The World Needs Open Source [Ruth Cheesley] a review by Victoria Holland

Victoria Holland

I really enjoyed my day at NorDevCon and feel that I learnt a great deal. One session I found particularly inspiring was “The World Needs Open Source”, by Ruth Cheesley, who runs Virya Technologies in Suffolk. Virya Technologies is a web development company specialising in the use of open source technologies, with Joomla being the main CMS they use.

Ruth started by outlining the 4 freedoms offered by open source technology, as defined by Richard Stallman, an American software freedom activist and programmer. Briefly, these are the freedom to run the program for any purpose, the freedom to study how it works and to change it, the freedom to distribute copies so you can help your neighbour, and the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this. A program is free software if it gives users all of these freedoms.

Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”.

Some open source licences are more restrictive than others, either from users’ or developers’ point of view. For example, GPL (GNU General Public Licence) offers a lot of freedom to end-users of software, but less to the developer. This is because when a developer modifies GPL software, the changes must also be released under GPL – it is not permissible to use the code in any proprietary software.

Ruth gave a few examples of how open source is used outside the IT industry, in places where you would least expect it. The first example was open source drug development. For instance, Dr Jay Bradner carries out research into treatments for cancer. With researchers across the globe working together, progress was made more rapidly compared to traditional methods of pharmaceutical research. In the end, the molecule Dr Bradner discovered was not suitable for treating cancer but it was found to be helpful for male fertility. This progress was made in just one year, whereas it would usually take several years or even decades to achieve the same headway with traditional closed research methods.

The second example Ruth gave was open source architecture. The Open Architecture Network was set up by the charity Architecture for Humanity, and describes itself as an “open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design.” The website is free to use, and the aim of the network is to allow architects, designers, innovators and community leaders to share their ideas, designs and plans. They have almost 45,000 members around the world and were the first organisation to utilise the Creative Commons licensing system on a physical structure.

One interesting example of Architecture for Humanity’s work is the Kenaf Clinic. The idea involves planting a circle of fast-growing kenaf in an HIV/AIDS stricken area of Africa, and when doctors visit they mow out the middle and put an easy tensile structure on top. The advantages are that the doctors don’t have to bring their own building, and when they leave, the local residents cut down and eat the kenaf.

The third example of open source being used in wider society is in law and government. Under the open legislation system in New York, laws are published on GitHub where citizens can search for laws that interest them and instantly view any changes. People can also ask questions and start discussions. In Germany, the Mayor of Munich switched the whole city council to open source technology (abandoning Windows and Microsoft Office in favour of Linux and OpenOffice), saving €4m in the first year alone.

A member of the audience raised a concern about whether open source software is as secure as proprietary programs, saying that as the source is available to everyone, someone with bad intentions could hide malicious code within it. Other audience members responded that the openness can actually add an extra layer of security, since other developers would be able to spot any problems.

Ruth wrapped up the session by saying that in a truly open society, transparency needs to flow both ways. The main learning point I took away from this interesting talk is that open source principles are now being used more extensively outside IT.

Overall, I had a great time at NorDevCon and I’ll definitely be back next year!

Words: Victoria Holland

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