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Open Source Series - Blog Post 9: Final Reflection

Updated: Apr 30

So, here we are. Can you believe it?


Over the course of fourteen weeks, I learned about how society's relationship with technology will be taking a new form. More specifically, I learned about how open source technology is playing a major role in driving innovation and inclusiveness in a society where inequality is more present than ever.


The past few blogs on my website were all written as part of a class I took at the University of Virginia. Open Source for the Common Good was a course offered through the university's Public Policy school in their Social Entrepreneurship department. I first learned at my job working as a research assistant for the Social Entrepreneurship Office at UVA. As minor in social entrepreneurship, my boss told me that it would be wise for me to take this course before I left university as a graduate. That and some major convincing from my friend to take the class with him got me to enroll.


Prior to enrolling in the class, I didn't know too much about the potential open source had in regards to innovation and design. In all honesty, my early assumptions equated open-source to simply meaning 'free'. So, you could say I was a proponent of open-source from the start. I used open-source software such as Audacity for my recording and editing podcasts, but that was the extent of my knowledge. However, as I went about taking the Open Source class at UVA, I learned later that open-sourcing our technology allows for continuous improvement. It isn't a mere update or release of a new product, it's an ever evolving cycle that adapts and responsive to the needs of users.


What the Class Taught Me


By looking at a variety of case studies of open source technology in a variety of industry sectors and discussing its major features twice a week with our classmates, I got to really understand collaborative culture this technology revolution provides. Additionally, our class also got to understand its different tradeoffs and societal impacts by comparing its model with traditional private Intellectual Property (IP) driven design. Pairing these class discussions along with personal research on open source models grew my curiosity and my affinity for its simple, yet effective foundation.


More specifically, I love how open-source is based on fairly basic principles:


Collaboration - Community and connection is what organizations and humans thrive off of. Platforms, like GitHub, that host open source projects enable technology developers to work together and combine their comparative advantages to make software better.

  • Innovation and Product Development: Earlier in class, we learned about how open source technology can be the key to driving innovation in our economies. We read about how open-source breaks down the barriers of traditional IP regulations by not allowing bigger corporations to crowd-out the invention efforts of smaller companies. Looking through these case studies, and efforts of organizations like WIPO, I understood that open-source technology developers are incentivized to innovate and collaborate as they ultimately receive more benefits from a constantly improving product.

  • Open Source and Healthcare: In class, we talked about how open-sourcing our healthcare can be vital toward saving more lives in our nation. We even understood its implications during the coronavirus pandemic in which open sourcing technology designs and health data can allow for people to build safety equipment faster, diagnose accurately, and expand telemedicine to more regions.

Personalization - According to a Deloitte Customer 2020 Insights Report, 22% of consumers are willing to share some data in return for a more personalized customer service or product. This is where open source really earns its points in that it allows people to shape powerful tools to better serve their creative or business needs.

  • Open Source and Communication: In class, we read articles about how open source communication platforms allow individuals and teams to send information faster and more conveniently tailored toward their enterprise needs. For example, we read about 7 open source alternatives to Skype, where companies are offering video conferencing and messaging features that enable groups to organize their communications by topic, team, event. Additionally, my previous blog on Open Source Journalism allowed me to understand how open data and citizen-created content will be important in ensuring up-to-date information as social media companies curate news according to user preferences.

  • Education and the Control of Knowledge: In class, I shared my findings about how creative commons licenses can recognize innovators while also allowing teachers and schools to acquire educational content for their school's own needs. I found that open sourcing educational content can be incredibly useful in expanding learning all across the world --- a teacher might acquire openly-licensed lab problems for his students, but re-write the lab exercises to include language that is more geographically specific or demographically relevant. Khan Academy has successfully been able to do this.


Transparency - Trust is something very much earned these days. In an age where targeted ads can manipulate your choices and fake news is filling up the media, it's hard to know when we are truly getting a quality and truthful information unconditionally. With open-data being leveraged by small businesses, governments, universities, and more, the world is able to access and share important information to bring about social, economic and environmental benefits.

