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Re-discovering the value of open source in times of crisis

16. Apr 2020

Lessons (to be) learnt from living with Covid-19 (#8)

by Christian Voigt 

These days, the old saying ‘Cobbler, stick to your last!’, applies less and less.  Many people are forced to abandon their usual ‘models of work’ and try out new ways of working and remaining active under the conditions of social distancing and a ban on large gatherings. Video chat rooms help private trainers to explain their exercises, piano teachers to guide their pupils, social workers to stay in contact with their clients, doctors to provide a first diagnosis and teachers to interact with their students. Still, few would say that using a virtual chat room is optimal to learn the right body tension in front of a piano or to create the social presence needed to work with clients, patients or students. They all go out of their comfort zone and start meddling in new areas where they might have only limited experience and might even lack the basic skills and equipment to get started. And if we think about shifting parts of our work online, we quickly realize that we need more than a budget for a laptop or a tablet. This post reflects on the difference between using open source versus proprietary software and suggests that being more literate in things ‘open source’ would put us in a stronger position to face crises such as Covid-19. Still, I think this post requires a disclaimer, most of the following is known for decades as well as the arguments brought forward, what’s new is the urgency of coming to terms with ‘open source’ and open knowledge in general, as part of a much needed re-orientation for progress and innovation. So we may say that Covid-19 doesn’t (yet) change the rules of the game, but it’s a catalyser and forceful reminder to revisit questions of the past such as ‘What if ... more of our digital tools were open, free and adaptable?’   

     In the early days of computing, being able to read the actual source code of programs running on a computer was the norm. This doesn’t mean that everybody who worked on a computer was able to program, but it means that they could legally find a way to implement changes if they found someone else who had the same problem and the skills to do something about it.  A typical win-win situation, software gets gradually better as long as a community finds it worthwhile to care. Then, in the 70s when business models around software started to change, and more closed software was distributed, lobbying for FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) started to gain importance.    

     Already then, the focus on ‘value’, or rather the cost, of software was frequently criticised. Stallman (2002) emphasizes the importance of making source code available so that users remain free to pursue whatever projects they have in mind, without facing the restrictions of a given licence. He argued that software that can’t be adapted controls us, the users. Looking at our dealings with standard office software, we could say that the way we collect, analyse and present data tends to follow the features we find in programmes such as Excel or PowerPoint, rather than our insights on how to present our information best. And yes, I am aware that not everybody is interested in the freedom to change his or her presentation software. Rushkoff (2010) makes a good point, just because we learn to write, it’s not that we all become authors. However, understanding the digital layers that influence most parts of our life (health systems, education, politics, entertainment ... you name it) is an essential precondition to effectively participate in society.     

     Let’s think beyond individual uses of software – standardized accounting programs, statistical packages for researchers or educational management systems have a given ‘default’ user type in mind, and a set of rules ‘how things are usually done’.  If you are a non-profit organisation, a social enterprise or a non-formal education provider, these processes might substantially diverge from your current practices. If the software that helps everybody else is then closed, you are in a ‘bad situation’. Adapting the software is usually not an option, given current developer costs as well as the danger of being excluded from further updates providing new features and security fixes.  In times of Covid-19, you are not only learning new tools, you are also trying to fit the way you work to what’s supported by your newly discovered tools. What if ... there would be a community combining enthusiasm and resources to make tools available to a greater variety of people.   

     Now, why would open source software make a difference to the current situation? In the short-term, I think, it doesn’t make a lot of difference, but in the long-term there is a ‘Lesson to be learned from Covid-19’ ...

