Components of an open-source organization: Part one

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on applying the concept of “open-source” to a non-profit organization.

A month or so ago, I was hit with the notion that the open-source movement might be applicable to systems beyond software. What I quickly realised, much like when I “invented” the word guesstimate, is that someone had probably already thought of this idea. Undaunted, I began to brainstorm on how I might apply it to an organization I’m working with called Whitman Direct Action, primarily because I feel the concept behind the organization itself is revolutionary and could prove to be a useful model for other colleges and universities to build upon.

For those who are not well-versed in open-source’s history, the philosophy could be argued to have gone pop culture with Linux, a free-to-use and distribute operating system licensed under the GNU Public License. The idea of free software had existed long before Linus Torvald started working on his operating system but, from my uneducated viewpoint, that’s when it began to go mainstream. At present, Linux has become the dominant operating system for many of the internet’s web servers, and a popular distro called Ubuntu is rapidly gaining popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system. Unless the trend changes, and again from my viewpoint, open-source architecture will continue moving broadening its marketshare because of the speed at which intellectual property now moves across the internet, as well as the apparent mutual advantages to people who collaborate on open-source projects.

This change in scenery is also apparent with the rapid rise of Wikipedia, a system that encourages adapting and building upon intellectual material. Wikipedia, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, is “the free dictionary” where anyone can edit and improve upon its articles. It relies on the collective intelligence of the masses, something normally believed to be inferior to a professional editor. However, a recent study found the Encyclopaedia Britannica had just a small percentage less errors per article than the seven year-old Wikipedia. Considering Wikipedia now has 8.29 million articles in 253 languages compared to the Britannica’s 29 print volumes, it’s no stretch to say the writing is on the wall.

Open-source is a tricky concept to explain to people who have little to no experience with programming. For those beginners, the term “source” refers to the structure of commands which lie behind any digitally created object and “open” implies that the code is free to use and distribute. Take, for instance, the construction of an automobile. Most cars and trucks have, among other things, an engine, a drivetrain, and a way to control the vehicle, sometimes called the wheel, gas pedal, and brake. Those systems are parallel conceptually to code in the digital world because they are the means to an end. They determine the overall output of the product. When you apply open-source to a car or truck, this means that the parts, or information to create the parts, is to be freely used and distributed. If person B wants to improve upon person A’s automobile, they would be free to copy and adapt person A’s orginal designs. Of course, persons C and A could then have access to the adaptations as well. In fact, a system like the one illustrated is beginning to take place in China. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything documents how businessmen in China have opted to open-source the designs of their motorcycles to cut down on the costs associated with developing intellectual property. Working together is now becoming a very smart business decision.

In another example, this piece of writing is being published by the open-source blogging software WordPress, and some of its research has been done on Wikipedia. The list goes on.

Jumping the fence from open-sourcing intellectual property such as code and blueprints to the functional structure of an organization has only recently become possible; thanks for the ability to do this goes to the spreading ubiquity of the internet, and the brilliant tools some companies are building on top of it. An open-source organization is one which seeks to become completely transparent to the public, meaning that any or all of its processes are easily visible and adaptable.

With Whitman Direct Action, or at least initially, we hope to:

  • Podcast all and any of our staff meetings or phone calls
  • Transform the departamental update emails into blog posts, and encourage interstaff discussion in the form of comments
  • Make our financial strategies and budget freely available online
  • License applicable content through Creative Commons
  • Actively seek feedback from the community on any aspect of our organization, and make that conversation open to anyone

The driving philosophy, of course, is to make our organization “open-source” in the same sense of any software code: free to use, distribute, or modify.

4 thoughts on “Components of an open-source organization: Part one

  1. I think you make some amazing points here, Daniel!

    I was speaking with a friend who started a non-profit with the same ideals.

    One thing I might add to your list is something he mentioned to me: Making compact “toolkits” as you go in developing your own work. This has two benefits, 1) it forces you to refine the ideas for whatever you’re developing, because you have an “end user” in mind and 2) if anyone wants to build on your work, they already have a useful summary of what they need to do, instead of wading through too much information (like listening to every meeting podcast, for examples).

    Just some things to consider! :)

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