Open Source Open Society
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Few conferences range as wide as the Open Source Open Society 2015 event held in Wellington last week. The material was surprisingly accessible to non-specialists considering this was a two-day event that filled the Michael Fowler Centre with software developers.

Dance between freedom and responsibility
Artists painted slogans and images over the glasswork around the Michael Fowler Centre

You can read more about #OSOS2015 sessions elsewhere, here are ten lessons that don’t fit into the conventional story structure:

1. Modern tech innovation follows the same path as the textile industry at the start of the industrial revolution in Britain.

“Join me in the C18th to remind ourselves about some of the things that haven’t gone so well”

In a talk explaining why the idea of a commons exists, Craig Ambrose from Enspiral Craftworks traced the history of the weaving industry. He says the inventors used patents as instruments of control as well as a way to earn money.

Things didn’t go too well for society in the wake of the industrial revolution. The message from Ambrose is that if you want to understand what a lack of openness might mean today, take a look at the consequences two hundred years ago. He did this with mentioning the word Dickensian, so I’ll just leave it here for you.

2. Good open source is like a marae

Chris Cormack - Catalyst IT
Chris Cormack – Catalyst IT

Chris Cormack draws parallels between the ideas of open source and his Māori culture. He says negotiations take a long time in that culture because Māori believe listening to what others say is as important as telling them what you want. He says you don’t have to agree with what they say, but you do have to respect it.

3. “When we nurture the commons together we all win”

OSOS conference
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Billy Meinke from Hawaii says there’s power in the idea of a commons, but it’s increasingly hard to get the gains because of patents and copyright laws. He says that needs changing.

4. Moving away from patents put the US motor on its growth trajectory

Brandon Keepers - GitHub
Brandon Keepers – GitHub

GitHub’s Brandon Keepers calls it the auto-industry, but we know what he meant. Things didn’t take off until car makers ignored existing patents, once that happened there was no stopping the likes of Henry Ford.

It’s a powerful argument against software patents and other brakes on innovation. Keepers’ says Henry Ford and others built the giant US car industry on openness. The same idea could see technology reach even greater heights.

5. As is so often the case at a conference, some of the best sessions weren’t scheduled sessions.

Open Source Open Society 2015 did a great job of recognising participant interaction and discussion can be every bit as powerful as speakers on a stage. The messages painted on the walls were part of this, so was the innovative idea of embedding Massey University students to listen and report conversations, comments and so on in the #overheard at #OSOS2015 by @cocamassey thread.

#Overheard
#Overheard

6. The word open doesn’t necessarily make participation easy

Lillian Grace - Wiki New Zealand
Lillian Grace – Wiki New Zealand

Lillian Grace from Wiki New Zealand stood on stage to point out something many feel: The open source world is intimidation to many people on the outside. She poses a challenge to make it more understandable and to learn to talk in the language of ordinary people.

7. New Zealand’s government is one of the most open

Keith Booth - NZ Open Government Data Programme
Keitha Booth – NZ Open Government Data Programme

Keitha Booth from the NZ Open Government Data Programme says we often hear that closed is the default position for government data, but she says that’s not right: it’s open.  New Zealand rates as number four out of 86 countries when measured on openness.

8. “If open source is for everyone, it should look like anyone”

Jessica Lord - GitHub
Jessica Lord – GitHub

GitHub’s Jessica Lord came up with the defining quote of the two-day conference.

9. Open source culture isn’t all sweetness and light

Chris Kelly - GitHub
Chris Kelly – GitHub

There’s a dark underside to open source culture. Chris Kelly from GitHub says because anyone can take part in open source, the door is open to assholes (he’s American, I’d prefer to say arseholes). That includes bullying white men with a sense of entitlement. Things often end up argumentative.

He says this culture can frighten off outsiders, only a few women coders work in open source and the movement is missing out on the benefits of diversity. There’s a clear need to deal with this and to improve communications between people working in open source.

10. People need help finding their way

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams — Ideaction

A powerful metaphor about open source and the way knowledge passes between people came from Michelle Williams who wrapped up the conference. She says when she first went to Wellington she heard the city was full of great bars and cafes, but when she wandered around the places she found were average. “It wasn’t until someone showed me that I realised the had great coffee and beer”.

Linux Today Australia

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I worked for Australian Linux Today. At that time open source was a vibrant, yet immature, market.

Visiting the Open Source Open Society 2015 conference in Wellington this week was like watching someone else’s child who you knew as a smart but awkward teenager, transformed into a smart, professional adult.

Open source grew up.

