Monday, May 4, 2009

Platforms, people, platforms! OpenWiser

I had a conversation years back with the WiserEarth people since it pains me to see history keep repeating itself.

Recently there was an effort to fund open APIs for the WiserPlatform which had me take another look at the software ecology behind the mission. And in that look I found a priceless quote:
Paul's vision for WiserEarth always, always included it being open-source - there was never any back-and-forth on this matter, which is why we've always been so openly confident and deadfast in stating that WiserEarth is an open source project. 
This is why folks in the sector need to find themselves some qualified technologists. Lets recap some of the highlights of executing this vision:
  1. They roll their own platform because they don't want to build on existing platforms like Drupal or CiviCRM or a million other platforms I'm not personally associated with.
  2. They don't make their code available to anyone (later remedied).
  3. They don't build a data standard or API for
  4. They have to hire someone to "clean up" their code for the open source release.
  5. When they release their code, significant amounts of functionality from are not available.
  6. They can't afford to build any APIs and have to crowdsource money to raise the money for it. 
  7. Near as I can see from their developer community, no one except the folks that paid to open source their code uses their platform.
First, these guys are deserving, they run a really compelling community and they have a bunch of great ideas. But their technology execution is horribly misaligned with their mission and vision.

If Paul's vision was always to open source the platform, he either meant it in "marketing-speak"or didn't really know what he meant by "open source" - he was just using the word. This is all to common among executives and progressives with good intentions, but that doesn't make it OK. Just calling something an open source project has absolutely NO mission impact other than providing a "marketing lie" that makes people feel better about signing up at your website.

So if you want to do a social change technology project and have it be "open source," please bring in the technology strategist that knows what that means and the coders with the experience to do it correctly -- just hiring any old development firm tends to put you square in the "marketing lie" category.

Another Painful Aside

No APIs?! Talk about not having a technological clue. I suppose the logic was "wikipedia doesn't have APIs, why would we need them" (even though by 2006, MediaWiki had APIs).

This is yet another area where you need a good technologist. As an illustration: 

Back in 2005, when we had to put together a "database in the sky" (which is an apt description for so many social change web projects) for a database of every missing person on the web in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina  the FIRST thing we did was define a data format. The next thing we did was define an API. Then we built what we wanted to build.

Believe it or Not...

Having said all that, believe it or not, you should give a couple bucks to OpenWISER. I hope that someone will nock them upside the head and make them publish their data formats (or adopt existing ones) before they build code, but it would be a very good thing for the progressive movement to actually execute this one right.