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.

Report to the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Committee

Part of the Orbital project governance is that I report to the university’s Research, Innovation and Enterprise Committee. The Committee meets every three months and I send a short report to each meeting and attend every other meeting. Here’s my report for the February committee meeting.

The Orbital Project

Progress report to the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Committee

30th January 2012

Author: Joss Winn, PI/PM.

Progress since the last update to the RIEC on 13th December:

  1. The short-term focus for the project continues to be the development of the technical infrastructure for managing research data, while being mindful of the long-term requirements to develop policy and a supportive environment for research staff.
  2. Software development has begun. We have finished setting up the development environment for the Orbital system. This is a major software development project for the university and we have spent some time designing the server architecture and quality assurance procedures for development.
  3. Orbital will make use of ‘cloud computing’ and is working with ICT as a pilot project for integrating cloud computing into our local infrastructure. A meeting took place with Eduserv, a non-profit provider of cloud computing to the HE sector (running on Janet) and a further meeting is taking place with Rackspace, a major commercial provider of cloud computing services. This work sits alongside ICT’s need to refresh their server infrastructure next year and will provide ICT with a real opportunity to investigate the business case for cloud computing as well as issues around actual implementation.
  4. A full-time post for a Web Developer has been advertised and we expect the post to begin late March/early April. This is the second full-time Web Developer post on the Orbital project.
  5. We are pleased that Dr. Ling from the School of Engineering and his PhD student, Chunmei Qing, will work with closely with the Orbital project in the development of the software, policy and training materials. Similarly, we are working with Prof. Chris Bingham and Stuart Watson (Siemens), and have recently joined their fortnightly research meetings, which are extremely useful to the Orbital project. At this stage, we welcome involvement from any Researcher in the School of Engineering and further into the project intend to broaden our use cases to other research disciplines.
  6. A meeting has been held with Dr. Mansur Darlington from the University of Bath. Dr. Darlington led the JISC-funded ERIM project, which studied the Research Data Management (RDM) issues for the discipline of Engineering.[1] The meeting was very useful for the Orbital team, including partners at Siemens and Researchers in the School of Engineering, who attended. The ERIM project provides a very robust, theoretical basis, which Orbital will attempt to build upon and implement. Similarly, a follow-up to the ERIM project will provide prototype tools, which we hope to build on for Orbital.[2] This is a key external relationship for the Orbital project.
  7. One issue flagged by Dr. Darlington concerned national funding bodies’ RDM policies. Each funding body has an RDM policy which requires universities to have effective methods in place for managing, preserving and disseminating research data.[3] The EPSRC has told all universities that we must provide them with a RDM roadmap by 1st May 2012 and must be compliant with these expectations by 1st May 2015.[4]
  8. The Orbital project is required by JISC to produce an RDM Policy for the institution. A national meeting is being organised by JISC to assist with the development of such policy in March. Following this, I suggest that a workshop is held in March where the Orbital project and other key staff from the Library and Research and Enterprise Office begin to draft this Policy and the required EPSRC roadmap. This can then be presented to the RIEC for discussion and approval prior to submission to the EPSRC.
  9. A meeting has been arranged for March 7th, 9.30-12pm, to discuss the Business Case for Open licenses. This discussion will be of interest for anyone concerned with licensing research outputs (‘Open Access’), software development projects (‘Open Source’), and teaching and learning resources (‘Open Educational Resources’). Staff from the JISC-funded OSS Watch, University of Oxford, will present at this meeting. Andrew Hunter and James Murray will attend and members of the RIEC are also welcome. Please RSVP to Joss Winn by end of February.
  10. Joss is working with JISC to organise a national event focussing on issues around software development for Research Data Management, which will be held in May.

1st Steering Group meeting. Plan for the future

We met this morning for our first Steering Group meeting of the Orbital Project. Following a discussion about the objectives of the MRD programme in general, the main agenda point was to discuss the Project Plan prior to me sending it to JISC. I will publish the Plan on this website once it has been signed off.

Questions were raised by the Steering Group specific to the research data of Engineers and the confidential and commercial nature of their work. Our School of Engineering was established through a partnership with Siemens and therefore the research undertaken by some of our researchers uses data provided under strict confidentiality agreements. The Orbital project has always been aware of this and it is one of the interesting challenges which we highlighted in our bid to JISC. It raises very important questions over ownership, authenticity, privacy and liability. Further discussions on this topic will be forthcoming.

Another point was raised by Dr. James Murray, our IP Manager, around the use of open licenses for documentation and code and whether the infrastructure we develop might have any commercial value. On a project of this size, it’s an important question and one I had given some thought to. Personally, I admire the way that the University of Southampton has created a commercial service around their open source EPrints software, which we use and subscribe to at Lincoln. I was asked if we might invite someone from EPrints Services to come to discuss their experience with the Steering Group at our next meeting in February. I was pleased that this was brought up at this early stage as developing a Business Case for Orbital is not only vital to the long-term sustainability of our work, but a required output of the project, too. Given the project team’s preference for employing and publishing open source software, I’m keen that a Business Model based on open source software be given thorough consideration. It’s very early days to be thinking about this, but such considerations do take time to work out, too.

Finally, Prof. Andrew Hunter, Head of the College of Science and our Senior User, identified other areas of our STEM research that would benefit from the work of Orbital. This is not something we need to concentrate on right now in this MRD pilot project, but it, too, is an important consideration in planning for the long-term deployment and use of Orbital.