t byfield on Tue, 9 Sep 2003 05:40:46 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Jonathan Peizer: Realizing The Promise of Open Source in the Non-Profit Sector

     [redistributed with author's permission]

Realizing The Promise of Open Source in the Non-Profit Sector

Issues to Address

      Every so often, a technology or protocol emerges that is touted as a
"magic bullet" either by the company or consortium promoting it or a core
group of enthusiasts using it. Examples of this are WAP, OS/2, ISDN etc.
The technology is initially promoted as having "earth-changing"
significance that will revolutionize the way things are done. Eventually
most of these either fall by the wayside or take their rightful place as
effective [but less hyped] mainstream tools in a much larger toolbox of
solutions. The problem with the magic bullet approach is that it over-
promotes particular technologies. It often obfuscates the real benefits
they could provide if evaluated and positioned in a more realistic context.
For the for-profit community investing in failed magic bullets, the fallout
is typically nothing more than an unfortunate R&D decision which can be
expensed before moving on to the next IT investment.

      When these same technologies create a significant buzz in the non-
profit community the results are often different with more unfortunate
consequences. When non-profits invest in magic bullet technologies that
fall by the wayside or don't meet all the hype, they often don't have the
financial resources to write them off and reinvest again. More often in
this sector, a bad technology investment leads to a phobia for ever
investing in technology again, even if the next underlying technology has
merit. Therefore, it behooves people working in ICT for the non-profit
sector to manage expectations and not promote a particular technology as a
magic bullet.

      One of the latest technology protocols to benefit from the magic
bullet buzz is Open Source. I am deeply concerned about this because the
Open Source methodology does show a lot of promise in helping non-profits
take advantage of technology in new ways. In fact it is happening as I
write this article. The idea that applications can be licensed to use or
modify freely has a very powerful attraction. The Open Source methodology
is certainly a viable choice for some of the technology I use, recommend
and fund. However, I don't see it as a magic bullet that will revolutionize
the software development and deployment process for non-profits as some
pundits do -- At least not unless it's dealt with in a far more strategic
and realistic context by civil society actors.

      Open Source speaks to the ideological biases of the non-profit
environment. This makes people prone to buy into it without deeper analysis
of the peculiar dynamics of this sector's use of ICT. Chronic
underinvestment in capacity skews successful implementation of any
technology in this sector and requires a paradigm that differs from other
sectors to make up for this deficit and insure success. Recent discussions
of Open Source's benefits have focused not only on the "free as beer"
aspect of the software being available at no cost but also on the
"information should be free" aspect. Open Source development methodology
promotes an ethic of collaboration and philosophy of openness more common
to the non-profit environment that proprietary development does not.

      The reality is that Open Source has a cost of ownership attached to
it that goes well beyond the initial pricing. Moreover the idea of non-
profits collaborating on software development or anything else without some
financial support or funder enticement is somewhat optimistic. Non-profits
compete fiercely for limited financial resources that inhibit both
cooperation and collaboration with other institutions. Many feel they own
their information and constituents and that creates unique value for their
institutions that they must protect. Non-profits do foster trusted source
relationships with other non-profits just as for-profits foster co-
opetition relationships with other for-profits - but the right incentives
must be there for both to occur. My point is there is a danger of buying
into the perceived benefits of Open Source and promoting its use on this
premise alone. To derive real strategic benefit from Open Source on a macro
level in the non-profit context one must appreciate the dynamics that
dominate this sector's use of ICT.

      There is a compelling reason for the non-profit sector to seriously
consider Open Source as an alternative. Proprietary vendors have been
making software piracy and even legal purchase much more difficult for
erstwhile non-profits, particularly in the developing world, because the
end-users cannot afford to spend a lot of money on it. Between online
registration and monitoring, regressive and costly software licensing fees
and aggressive piracy policing proprietary vendors use, non-profits are
caught between a rock and a hard place. Authoritarian governments can use
software piracy of proprietary applications as an excuse to close down non-
profits who don't agree with their policies. It's no wonder proprietary
software vendors are seriously rethinking their donation and discount
policies for this sector, and its high time they did.

      Unfortunately, for the typical non-profit wishing to set up and
support a full scale Open Source environment from server to workstation and
everything in between is currently a costly exercise - in training,
maintenance and ongoing development and support. Not all the necessary
applications exist or are production ready for the typical NGO wishing to
use Open Source technology to install and not have to worry about it in the
same way it deploys proprietary technology. This is particularly true for
the desktop basics which are not ready for prime time for the majority of
non-technical NGO users despite the protestations of savvier open source
jockeys.  Nor do the support mechanisms critical in supporting the ICT
needs of the non-profit sector exist in many places. Some of you reading
this article will no doubt be able to point to individual discreet cases of
Open Source deployment in the non-profit context that were or were not
successful. What I want to focus on in this article is not individual stand-
alone cases of Open Source deployments, but the leveraging factors
necessary to make it as ubiquitous and useful to the non-profit sector as E-
mail is now.

