Open source reporting on projects

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to travel again with Green Empowerment and check out the water project in progress in the community of Suro Antivo. Through a combination of municipal and foundation funds, the small collection of houses is finally going to receive safe and reliable water access to their households. To date, most families have to get their water from unimproved sources. There are two tanks being built, and one being refurbished, which will supply water to each house through a gravity-fed system:

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Open source organization, Uganda-style

As it turns out, I don’t believe I’m the only person in the world to have conceived the concept of an open source organization. Earlier this week, my friend Isaac Holeman pointed me to an article on the Guardian about a development project in Katine, Uganda the paper is trying to open up to the world. By open, they mean having significant media coverage of the entire project, including finances and the decision making process. The project goals include water, health, education, livelihood, and governance. 

My quick analysis is two words: too big. While I commend the transparency, I think most observers are interested in getting involved with the project beyond simply donating. Those running the project, or at least the component of the project involved with getting information online, should view themselves as community managers, and not just information providers. The transparency underlying the project creates amazing potential for the project website to be a platform for collaboration. There’s still a lot of work that can be done.

Introducing CoPress

One of the rather positive outcomes of my case against College Publisher from a few weeks back has been the formation of a diverse group of people around a new project to provide an alternative: CoPress. A product of the sudden realization that many online editors across the country have many of the same opinions I do, CoPress is an initiative to build a technical eco-system of student newspapers working together and supporting each other on a common, open source content management system. Until this point, it has been largely the case that, when building and maintaining digital platforms, student newspapers have found only success on their own, with their own developers, creativity, and fortitude.

We hope to change things up. 

Together we have strength. I think I can speak for everyone involved when I say that the collective vision of CoPress emphasizes the community, and how the community can work in harmony. Innovative, standards-compliant software is one immediate issue we’re trying to solve, but it isn’t the only one. Brian Murley, of the Center for Innovation in College Media, forwards that hosting is also an issue. From that discussion, we’ve also learned that supporting a piece of software with the technical expertise to keep it updated is critical. These problems will have to be addressed in order for any student newspaper to survive. It’s more powerful to work together than individually. We’re not profit driven, although the consortium will need to be financially sustainable. We’re driven by a genuine interest to work together because, when we do, we can create beautiful ways for student newspapers to flourish in the digital age. 

In the interest of radical collaborative openness, we’re doing as many things as transparently as possible. The motivation for this comes from a concept I call an “open source organization,” although I’m well aware “open source” has become a buzzword for many recent projects. It started with Whitman Direct Action, I’m evolving it with Oregon Direct Action, and I think is applicable here, too. The idea is simple: put all of the data about what you’re doing online, and structure the data such that your audience, let it be the team, the partners, or the community, can follow along to the degree they would like to participate. Clay Shirky says we have a lot of cognitive surplus floating around. It’s time we put it to use.

Our conference calls are recorded and available as a MP3 download, with near future plans to create a podcast that will make listening in even easier. We synthesize research and coordinate efforts on our wiki. Information is also expressed with Twitter, delicious, and Flickr. We connect via a Google Group and, if you don’t find a piece of information you need, you’re more than welcome to contact CoPress.

At the moment, we’re working on a few things. First, we’re beginning to research the software options we’re most interested in: WordPress, Drupal, and the Populous Project (built on Django). CoPress would love to support the Populous Project, another student project, and eagerly awaits their alpha release in the coming weeks. WordPress and Drupal, however, have deployability and hackability characteristics that will be hard to match. Second, we’re compiling the names of online editors, webmasters, and internet geeks at student newspapers around the country who might have interest in what CoPress will have to offer. From this, our hope is to do a series of surveys gauging the technical expertise in today’s newsroom. We want to make sure as best we can that we’re serving the needs of everyone, not just ourselves. Last but not least, we’re continually evolving our web presence as a tool to help better achieve our aims.

And this is just the beginning. Thanks to Adam Hemphill, Greg Linch, Kevin Koehler, Joey Baker, Bryan Murley, Jared Silfies, Albert Sun, the Populous Team, and anyone I’ve missed. I look forward to working closely with you and others in the coming months to make all of these ideas and more our collective reality.

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.