Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Unlocking the Potential of Open-Source

Community building is fundamentally about the belief that local problems can be and are best solved at the local level by local stakeholders. The experience and relationships of local communities drives the identification of solutions that are likely to work for local problems. Combined with local, regional, and national resources, these solutions are implemented and supported by the people with the largest stake in seeing the problem solved.

What if we were to apply this philosophy to technology development in nonprofit/nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)? Already, nonprofit organizations are building technology to support their needs. Organizations like the Fast Forward Neighborhood Technology Center have built databases with national resources to help other CTCs improve their internal operations. Project Open Hand in San Francisco has built a custom database to manage their delivery of over 400 meals per day to people living with HIV & AIDS.

Local technology solutions are being created to solve local technology problems. This is fundamentally different from the concept of traditional software development where an entrepreneur builds a piece of technology for CTCs or HIV/AIDs meal providers because they expect to realize a profit on the sale of that technology.

Open Source principles and practices allow the principles of community building to be applied to technology development in the nonprofit sector. The key principles are licensing, distribution, and community.

Þ Distribution refers to the availability of software—can I download it or get it via other means? Open source allows easy access to software usually via the web.
Þ Licensing refers to who has the legal right to use, modify, and distribute a piece of software. An open source license allows people to use, modify and redistribute software freely.
Þ Community refers to the ongoing group of stakeholders that support, extend, and improve the software. Open source software has a number of people continually changing the software and contributing those changes back to others.

In applying these principles to my two examples, we can see where community building and open source share many of the same goals and values.


The CTC database embraces the open source principle of distribution by making the technology freely accessible from the America Connects Consortium web site. The existence of the technology is advertised to people interested in community technology. The Project Open Hand product, however, is not available for download. In fact, a reader of this article might never have otherwise known the technology existed.

An open source approach would mirror how the America Connects Consortium distributes the CTC database. The technology would be easily downloadable and would be advertised to people that might be interested in it.


For licensing, Project Open Hand chose not to license their software at all. Other HIV/AIDs meal providers have no legal right to use their software. If they want similar functionality, they will need to build it themselves at a cost of over $100,000. A commercial software alternative is a virtually impossibility since the potential market is so small.

Fast Forward’s database is owned by the Education Development Center, Inc. Their license reads, “This material may be downloaded, reproduced and distributed only in its complete, original form. The material can not be sold, modified or incorporated into other works or materials without the express, written permission of EDC.” As a CTC, if I want to legally add a single field to the database, I must obtain written permission from EDC. If someone wanted to modify the database to better meet the needs of local CTCs, they would need to obtain written permission from EDC.

Under open source licensing principles, local stakeholders would be able to determine for themselves how best to employ the technology according to their local needs. If the technology met needs, they could use it in its native form. If the software needed slight modification to be useful, they would not have to seek and receive permission before beginning the process of meeting their needs. If a group wished to modify the technology significantly and distribute it to an entire sub-group, perhaps PowerUp centers or Ohio CTCs, they could do so. The most common open source software license is the GNU Public License (GPL).


The final open source principle of community is both the most beneficial and the most difficult to achieve. Community refers to the group of people that can innovate and extend a piece of technology. Rather than have technology like a CTC or HIV/AIDs meal provider application remain static, the community makes it dynamic by adding new functionality, fixing problems, and generally making needed changes.

In both examples, the original “owner” of the technology is the only member of the community. Single-member communities are easy to manage…it is pretty easy to avoid conflicts with yourself. At the same time, there is value in the diversity that comes from community. Different ideas, different needs, and different resources lead to innovative and effective solutions. This is at the heart of why we value community building. Now we can bring some the same concepts into community technology through open source and realize some of the same benefits.

What can I do?

Þ If you participate in a technology project, take the time to examine the project through the lenses of the three open source principles of distribution, license, and community.
Þ Consider licensing software you are responsible for under the GPL.
Þ Encourage those responsible for software that you use to license their software under the GPL.


Nonprofit Open Source Initiative. NOSI seeks to support nonprofits in adopting and using open source software.

GNU General Public License (GPL). The most common open source license.

CTC Management Database from the America Connects Consortium.

Project Open Hand