Community, Philanthropy and Free & Open Resources
Written by Gautam John, CEO — Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
“Open source”, as we understand it today, began as a slow, iterative movement over the past two decades in software development that defined how software was built, maintained and deployed. Software was seen as a tool with significant social reach when shared freely. Open source refers to ‘source code’, the core of computer applications and programmes. Contrary to proprietary models that maintained exclusive control over who could use or modify code, open source code was built to be available for modification, inspection, enhancement and derivation.
By design, open source was to promote collaboration and sharing, permitting others to participate in using, modifying and incorporating it into their work. The result was a virtuous circle of collective learning and innovation that propelled the software industry forward.
Open code. Open everything
Open source software found wide adoption because it was cheaper to build software with free code and collaboration, helping amplify and distribute it across various uses. Being open for customisation to others with rules and permissions for modification allowed people to gain knowledge of software and participate in building technology. Open source slowly gained traction in the business world as the practical benefits of free software merged with the world of commerce, layered with licenses and permissibility for sharing and redistribution. In many ways, our modern world is built on these ideas — open-source technologies power websites throughout the internet, from Microsoft Windows to Facebook to Google. Community-mediated open source movements like Wikipedia depend on thousands of invisible volunteers working on code, content and governance, making the site one of the most trusted information sources on the web. In the words of Nadia Eghbal, our society would not be where it is today if the software had not been made accessible.
The same collaborative, social and collective model of building that made open-source code so successful is now being applied to other areas such as hardware, medicine, food and fashion. In addition, open-source movements can be seen as a response to the increased concentration of market power and the state’s retreat from creating public goods.
Over the years, open-source thinking has become a system of values and principles extending beyond software. It is a powerful idea that breaks down walls and enables everyone to share what they know and build without limitations of cost or friction of permissions. As an attitude, it is a willingness to share and collaborate and to play an active role in contributing to the public by giving people access and involving a community. Open source communities are a vital component of the open-source movement. Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar Cathedral posits a core tenet of the open-source universe: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”. In other words, when many people access the code, bugs are fixed much faster. The open source model provides a structure for everyone to contribute and work together towards common goals while building for diverse contexts. The result is a more rapid pace of innovation, as seen in the success of many collaborative projects like Linux, Firefox and Android.
The open-source movement has been successful because it provides an alternative to the traditional development model driven by commercial interests. Instead, it is a model based on sharing, collaboration and community involvement.
Philanthropy and Public Goods
We have seen how communities and the open-source movement go hand in hand. They work well because they understand the collective power of working together toward a common goal, whether knowledge, code or change.
As a philanthropy, we have held that the underlying idea of “openness” offers an opportunity to creatively harness energy and interest across ecosystems to create public value by addressing societal challenges innovatively.
It is an emerging form of collaboration that can multiply our efforts with civil society organisations and change makers. This is because we believe that philanthropic capital comes with a moral responsibility toward the public good. Therefore, any knowledge, information or digital resource created by philanthropic capital should be available as a valuable societal resource for public use.
The rise of the open-source movement is a response to the failures of closed, exclusive systems. It is a way of re-imagining how we can work together to create value for everyone. As philanthropies, we are responsible for supporting these movements and communities working for the public good. We can do this by funding support, infrastructure and tooling.
The utility of open public resources and digital public goods makes for a thriving ecosystem beyond any individual organisation or mission alone. This enables changemakers to reuse, build on and repurpose resources for their missions beyond their intended reach and use. As the Shuttleworth Foundation says, “the spirit of openness infuses the nature of collaboration. Combining openly licensed intellectual property with open practises enables and encourages others to experiment in their environments, localise, contextualise, translate, adapt and spread the tools and methodologies we are developing well beyond our reach and imagination”.
Pillars of Openness
We believe in four necessary ingredients of openness.
- First, intellectual openness in seeing the resources created as public goods is aligned with the necessity of such openness, in which organisations do not require permission as a prerequisite for reuse.
- Second, technical openness in adhering to common standards without using proprietary formats that preclude access.
- Third, legal openness ensures resources are legally licensed for all use and adaptation, whether commercial or not.
- Finally, financial openness provides that access comes at no cost. And if at all, that is no more than a reasonable reproduction cost.
