Tag Archives: openness

Q: How do I get involved in Open Source?

Congratulations on discovering the importance and opportunity in Open Source software. The first step, in my opinion, is to start using Open Source yourself, wherever possible. You have probably already started on this path. The easy steps are using Firefox for browsing, and programs like OpenOffice.org and Thunderbird for productivity. (If you’re nervous about the whole Oracle thing with OpenOffice.org, fear not, there are forks that have occurred which will keep it open.) For development, you should look at the Eclipse project as well as the many other interesting development tools that are out there. There is a vast (and incomplete) list of interesting Open Source applications available in Wikipedia. You can also find a rather complete repository of Open Source projects (including the good, the bad and the really ugly) at the grand-daddy of all Open Source sites, sourceforge.net, a free repository for project owners to organize and share their project.

Of course, you should also consider taking the Open Source plunge and running Linux. (That link is not the official Linux kernel site, but a good starting place.)

Like I said, you are probably already using Open Source software to some degree, but the more you use the more you become aware of how the Open Source world works, how the community drives development and support and what you think is missing from the equation that you can contribute.

To get involved on the development end, you have a few options. One is to take a project that you use and identify something within your skill set that needs help. You don’t really have to ask permission to offer a solution, but you should follow the protocol for the project. Every project will have information about how to contribute. If they don’t, then write to the key players of the project and let them know that you have something to contribute. They will likely be very pleased. If they’re not, then go find someone else to help!

Another interesting thing to do is to look at the list of projects at sourceforge.net. They actually have a list of “help wanted” projects that you can dive into. If you dig around, you may even find projects that have lost their maintainer (which happens for a variety of reasons). Picking up that work could be a great project and a valuable service to the community.

Don’t forget that there are open projects that need more than just coding. There are needs for testing, documentation, translation and just about anything that you can imagine in the business of software development. Simply writing excellent tutorials with good manuals and video demos could turn a project around… and this is typically the sort of work that the deep developers don’t find very interesting. There are even other opportunities, like the proofreading help needed by Project Gutenberg. Unusual projects like the Open Prosthetics Project, which try to accomplish goals for the general good.

It’s not hard to get involved in projects. It takes time and a little discipline to stick with it, even though you don’t have a manager demanding that you produce. However, I think that you gain the same satisfaction from this work as you do from any sort of good volunteer work that you might do, and you actually get to benefit from the work yourself by having greater functionality and improved skills.

Comments and pointers to opportunities are certainly welcome!

Community-driven art.

 I live in Austin, Texas.  For those of you who don’t know, music is big herevery big.  I can go out on any night of the week, any week of the year and hear live music.  As you can imagine, with all of those musicians it’s pretty hard for any of them to stand up and be counted by a Megacorp Music Company.  It happens often enough for people to keep trying, but it’s a difficult road.

Erin Ivey, who I’ve been following for about a year now is working to finish an album by going directly to the community.  I think this is pure genius!  For a while, I’ve had an idea that I would be doing pretty good if I could get 1 million people to give me $1 a year for what I do.  (Now I just need to find the right million!)  Basically it’s the idea that just about all of us have something that is of value to someone.  You can shoot for the over-inflated Hollywood kind of value, which seems to have a number of side-effects.  You can also make a direct connection to your fans.

Many open source projects do this.  They provide software that people like.  They don’t sell it.  They keep it open, but they ask for support from the people that want to use it.  I happily donate to projects that I use from time to time.  Amazingly all of those dollars can add up.  If you were to donate a small fraction of what you pay to commercial software to projects that you use I think you would be amazed at the difference it would make.  The money you donate goes for many things:  hardware and hosting to keep a project going, booths at trade shows and other approaches to getting these projects out next to their commercial counterparts.  A lot of money donated would allow someone to devote their full time to keeping the project moving forward.

On the music side, here is what Erin is doing.  She has put up a pre-sale page for her upcoming album.  Her “buy-in” is pretty modest.  But then she suggests some premium levels.  At each level you get the album, plus some extras.  The ultimate is a private concert and a tin of chocolate, home-made by Erin herself.  Many people won’t pay any attention to this, because they have no connection.  They don’t value what she’s doing like the people who have followed her music.  But I’ll tell you, sitting in the shadowy confines of the Ghost Room in Austin, listening to Erin wrap herself in a song spread it around the audience so that you too float and fly with the melody… well… it’s pretty cool.  As someone who has had that experience I’m grateful for a chance to be in on something like this rather than waiting for some commercial marketing machine.

I think it’s the same with open source projects.  Many people just do no have the experience of finding technology that makes a difference for them.  They pretty much use what they’re given.  Yet, when you find that special project and discover that there are other ways to do things it gives you a sense of empowerment.  “I don’t have to use the software that do.  Ithey make me change.  I have something that does things the way that I want to.”  It’s an easy step to go from advocate to participant by lending a little support.  If money’s not your thing, then there are other kinds of support that are needed.  You don’t even have to be a coder.  Many projects need translation, writing– as in people who can communicate information and documentation in clear language for non-technical people– and a number of other things.  I know of one instance where a broadcaster donated a voice-over advocating Linux to be open-sourced as a radio ad.  (It actually was scheduled to run here in the Austin area for a while.)  You don’t have to just be a consumer.  You can be a part of what you like and use and help keep it alive.

Good luck, Erin.  I’m looking forward to the new album.  I think it’s awesome that you are giving your fans a chance to help make it happen.  I think you’re on the edge of the future of art, science and technology.  We drive what we want.  We make it happen, as a community.

Open Source in Government… will it really happen?

One of the areas where open standards and open source are a no-brainer for me is in the realm of government.  Here are a couple of stories highlighting government decisions to consider open source:  UK Government upgrades Open Source policy and San Francisco Institutes Open Source Software Policy.

On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing.  If the requirement says that contractors have to look into open-source solutions then there will be a flood of open-source being used, right?  Not necessarily.  These don’t seem to require use of open source, simply consideration.  I’m pretty certain that a company who has a favorite proprietary decision will still be able to come back with a statement that they considered the open-source option, but found it lacking in certain key areas, so they still recommend the proprietary solution.  Unfortunately I think that in many cases government is at the mercy of its service providers.  There are technical people in government… even passionately technical who want to see elegant solutions.  However, because of the nature of government these people are not necessarily on the front lines of these decisions.  I remember my own time in state government when I was the only one arguing.  That got pretty lonely pretty quickly.

So why does it matter?  Well, for one thing these solutions are spending tax dollars which could be used for other things.  If the applications and data are properly protected with alternative data centers and fail-over then you have at least a pair of licenses for everything used.  If the tech budget is tight, then some levels of protection may be skipped because the money just isn’t there.  The more software in the mix that can be freely distributed the more money that is available for other technical requirements.

The other issue is the freedom of the information.  Government information should not be held hostage by a proprietary data system.  It is appropriate that this information be held securely and that privacy be protected, but it should be recorded in a way that can change with growing technology.  The more exotic the means of recording data the more costly it is to move that information to any other system.  On the other hand, if the means of recording data are open, these migrations are simplified.  I do wonder how much of government IT is spent nursing archaic systems that have been deemed to expensive to upgrade.

Any changes here are going to have to be a requirement of the people.  As citizens we are going to have to demand that open source and open standards be a part of solutions for government.  Those of us who are technical are going to need to keep an eye on what is done and blow the whistle when open solutions are not being used where they should.  I do have some hope.  Lately I’ve found more government services that I can access on-line and I generally have no problem making them work in my Gnu/Linux/Firefox environment.  This has been improving.  Maybe openness in government technology is for real.