      What colors my perception of the Open Source alternative as it
currently exists is my experience with software development. At one point
in my career I was also the developer and chief technology support for an
application distributed in twenty-six countries through a network of
independent but affiliated student exchange organizations. This experience
taught me a lot about the software development and maintenance cycle and
how NGO's actually use technology. The most important lesson I learned was
that software is never completed and requires a long term relationship
between its users its developers and its maintainers.

      The very act of using software leads to a need to modify it.
Inevitably users become familiar with it and develop more sophisticated
requirements. These requirements beg enhancements and modifications to meet
new needs, in addition to fixing outstanding bugs which inevitably arise.
Then there are the advances in hardware and software underlying the
applications we use. New computer chips, new versions of programming
languages, new operating systems, etc. make upgrades to software that use
these resources almost mandatory every two to four years. Otherwise one
falls behind on versions and discovers certain functionality missing or not
working in a previously functional application. Between user needs and the
speed of technology advances, software typically needs to be modified every
one to three years in order to stay relevant. This requires the commitment
of dedicated technical staff over an extended period to maintain these

Aside from the "free beer" aspect of Open Source, its promise to the non-
profit sector lies in the open code base which allows developers around the
world to collaborate on projects to produce or enhance new applications.
This is expected to provide opportunities to develop a whole slew of new
mission critical applications to meet non-profit needs at a reduced cost.
There is just one problem. This assumes that there are a reasonable number
of developers willing to devote time and effort for little pay to work
closely with not-for-profit clients over significant periods of time
measured in years to both develop and continue to upgrade these
applications. Why have non-profits had a hard time developing applications
to meet their needs in the proprietary marketplace? Is the problem really
that a slew of programmers buzzing around the non-profit environment
couldn't access the code to develop or enhance new systems? I think not.

Experience tells me that non-profits typically don't have the resources to
implement basic technology right out of the box let alone to support
technical people to both develop and maintain their applications. There is
a reason that technology support organizations like NPower and the Circuit
Rider movement work in the non-profit context. It's because technology in
this environment isn't about simply technology. It's about technology
bundled with capacity and service. Capacity and service are what for-
profits invest in internally so they can absorb and take advantage of the
technology they implement. In the non-profit environment only the largest
non-profits, (typically those with the capacity to generate income) invest
in internal technology departments. The rest require low cost non-profit
technology service providers or consultants.

So how does the capacity and service model change in the Open Source
context for most non-profits? Does the very act of making code accessible
magically create a cadre of new and interested programmers willing to
develop and maintain applications for the non-profit environment over years
with few resources to compensate them? Do projects like the open sourcing
of Ebase, the contact management system undertaken by Groundspring, or the
development of the Martus Human Rights application undertaken by Benetech
require continuous foundation subsidies of hundreds of thousands of dollars
to be developed and stay relevant? That is certainly not a sustainable
model, nor will it assist most non-profits in implementing these
technologies. How does one insure that an Open Source application defined
to meet the non-commercial needs of a group of NGO's in a particular sector
will be supported long term and updated as it needs to be?

It is clear why Open Source application efforts such as Apache and Mysql
work. These applications are about developers creating products for other
developers in order to enhance their own efficiency and productivity. In
the end these products help anybody implementing a web server or database
including non-profits. The constituency for these applications is huge --
Much larger for example than for an application focused on case management
for battered women. It is also clear why end user Open Source applications
like Open Office developed for a mass audience (including for-profits and
non-profits) work as well. They have the benefit of well paid technical
staff employed by companies who may wish to work with the code to enhance
internal needs or to experiment on their off time. Some governments, which
are beginning to mandate Open Source usage, may contribute technical
support to these endeavors as well.

Non-profits certainly benefit from both the hard core Open Source technical
products like servers and databases and the mass market open-source end-
user products. However, they aren't necessarily underwriting their
development or enhancing the code themselves with phantom technical
resources they cannot afford. In this sense, the non-profit sector's use of
Open Source is not much different then their use of commercial
applications. True, they are not paying retrogressive licensing schemes.
However, they are not necessarily taking full advantage of the promise of
Open Source either. They are still paying someone for long term technical
support for applications they don't necessarily have a hand in customizing.