If resources such as data, code, processes, information or knowledge are public goods, we ensure that time and resource-intensive processes begin to be helpful at a grander scale. Leveraging these resources can create a multiplier effect, and enabling free, open and unrestricted access to such resources can empower other changemakers in their missions. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation says, “…the free, immediate and unrestricted access to research will accelerate innovation, helping to reduce global inequity and empower the world’s poorest people to transform their own lives”.
Code. Communities. Collaboration
Like public infrastructure, digital infrastructure built on openness requires community engagement to maintain it. While one part of the work is creating resources like roads and bridges (Eghbal), the other is maintaining and preserving the resources. “Technology implies code and data but relies on humans to create it, engage with it, and face the consequences.” .
It is not just about the technology or the data but also how we work together. We need to embrace a culture of openness, collaboration and community involvement.
While it is often assumed that open source code or even Wikipedia’s modular structure of the content is managed by a large community of volunteers collaborating at scale in a spirit of community, research demonstrates that it is often a core group of volunteers who operate and maintain a majority of systems, often leading alone. Additionally, demand is outpacing production in a rapidly expanding technological world where “as much as 97% of the code in modern web applications originate from these public repositories”. A core thesis of Nadia Eghbal’s work tells us that open source software projects do not have zero marginal cost, and the scaffolding and maintenance of open source can be expensive even if the product is free to distribute, with a significant load falling to individuals. This is an unseen cost. Eghbal explains in her book, Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, that “[she] learned that [initiatives to bring on more contributors] caused them to seize with anxiety because such initiatives often attract low-quality contributions. This creates more work for maintainers — all contributions, after all, must be reviewed before they are accepted. Furthermore, maintainers frequently lack the infrastructure to bring these contributors into a “contributor economy”; in many cases, there is no community behind the project, only individual efforts”.
Eghbal’s work reveals that even when we think about openness and community in technology and data, we need to consider the human side of things. It is not just about the code or the data but also how we work together. We need to embrace a culture of openness, collaboration and community involvement.
What are the current limitations?
While the tendency towards openness creates a democratic process uninfluenced by funding or ideological positions, often in the interest of creative pursuit and transparency for its own sake, this model has no clear owners or legal structure. Usually, only the well-resourced can contribute for free, and the open source space is not representative of all geographies and social groups. And those creators and maintainers at work are under-resourced and over-stretched, given their importance to critical public infrastructure; these projects and communities need to be supported too.
Supporting the Invisible Costs of Open
While markets have strong financial incentives to leverage and contribute to open source work and governments have public accountability and trust reasons to work within an open-source framework, we hold that the role of civil society goes beyond the simple idea that code and content funded by public or philanthropic capital need to be publicly available. Instead, we hold that the community around any open source project is what makes these efforts a reality. It is towards sustaining and supporting these communities that our actions ought to embrace as well.
A healthy community has individuals with different skill sets and backgrounds that can work together to make something bigger than themselves. A strong community welcomes newcomers and helps them to get involved. It is also a safe place to experiment, learn from mistakes, and a supportive community knows how to have difficult conversations and make decisions.
As funders, we can empower civil society organisations with the resources and expertise necessary to adopt a public interest framework for technology and resources. We can help create public interest in technology by facilitating the openness of information sharing and an inclusive and accountable framework that brings expertise to technology, changemakers, civil society, philanthropy, the government and the market. If processes begin to design a community-centric creation of public goods, it is possible to bring the practices of openness to an equitable and just framework. By demonstrating what is possible, we can lead public-oriented projects, organisations and approaches to research and digital infrastructure while building bridges across sectors, supporting the participation in the communities of collaboration and co-creation.
We are at a moment where we can work together to write a new chapter for the open source community and digital public goods — one that is more representative, diverse and inclusive. But to do so, we need to centre the role of community. Only then can we create an “open” future that works for everyone.
Updated 29th January 2023: This piece by Dimitri Glazkov titled “Degrees of Open Source” makes articulates a useful spectrum of open source projects based on three veils — the “what” veil, the “how” veil, and the “why”. The “what” veil represents the final product, the “how” veil represents how the source code is written, and the “why” veil represents the reasoning behind the project.
 Knight, Katy, and Laura Maher. “How Funders Can Help Fill Critical Gaps in Technology for Social Good.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2022. https://doi.org/10.48558/92K4-M514.