  1. Infrastructural changes need a strategic perspective: My first argument would be that appreciating the value of open source for a free, critical and independent society is, to a large extent, a question of actively learning the pros and cons of open source and pushing for more open source options in areas where there is a lack thereof. This involves government initiatives to use open source software in their offices and public schools. Cities like Vienna and Munich had projects such as Wienux and LiMux, trying to switch from Microsoft to Linux [1].   Unfortun­ately, there is no lack of lessons what can go wrong there, and it shows the complexity of systemic changes. The moral exhortation ‘open source software is good for you’ might not succeed as expected, people need to be retrained, functionality and user friendliness of open source needs to be at least as good as their proprietary counterparts and information flows have to be adapted. Interestingly, Munich’s failure in shifting their city council to open source software was mainly attributed to software management inconsistencies rather than the inferior performance of the open source software the council was using. [2]    
  2. Learning new tools and processes requires a safe space for experimentation: My second argument would be that expecting people to learn under distress is not a good idea. Home office and home schooling, fear for an uncertain future, or doubting one’s fitness in an increasingly digital working context might produce a sense of losing control or excessive demand, inhibiting learning while being in survival mode. If the future of your business depends on the way you use your online channels, you might be less prone to experiment.     

     However, it seems that at the moment the lack of a sustainable open source strategy and sorely missed experience with open source alternatives bites us in a time when we need fitting software, quickly and reliable. It seems as if many organisations rush to whatever software everybody else is using (FOMO) and employees of these organisations are expected to adopt new ways of working ‘on the fly’.  

     Maybe the fact that many who didn’t plan to do so,  engage with digitally supported ways of collaborating, teaching, learning, negotiating or presenting leads to a redefinition of conditions for homework, digital learning or virtual conference attendance among other things. More flexible working arrangements for single parents, environmental gains due to reduced traveling and more digitally literate youths could be some of the positive outcomes of this development.  However, the challenge remains to make these benefits accessible to all. Today, probably in line with their capacities, schools confront the crisis in rather heterogenous ways, providing varying levels of support. ZSI is going to research some of these issues in a WWTF project described in more detail here: https://www.zsi.at/en/object/news/5519

     The longer this crisis takes and the more we need to take recourse to digital tools in order to accomplish something that happened previously face-to-face, the more the ‘openness’ of these tools should play a role. Specially since the wider impact of open source goes beyond costs and unrestricted use. Open source software can be checked, whether it shares users’ data without consent or whether there are security issues.

     Of course, many proprietary software companies offer gratis copies of their non-free products to schools and universities. This is a double-edged sword at best, it saves costs to the schools, yes, but it does also create dependent graduates, who learned a software that most likely won’t be free for their future employers or for themselves, if they decide to use it privately. As a research institute we experience this very directly when we purchase SPSS instead of using the open source package R for quantitative data analysis. But that’s a status quo we don’t need to perpetuate. It is time to set aside resources for gaining experience with open source solutions in our educational systems and work environments (possibly developing open source solutions in areas where the quality of proprietary solutions is still superior).

     Deciding when to use open source or proprietary tools depends on the envisioned scenarios, i.e. what does online learning look like in primary or in secondary school; what sort of information do I need to exchange or elaborate during a virtual meeting etc. These are questions we cannot answer in two weeks and quite likely there is more than one possible answer that would need trying out. Essentially, these questions require more than the notorious solutionism, where complex problems are addressed with an algorithm, an app or a laptop (Morozov 2013). If there is one thing, we should learn from an open source software perspective, then it’s to resist the urge to go back to a comfortable pre-Covid-19 situation. Let’s preserve what went well and let’s embrace the complexity and uncertainty of our quest for a more ‘open’ digitization.  

Our openNext project, which started 6 months ago, is another research effort to widen the use of open source hardware in SME as well as maker spaces. you may check out: https://www.zsi.at/de/object/project/5390 and https://opennext.eu/ !  

 

Resources

Morozov, Evgeny. 2013. To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems That Don’t Exist. Penguin UK.

Rushkoff, Douglas. 2010. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Or Books.

Stallman, Richard. 2002. Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. Lulu. com.


The four freedoms as defined by the Free Software Foundation [3]  

  1.      The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2.      The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). 
  3.      The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  4.      The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). 

[1] https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/kultur/medien/2057097-Die-grosse-Chance-fuer-Open-Source.html

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/linux-to-windows-10-why-did-munich-switch-and-why-does-it-matter/

[3] https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

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Tags: Corona Virus, maker movement, makers, open innovation, open science

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