The fundamental question to be answered is how one underwrites and sustains
the development and continued maintenance of mission critical Open Source
applications designed specifically for the non-profit sector? Applications
for monitoring, case management, customer relationship management,
advocacy, knowledge management, web publishing, analytics, etc. that
support the unique  missions of NGO's. There are literally millions of non-
profits all over the world with software application needs. How will Open
Source assist in the development, implementation and maintenance of low
cost, easily maintainable core applications that meet these needs? And how
will these be underwritten long term?

Realizing the Promise

The promise of the Open Source methodology satisfying these needs will not
be met by a few narrowly subsidized initiatives. It will require some
dedicated strategically defined public support over a number of years to
develop a social source community and do the following:

Define the core mission critical apps that most NGO's need.
Subsidize the base development of the core applications or at least open
standards around these applications including the necessary documentation
and training needed to implement them successfully.
Develop a programmer community around these applications along with some
software development institutions that employ at least a few project
leaders and senior developers to coordinate activities.
Tie them closely to the nascent non-profit technology support community
that has arisen over the last few years so that the applications, once
developed, can be both delivered and supported over the long term.
Develop a cost structure that is not prohibitively expensive for NGO's but
that supports continued maintenance and development of the core

This will not happen without a proactive, well thought out strategy by a
collaborative of progressive funders, developers and technology service
providers. The dynamics that underwrite the long term maintenance and costs
of mass market Open Source applications simply don't exist for the non-
profit sector because they are not underwritten in the same way they are
for the commercial environment.

To develop a Social Source development and implementation community
involves dealing directly with the problem of limited technology capacity
investment in the non-profit sector. The lack of internal infrastructure
hampers the supplemental benefit of having subsidized developers and
technology service providers also working to create a Social Source
community. The funding community has started to deal strategically with a
couple of technology service issues in the non-profit sector by supporting
intermediary technology service organizations and data aggregators such as
NTEN, Npower, Oneworld, APC, Itrainonline, Geekcorps, circuit riders,
etc... These organizations serve as an external technology capacity
substitute for non-profits that cannot afford the internal capacity. The
inception of many of these intermediary organizations was subsidized
heavily by the public sector. However, a sustainability model that
collected reasonable fees for service was built into the business plan in
order to maintain long term viability and continued service. The model that
supports technical support and training activity is instructive and needs
to be duplicated for the software development activity.  Moreover, these
organizations must be supported to service new Open Source technologies
just as they currently support proprietary technologies.

One issue that people not working in the technology space often fail to
appreciate is that the technical discipline consists of a number of
vertical specialties just as other disciplines do. Technical support and
training is a very different animal then software development requiring
different skill and mindsets. Supporting the technology service solution
therefore does not solve the social software development solution. Most
technology service organizations don't wish to be developers and most
developers don't wish to be technology support organizations. It's
instructive to note that a typical corporate IT structure also separates
these specialty disciplines. In the non-profit environment the technology
service organizations are stretched so thin simply focusing on their area
of expertise that they cannot effectively do long term software development
even if they wanted to. Non-profit technology service providers typically
rely on pre-packaged applications that can be implemented and supported for
their clients. They can go to the vendor if they need support and the
vendor provides the updates.

      Developing a viable Social Source sector requires not only viable
technology service providers but also a Social Source development
organization. Such an organization for NGO specific applications does not
exist. I envision a Social Sourceforge with an added service and support
arm that assists with prioritization, documentation, standards setting and
closer cooperation with the technology support organizations that implement
and maintain applications in the non-profit environment. One could do
without a Social Sourceforge if it was less important to develop new
mission focused applications for the non-profit sector than to simply
deploy mass market Open Source solutions that already existed. However, if
development of new applications is necessary for the non-profit sector (and
I think there is an argument to be made for it). Then there is a need for a
Social Sourceforge.

Individual successful social software development efforts do exist. There
are initiatives like The Nonprofit Open Source Initiative and the
development efforts of Civilrights.org to meet the demand of its
organizational constituency. Organizations like Benetech, Groundspring and
Greenmedia Toolshed are developing discreet Open Source tools for the non-
profit sector. The Land Alliance Trust, Greenpeace, MIT and project
OpenHand have all developed stable sets of Open Source code.