Linux didn’t dominate

When I was writing daily about Linux, the operating system and apps were already hard at work in data centres, on servers and on high-end workstations.

The IT market was still moving away from a model where servers came with an expensive to buy and expensive to support operating system linked to the hardware maker.

Some of those OSes were fully proprietary. Others were versions of Unix although they often had proprietary branding and non-open components.

Much of my writing centred on asking how people and companies could make a living from the new model. We all knew that money could be made from selling services, but that didn’t look like enough revenue to sustain technology companies and jobs.[1]

So the open source crowd spent a lot of time trying to create related products, usually apps, that they could charge money for.

Desktop Linux proved a diversion

There was something else going on. The open source movement looked to displace Microsoft on the PC desktop. Linux set out to challenge Windows and open source apps jockeyed to capture share away from the likes of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and MYOB.

In one sense the PC open source explosion never happened. In part that was because Microsoft changed tack to see off the threat. Among other things the price of desktop apps fell. The commercial software developers bundled more value into their products and attempted to shorten the time between releases.

Most of all, they had to sharpen their act. That meant creating cleaner, more robust applications. It was about this time the overall reliability of everything PC related switched from not-acceptable to not-all-that bad.[2]

Open source everywhere

There are still hold outs who use desktop Linux. I thought I might see some at Open Source Open Society 2015. In the event I think I briefly glimpsed something that resemlbed a desktop version of Linux, but in truth the conference was dominated by devices sporting the Apple logo.

That last sentence would have enraged the open source community in 2000. Today there’s little of that kind of sensitivity.

And anyway, Apple’s OS X is, like Linux, a Unix operating system. Large parts of OS X are open source.

Android

Android is the other operating system widely seen at the OSOS2015 event. While there’s some debate about the relationship between Google, Android and open source, at core the phone operating system is fully open. You could grab the source code and create your own Android fork.

Even Microsoft and Windows have embraced open ideas in many ways since 2000.

Sure, it’s not perfect. There are question marks, but while open source never won a pitched battle against proprietary software to conquer the PC desktop, open source DNA is everywhere you look.

Open source economics

Perhaps the most grown-up thing about today’s open source is that businesses have learnt how to use it to make money. This was mentioned briefly by Catalyst IT founder Don Christie in the session on when to choose open or closed source software.

Open source companies make money from wrapping services around free software. It’s not as much money as selling popular proprietary software. Services don’t scale as quickly as a runaway hit app.

Selling services doesn’t subsidise as many overblown long lunches. Nor does it require as many well-paid salespeople. On the other hand, because many services are charged by the hour, it does mean plenty of good jobs for people with the right skills.


  1. This turned out to be the case, the economic changes of moving from proprietary to open were devastating for most companies. Many didn’t make it. On the other hand, the possible death of moving to open source trumped the certain death of not moving.  ↩
  2. In hindsight, it’s easy to forget just how flaky most software was at the time. It was also before auto-saving was perfected so crashes that lost a whole day’s work were not unknown.  ↩

Technology is the easy part of building an open society. Dealing with the human side of the problem is much tougher.

Social enterprise expert Kate Beecroft moderated a panel at Open Source Open Society looking at how open data can lead to a more open style of government.

Laura O’Connell Rapira, campaigns director at ActionStation, says she hasn’t seen any examples of how this culture of openness might work at a national level, but saw the effect of how Vancouver council had an online project allowing people to make suggestions. She says this has brought about cultural changes.

Bene Anderson who works for New Zealand’s  Department of Internal Affairs says: “There’s more to open government than being able to access data”.

GitHub head of open government Ben Balter says open source is all about communities: “It’s more than accessibility, it’s about working together”. He made a pitch for GitHub in this context describing it as a “social network for developers, if you subscribe to GitHub you become part of the community”.

Silverstripe’s Cam Findlay says: “I’d love to see government policy creation done out in the open. That requires having the information out there in the first place.”

Findlay talks about two types of openness: reflective and participatory. Participatory openness is when people are encouraged to speak out, to voice an opinion. That’s good, but it means nothing if those voices are not being heard.

Reflective openness is when organisations take time to listen, then understand what is said. For anything to be fully open, both types of openness are necessary.

Open data everything?

So should a government open source everything?

Anderson thinks not. He says only things that benefit society should be opened up.

That leaves the question of who gets to decide what data may or may not benefit society. And it’s not always immediately obvious which data has value to people outside government. In some cases that doesn’t become clear until the data is out in the open.

Anderson goes on to talk about the need for information to be classified on the amount of damage it can do. Anything that can harm businesses or people needs to be kept out of sight — presumably that doesn’t apply when businesses or people are harming others.

