a technical infrastructure for research data, support and training, an institutional data management policy and a business plan for sustaining the work of the project. There are also outcomes which, to be honest, I didn’t entirely anticipate, such as Orbital becoming the pilot project for how the university tackles integration with the cloud; or the implementation of a new development tool-chain and associated working practices.

Yesterday wasn’t originally anticipated either, as the Orbital project hosted a meeting to raise awareness of ‘open source’ among staff at the university. It’s a term that we hear quite often these days and increasingly it’s being applied to non-software domains, such as hardwaredata and education. In effect, it’s being used to refer to a method of participation and collaboration, as much as a legal statement about the ownership of property. In my day-to-day experience, more often than not, it’s a term that’s poorly understood and mis-used, so an open source software development project like Orbital seemed like a good opportunity to ask the question, “what is open source?” and see if anyone else was interested in learning more about what it means and how it relates to the work of a university. With that in mind, I arranged for Sander van der Waal, from OSSWatch, to lead a meeting where we discussed open source in general, but also began to address some specific issues that I think we need to work on as we continue to both re-use and produce more open source software.

The meeting ran all morning, from 9.30-12, and could have gone on for longer. I kicked things off with the slides below, which were intended to provide a brief overview of the work we’ve been doing over the last four years where the use of open licenses was central, and in particular, give a brief summary of why we undertake the work we do and some of the benefits of ‘openness’. I finished up with a list of things I think we need to address and take forward for further discussion. I was pleased that Dr. James Murray, the IP Manager for the university was attending and keen to engage in this discussion, too.

Having set the scene, I handed over to Sander, who led the rest of the meeting. As you can see from his slides below, he covered a lot of ground, which we were grateful for, and we intend to draw from them in our next follow-on meeting. I hope that the Orbital project will now act as a catalyst to the development of guidelines on the use and creation of open source software, as well as a clearer understanding of the business case and business models for open source.

On a more personal note, having joined the university in 2007 as Project Officer on the JISC-funded LIROLEM institutional repository project, yesterday felt like a bit of a milestone, when I was able to draw together a lot of our work under the banner of ‘open’, and impress upon colleagues what we’ve learned and achieved and the direction I think we need to go in.

Before too long, I’d like there to be a greater appreciation across the institution of how the open source movement is changing the way some of us think about (intellectual) property and the nature of work and how this is reflected by the environment we work in. Open source (and its open * derivatives), is not a panacea to society’s problems, by any means, but its impact on our lives in just twenty years or so has been quite profound and it’s impact on the nature of research, teaching and learning is increasingly apparent. Since the development of time-sharing systems fifty years ago, programmers have been building tools with each other that allow them to share their knowledge and their productive capacity across divides in space and time that once presented significant barriers to collaboration. Variations on these tools (hardware, software, legal), are now available to researchers, teachers and students outside Computer Science programmes and present challenges as well as new ways to conceive the organising principles of property and work.

In the future, I’d like institutional projects (not just discreet research projects), such as Orbital, to somehow be tied into curricula for courses where we turn classrooms into hackerspaces, project work into apprenticeships, award degrees on the basis of participation in and learning from open source projects, and help students form start-ups by creating an intensive but supportive learning environment along the same lines that Y Combinator has done. None of this is beyond the capability of our institutions, nor in conflict with the idea of the university. From where I stand, it is the only direction available to us if we wish to remain relevant to young people’s lives and aspirations: on an every day level, technology is a determining force in society and is determining how we undertake research, teaching and learning, but in response, it’s the hackers who are changing technology and therefore have a role in the future of the university.

If you’re interested in further reading about open source, I recommend the following books:

Benkler, Y. (2006) The wealth of networks: how social production transforms markets and freedom.

Fogel, K. (2006) Producing open source software: how to run a successful free software project.

Lindberg, V. (2008) Intellectual property and open source.

Weber, S. (2005) The success of open source.