However, to deal with the larger strategic issues of unlocking the power of
Open Source across NGO program areas and application categories I believe
there needs to be a separate Social Sourceforge entity created. Its purpose
is to aggregate volunteer developers to work on a variety of applications
that are prioritized and defined in collaboration with technology service
organizations, funders and the various NGO sectors they support. Social
Sourceforge acts as a:

 1) A home base for development activities designed to meet a broad base of
                 prioritized, mission focused application needs.
 2) A place to actively foster a mission focused development community.
 3) A documentation and training material depository for all applications
on               Social SourceForge.
 4) The arbiter of open standards for the NGO sector across application
 5) A catalyst spawning individual development efforts conforming to
 6) A place where individual developers come if they wish to interact with
                  a vibrant mission focused developer community for

I am not suggesting that Social Sourceforge maintain a monopoly on Open
Source development for the NGO community. However, at least one should be
underwritten so that it can set a standard of excellence that others
emulate. Npower and Techsoup do not occupy their niches alone, but they do
set the bar for other endeavors that wish to provide the same quality of

Social Sourceforge cannot be all-volunteer because unlike the generic
Sourceforge, its members are not subsidized by corporate underwriting for
its developer's activities. It needs to employ a fulltime software project
manager and a couple of senior programmer analysts that work with a board
to define Open Source standards across application platforms. This staff
will also prioritize and coordinate the various Open Source initiatives,
plugging the volunteer programmers into the projects that need their
assistance. Here I think entities like Idealist and VolunteerMatch will be
extremely helpful working in collaboration with Social Sourceforge to match
developers to projects. Coordination and consistency provided by a small
paid technical staff is key however.

 Initially, the public sector will need to underwrite the Social
Sourceforge staff as well as the initial 'category-killer' application
platforms for mission focused applications like monitoring, case
management, advocacy, etc.. Along with the application's design, a
sustainability paradigm must be developed to maintain them over the long
term. Social Sourceforge will see to the care and feeding of the developer
community around mission focused applications fostering both standards and
rigorous documentation requirements.

Finally, it must be recognized that corporate IT has a methodology for
prioritizing, financing, developing, and supporting its software technology
projects. The various departments come together and manage this process
under a project leader. In the non-profit context, these entities do not
exist under one roof. Technology service and support organizations and the
Social Sourceforge of developers are designed to emulate NGO internal
capacity. However, they exist external to the organizations they support as
discreet entities with vertical market specialties. To further complicate
the situation, funding for these endeavors comes from another source; the
various public funders that underwrite these activities.

The structure requires a coordinating neutral entity that brings together
funders, technology service organizations, and the developer community to
agree on issues of priority, development, marketing and distribution of the
applications so they reach the broadest possible environment. This
horizontal agency is what bridges the vertical specialty areas of funding,
development, distribution and support. A couple of years ago, OSI together
with a number of other funders recognized that one of the key issues of
software development for the non-profit environment was not that
applications didn't exist but that there was a gap between underwriting an
application, developing it and distributing it to scale. Aspiration was
created as a 501C3 to fill this gap and help bring key software
technologies to the largest possible audience. Aspiration has done this
successfully with a number of applications. However, it is still
underutilized. Like the technology service providers and various Open
Source development efforts in the non-profit sector, it is dealing with
initiatives on a case by case basis. What it needs to do in concert with
the other entities is to deal with the same issues on a sector wide basis -
One that creates a strategic framework that defines the social software
space, mirrors the SourceForge community and works with a variety of core
application needs and funding priorities across the NGO sector. Such a
coordinating entity may merge with one of the other pieces of this puzzle
once a vibrant community is created and all the pieces have a history of
coordinating and functioning in unison. Or, it may continue to exist
drawing fees from this coordination activity. At the outset however, this
entity must also be underwritten for the broader vision to work.

A visual representation of the Social Source community is provided below.
The number of individual organizations is not as important as the need to
have each component process. This model emulates an internal IT structure
and adapts it to the context of the external capacity model of service
supporting the NGO sector.

               |    Funders that underwrite
             | |    initial development of TSO's,
           | | |    Social Sourceforge's,
           | | |    applications and coordinating
           | | |    bodies
           | | |_____________________________
           | |_____________________________
               |    Aspiration-like bodies that
             | |    help scale, match and
           | | |    coordinate funder, developer
           | | |    and TSO priorities to the
           | | |    needs of the NGO's.
           | | |_____________________
           | |_____________________
                    ^         ^
                    |         |
                    |         |___________________
                    |                             |
                    v                             v
        | Various TSO's providing          | Social Sourceforge and the
      | | maintenance and support for    | | variety of software
    | | | applications over the long   | | | development initiatives.
    | | | term.                        | | |______________________
    | | |_________________________     | |_____________________
    | |________________________        |____________________
    |_______________________                ^
                 ^                          |
                 |                          |
                  | NGO's receiving support and
                | | providing input.
              | | |___________________
              | |__________________

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@bbs.thing.net