Some information should be kept out of public view. Balter points out, it might not be a good idea for the US government to make the nuclear missile launch codes publicly available. On the other hand, he says you can’t have a firewall with a cold war style regime on the inside and publicly available information outside the firewall.

hackathon

A breakout session at Open Source Open Society 2015 lead by GovHackNZ organiser Mike Riversdale gave participants a quick taste of what to expect from a hackathon.

Government hackathons are now regular events in New Zealand and Australia. There are plans to hold them this year in Auckland, Wellington, Whangarei and Dunedin.

Riversdale says despite the name the events are not about hacking government systems but are “a clever solution to a tricky problem”. They are not just central government data, also local and regional government.

He says there are five elements to organising a GovHack NZ event:

  1. You need to start by naming a time and place or people won’t turn up.
  2. Next you need a logo. Riversdale says this a home for stuff, it leads naturally to a website and provides a rallying point for a community so you can do stuff.
  3. There needs to be a purpose. This is naturally wide-ranging and therefore is likely to sound bland. The planned Wellington July GovHack it is: “Do stuff with government data structured around life events”. Life events is the wide-ranging them. beneath that there will be streams such as “leaving school”, “getting a first job” or “becoming a parent”.
  4. You need to get people along. Not just developers but a range of people. Riversdale says: “At Wellington he hopes to get non-geeks; creative people, film makers, subject matter experts, people who need to come along who say ‘that life event, I know all about that’”.
  5. You also need a suitable  venue. GovHackNZ has snared the bottom floor of the MBIE building to host its Wellington event.

Riversdale also says you need mentors on hand. This can mean people who understand the data, the issues or the tool set.

Hackathon participant bring their own tools with them. He says: “Typically they bring their own laptops. There will be internet, food and water and data.”

OS__OS - Hackathons

It’s common to inject an element of competition into an event. This might involve splitting people into teams and letting them create something. One approach would mean taking photos of their output, getting people to vote on the various entries and hand out prizes.

A hackathon gets under way in earnest when someone says: “I think I have an idea….”.

At this stage people form into teams around the ideas. People can choose their own teams — some pre-arranged teams turn up at these events.

At the Open Source Open Society 2015 conference, Riversdale organised a sample 40-minute exercise compressing what would normally be two day or two days and one evening process.

During the exercise people appeared to stick with the teams on their tables. It’s common for people to arrive at GovHack as a pre-formed team.

He says serendipity is an important part of hackathons: “People can get caught up with their ideas. They say ‘I can’t believe anyone hasn’t thought of that before’. Often someone else has. There’s a danger teams at the event are embarking on similar projects.”

Often this is fixed just by people moving between teams and chatting to each other. If not, the facilitator will try what Riversdale calls ‘forced serendipity’. At the run-through he asked people to get up and move between tables to find out what is happening elsewhere.

“At the end of day one, we have to tell people to stop. That can be three or four-ish on Saturday. It can be later in the evening. Often people head off to the pub at this point. What’s important is to stop thinking about the problem and have a sleep”, he says.

When people come back on Sunday morning, people have often had breakthroughs overnight and get back into it.

Wrapping up is an important stage. Riversdale says you have to leave enough time for people to evaluate the output. Attendees need to tidy up afterwards, thank the sponsors and organise follow-ups.

Don Christie - Brandon Keepers

Open source has many advantages, but it isn’t always the right approach. At the Open Source Open Society 2025 conference in Wellington delegates discussed when projects should be closed and when open is best.

…it all depends on the circumstances

GitHub head of open source Brandon Keepers says: “In an ideal world everything would be open source, but that’s not always the case”.

When Open Source is not the best choice

He says at GitHub there are three cases when it is better to stay closed:

  • If it makes money. Remember that money can be used to finance open projects.
  • When it is specific to internal business processes.
  • When you can’t expect to maintain the project in the long-term.

Eventually many of these cases will be brought into the commons.

As an example of this, he says GitHub’s billion code has not been released as an open project. The thinking here is that making it open wouldn’t make the code any better.

Coding not difficult

Catalyst IT founder Don Christie says one argument in favour of open is that coding isn’t difficult.

Most of the time that means others can quickly replicate closed software. He says: “They are going to replicate it anyway. It can be better to make it open source and get the benefits of better code.”

Another argument for keeping projects open is that there is less money in keeping them closed. Christie says: “80 percent of the value in information technology is in services. About 90 percent of New Zealand’s IT exports are in services — that’s despite all the attention given to products.”

Christie says open source also acts as a hiring strategy.