Open Wide

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This past week, Microsoft threw some of its weight into the Open Source software economy. Mary-Jo Foley reports on ZDNet:

A new, non-profit open-source foundation — one dedicated to increasing the participation of commercial-source vendors in the open-source world — is being unveiled on September 10. Microsoft is providing the initial funding and is a founding member of the new group, known as the CodePlex Foundation....

...While the CodePlex Foundation shares a similar name with Microsoft’s source-code repository-hosting site, CodePlex.org, the two are not merging. According to a FAQ on the Foundation’s site:

Microsoft’s “CodePlex.com launched in June of 2006 out of a need for a project hosting site that operated in a way that other forges didn’t – with features and structures that appealed to commercial software developers. The next chapter in solving for this challenge is the CodePlex Foundation (Codeplex.org). The Foundation is solving similar challenges; ultimately aiming to bring open source and commercial software developers together in a place where they can collaborate. This is absolutely independent from the project hosting site, but it is essentially trying to support the same mission.”

If you're skeptical, you are not alone.

(MIT's Technology Review magazine has an interesting article on open source Linux vs Microsoft. I'd share a snippet, but it's, um, not open.)

This news comes the same week it was learned that Apple open sourced Snow Leopard's Grand Central Dispatch. Other companies like Google have also supported Open Source technologies to varying degrees.

Open Source is something of a new thing in most realms. But in principle, the concepts behind it have been around for centuries — in scientific research (before the modern proliferation of patents galore), for example, and in the practice of law (where laws and legal cases are there to be reviewed by anybody). But in many areas today, open source approaches take us out of our comfort zone.

But that's not preventing open source endeavors in all kinds of areas. Ivanka Majic writes on Balkan Witch

:

This week's edition of the IET magazine is The Open Source Issue. The arrival of my weekly magazine seemed to coincide beautifully with @leisa tweeting the question: "Why does open source matter"

In the magazine we have: open source biotechnology, open source cars, open source phones and the story of how AQA (a UK examination board) went open source.

"Open source biotech?", I hear you ask yourselves. Well, yes, I did wonder.

A designer on the (open source) Ubuntu Linux project, Ivanka Majic writes:

In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of open source principals is that open source represents the unencumbered flow of ideas. Imagine where the world might be if the first person to work out how to light a fire had done it in secret.

A close second is the idea that lots of brains working on the same problem is a good thing. Very few individuals are great enough to to be brilliant in isolation....

...Open source may not be the answer to all the world’s woes but it provides a framework for a freedom to collaborate on solving problems that affect all of us.

Open source efforts can be extremely challenging, not only because they often disrupt existing power centers — market leaders in business, power-wielders in government, and so on — but also because they are still led by people, and these people are usually in very loosely structured organizations ... if there's any organization at all.

In writing about the particular challenge of designing for Open Source projects (and Drupal, specifically), Leisa Reichelt writes in Johnny Holland magazine

:

Ah, communities. There are so many things mixed up in being a community that make communication challenging. There’s the fine line they walk between passion and hostility. There’s the ‘pecking order’ - earning your stripes, needing to be seen to know your stuff and be an expert. There’s group think, mob mentality, team spirit. There’s the imbalance that comes from the difference between the people who choose to post and those who choose to watch. There’s history - pages and pages and pages of history. Threads and issues opened and closed and reopened and reclosed.

It is complex stuff, it is easy to inflame, and incredibly difficult to predict.

Human dynamics. Now I want to say "Open source is people" but that makes me giggle.

And yet we push on.

And what about open sourcing government? The Open Voting Consortium is waging a vastly underfunded and largely unknown effort to open source voting machines and open up the voting process to public scrutiny. Their goals are for a voting system that:

Stops Secrecy in Vote Tabulation: OVC has a team of scientists ready to program computer software for voting machines and electoral tabulation that would be publicly owned or open source. Open source software could be checked by any party or group by hiring a capable computer programmer.

Provides Paper Trail: The OVC recommended procedure for tabulating elections relies on a paper ballot that is then fed through a scanner into a locked ballot box so that all originals are saved in case of the need for a recount or audit (See Sample Ballot).

Scientifically Verifiable: In addition to open source voting machine and tabulation software, the Open Voting Consortium is also working on a database checklist for standard practices in vote tabulation that would assure transparency and accountability. Some aspects of the OVC concept will soon be enfolded into California legislation.

Saves Money: Typical voting machines cost between $2,000 and $3,000, but OVC open source software could be run on any personal computer (PC) and ballots could be printed on a normal printer. OVC envisions PCs with tamper-proof cases as the new voting terminals at a savings of hundreds or thousands of dollars per terminal.(See page on OVC Cost Analysis).

Multi-lingual, Handicap Accessible, and Ready for Non-Traditional Voting: Unlike most voting machines and systems, the OVC system can be easily adapted for ballots in multiple languages. The OVC system also provides for the capability for sight impaired or blind voters to have their votes played back to them through headphones at the ballot box. Old voting machines and systems can't accommodate non-traditional elections like proportional representation, but these changes could be easily accommodated with the OVC system.

The Obama Administration is also making some strides in opening up the government — records, making more rulings, actions, budgets and the like open for public examination — and embracing open source software as a resource in that endeavor.

Last week there was the Gov 2.0 conference. On Thursday, Nancy Scola reports:

Carl Malamud, that clarion of the open public records movement, won a standing ovation for a spirited address to the Gov 2.0 Summit earlier today. What brought the crowd to its feet was Malamud's call to "open source America's operating system" -- in other words, pulling back the curtain on the legal code by which our country runs. You have to imagine that at least part of the reason Malamud got such a strong reception is that, amid the strong but often sometimes ungrounded principles that mark the "Gov 2.0" field, Malamud has refined a detailed, tangible vision of what nirvana looks like to him. He has goals, and he has worked out ways to achieve them. In that spirit, Malamud wrapped his speech this morning with a set of core ideas that blend an activist's passion for participatory politics with a programmer's eye for how to work out the bugs that plague our legal system. Cribbed from his talk, here are Malamud's three central themes.

One, If there's a document that the government produces, inspires, or commissions that has the force of law, then the public has to be able to see it. If that seems obvious, it's not a given. There are fees for access to some court records, and in some jurisdictions statute is treated as proprietary. The bad part there, says Malamud, is that if courts don't open themselves, others will. And that has the effect of fuzzying the authenticity that the courts should see as their duty to keep clear. (One such project by "outsiders" to open the courts: Recap, a Firefox plug-in that adds a layer of transparency and access to the federal judiciary's PACER system.)

Two, if a meeting shapes law, then it must be public. And in 2009, "public" must mean online. After reaching a high-water mark a short while back, Congress has reverted to only half-heartedly posting hearings online -- often fuzzy and choppy webcasts that aren't even archived once they've finished. Again, not giving the public its rightful access has the undesirable effect of delegitimizing the institution.

And three, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in his role as chief administrative office of the judicial branch and the President in his role as the head of the executive branch should lead a top-down reform push throughout the U.S. that creates the expectation that America's legal code and court system should be, at all times, knowable to the people who live within its bounds.

BlogHer Tech & Web Contributing Editor Laura Scott blogs at rare pattern and pingVision. She is a web designer and developer working in open source, and is a member of the Drupal Association General Assembly.

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