My background is in open source software, and I’ve been using and producing it for almost twenty years. Sometimes it’s easy to live in the open source bubble, and fail to notice that there are areas where open source software is not common or standard. Over the past few months, working on Growstuff, I’ve attended a number of events for social enterprises and sustainability, and checked out dozens of websites aimed at food gardeners or people trying to live more sustainable lives. Venturing outside my former bubble, I’ve found that open source software is the exception rather than the rule in these areas, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about why Growstuff is open source, and why we think it’s important.
It’d be traditional at this point to talk about what open source software is, and to give a quick definition. But open source is at least three things, and each needs its own explanation.
First of all, open source is a political movement that aims to change the power balance between software creators and software users. When you use traditional software, you have to take it as-is. If you don’t like it, you have few options. Software makers can change the software any way they like, charge you what they want for it, or withdraw their support for it at any time. You’re locked in an unequal relationship with them, where they hold all the power. Open source software gives power back to the users, letting them — us — understand how it works, use the software how we want, modify it if we need to, and access it regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or how rich we happen to be.
It does this through special software licenses. You’ve probably clicked “Accept” on a lot of software licenses in your time, and open source licenses are just like this, except that they offer you (as a software user) a bunch of rights, where other licenses typically take them away. An open source license says that you have the right to use the software for any purpose whatsoever. It says that you’re allowed to read the source code — the underlying program that makes the software run — and to change it if you need to, to suit your needs. It says that you can share the software freely, passing it on to friends or colleagues without having to pay license fees or worry that the software creator will come after you. In some cases (as in the license Growstuff uses) it says that if you modify the software and share it with others, you must use the same open source license, to make sure that people down the line have the same rights you do, and to share the love as widely as possible.
Finally, by changing the balance of power between software creators and users, and enshrining that greater equality in a formal document, we open ourselves up to a more collaborative way of working. Software creators and users are able to come together to build the software they need, and users can even contribute directly to the software itself, by modifying the source code and offering their changes back to the original creator. Over the years, open source software developers have learned all kinds of effective ways to work together as distributed, often international teams, and to engage their user communities in developing something that they really want to use and in which they feel a sense of ownership.
So what’s this got to do with social enterprise, sustainability, and Growstuff? In my mind, open source, sustainability, and social enterprise are closely intertwined, to the point where I feel that choosing open source is a vital part of the whole picture.
When we talk about social enterprises — businesses that hope to achieve a social good through their business activities — we seldom look at their software practices. But the choice of software to use, or decision to develop software under a closed or open model, has a social impact, just as do the choice of environmentally friendly materials for physical manufacturing, or the decision to employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We expect social enterprises to follow ethical business practices; why not expect them to follow software practices that support equal access, transparency, and accountability?
When it comes to sustainability, it’s about more than changing your light bulbs or using a fancy water bottle. Sustainability’s about developing communities and ways of living and working that can survive and thrive in the long term. Open source is a sustainable way of building software. If a company that writes closed software goes under, the software dies with it, but an open source software project can live long beyond the people or institutions that started it. Since there’s a broad community of people familiar with the software, who know how to read and modify its source code, new developers can step up. An open source project is one that builds community and resilience against all kinds of change: exactly what sustainability is about!
These are the reasons why we think it’s important that Growstuff be open source. We want to work openly and ethically, in collaboration with our members, building a community that feels a sense of ownership and deep involvement in the software that runs our website. We want other projects, especially those working in similar areas, to be able to look at what we’re doing and learn from us, through reading or re-using our source code. We want to know that if something happens to Growstuff itself, a new Growstuff — or a hundred new Growstuffs — could sprout up, and that people could continue to benefit from what we’ve built far into the future.
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