Real World Open Source: Finding a cure for tuberculosis. Open data at work

Does open source software really provide a benefit to the community, or is it just a drain on commercial resources, like people stealing office supplies?  Look at this and judge for yourself:

A colleague forwarded me an article called “Can Open Source Defeat the Scourge of Tuberculosis?” by Alan Shimel.  It talks about how a project, the Opens Source Drug Discovery (OSDD) is being used by scientists to find better drugs for combatting tuberculosis, a disease which affects about one third of the world population.  While people debate vigorously about the state of health-care and what are the best solutions, one fact seems to be agreed upon: the development of new drugs and new treatments is expensive.  Much of this has to do with the expense of collecting and analyzing the massive amounts of data required to understand a condition.  If an open repository allows this sort of work to be spread out further, so that more people can contribute to the work, doesn’t it make sense that the results will come out quicker and cheaper?

The OSDD is by no means the only open-data project.  In fact, I found the Open Knowledge Foundation which lists a number of projects that make data of various kinds publicly available.  There’s even an open project to help you find open projects called the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network (CKAN).  Browsing these projects is fascinating and I know that with a little digging I’ll find a resource or two that I find personally or professionally useful.

Get Involved

It’s honestly not difficult to contribute to open projects.  I just found a simple way that I can contribute to a project that I use regularly.  Project Gutenberg is a project to provide electronic versions of every possible book, free for digital rights management, publicly available.  Most of the works are ones that have fallen into the public domain, but others are works that the author has made available through the Creative Commons or some other open license.  Books are scanned and then transformed into text and other formats.

Recently, I discovered that they have a practice, called “distributed proofreading,” whereby volunteers can spend a little time here and there helping to keep a project moving.  To volunteer, you simply sign up through the website.  You act as an editor, proofing documents that have come in and helping them to meet the project standards.  Beginners simply help identify scanning (OCR) mistakes, by comparing the output to the original picture in the document.  More advanced and experienced editors move the document forward through other issues ending in a newly published text.  It only takes a few minutes to do several pages.  You receive advice and recommendations along the way.

Most projects do not have so elegant a system of getting involved.  But most of them would gladly accept help.  All you have to do is offer… and then follow up by actually doing the work.

Will this affect commercial work?

Undoubtedly commercial work in these areas will be affected as some of them become obsolete.  The village blacksmith and the office stenographer are both rare today.  As technology grows to allow people to record, analyze and share data it will become less necessary to have that done by an expert.  Yet expertise will always be needed (and paid for) to get things to the next step.  I rather like to think that open methodologies step in to do the things that the commercial people say are a hardship by applying a cloud-like entity of human resources.  Often the work is slower and more precise for each individual step, but since there are more people potentially available tocheck and recheck things, something accomplished in three steps rather than one is still done more efficiently.

Next week the Open Source zone will have an article on the harmonious blend of open source and commercial software.  Keep an eye out for it.  As you read it, consider how it applies not only to software, but to data and other projects.  There is a lot of value and potential in technological volunteer-work.  We’ll get the most benefit as people cease to fear or distrust it and everyone participates to improve it.

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