  • The Inequality Crisis: In class, we looked at how open data can bridge gaps in information. For example, we read the UN's 2019 Human Development Report where we understood that dozens of countries have almost no transparency in inequality data --- restricting the humanitarian aid that can protect its citizens. Aside from software, open source can take the form of scientific research or data that is made available to a larger community. Scientists and policy analysts can host or publish raw data from studies as well as detailed logs of procedures, results, measurements, and other useful information. Moreover, the open source community allow individuals to meet their own needs, but also provides societal returns to the users that contribute to its pooled funds and coordinated investment.

  • Food and Agriculture: In class, we discussed hydroponic and aquaponic gardening designs that are available for individuals to grow their own crops. After learning about how companies like Babylon Microfarms curate high-quality seeds for their clients, I was curious to know more about other players in the industry could capitalize off heirloom plant varieties not available on the commercial market. This led me to learn about the Open Source Seed Initiative uses transparency guidelines that promotes sharing rather than restricting access to plant germplasm, recognizes and supports the work of plant breeders of all kinds, and supports a diversified and decentralized seed industry.


Scalability - Open sourcing projects means leveling the playing field for everyone--- ideally. It's a good mission and it seems to be successful. For example, Wikipedia has over 947,501,216 edits from people like you and me. You're also seeing governments, like Liberia's Ministry of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW) use open source SMS workflows to disseminate health diagnoses and treatments at a large, nation-wide level.

  • Open Source and Energy: One concept that truly resonated with me when taking this class was that of the Energy Internet--- utilizing multi-directional flows of renewable energy that is supported by the confluence of the digital revolution and the rise in big data. At first, I thought this was just a concept full of technology buzzwords, but until I realized how open-source could be integrated with the interconnecting and facilitating of back-end processing of enormous volumes of big data that clean-technology will generate.

  • Open Source Climate Change Infrastructure: Our class understood that open-source will be vital in paving the path toward mitigating climate change. While open access to designs may yield a few clean-technologies, acquiring climate data is essential to scaling up our efforts to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. The class motivate me to research and come across programs like Dronecode that aim to bridge the gap of drone hardware and the need for highly agile flight and data collection functions by capitalizing off an open source model with its drone software. By learning more about its services and discussing with my classmates about its use-cases, I was able to understand how open-source drone software could be the key infrastructure needed to scale up the acquisition of atmospheric data to monitor tree degradation and the impact of illegal logging.


Overall, open source is highly innovative and holds considerable promise for addressing most of the critical problems facing society such as sustainability, inequality, the cost of technology, and open access to knowledge.


The class was such a valuable experience during my time at UVA. It reinforced my desire to become a social entrepreneur, expanded my vision of what scale looks like, and it even got me to push my learning capabilities beyond my comfort zone. At one point in the class, I grew so intrigued with this one company called FairCap which creates 3D printed water filters to address the problem of contaminated water drinking especially in developing nations. I found their mission and open-source product approach so fascinating, that I thought I'd reach out to their founder and CEO, Mauricio Cordova, to learn more about their company.


Lastly, our class' final open-source design project allowed us to become conversant with the open-source culture and methods of open source design. Given the current coronavirus pandemic, our group decided to focus on the mental health issues that arise during such a stressful time and increasing access to mental health resources. Especially with social distancing and stay-at-home orders, many people may find it difficult to easily connect their residents with mental health resources to reduce rising anxiety and stress. Working with a group of five other students, we developed an open-source chatbot concept that allows individuals to connect with community-health workers and therapists through SMS to get answers and helpful resources for anxiety and depression issues.


Conclusion


Engaging in this project enabled us to apply our knowledge of open-source and inspire us to tailor its functionality for pressing world issues. Just as the class name says, open source for the common good. Being a part of this class and working with brilliant student leaders at UVA reinforced the value of the benefits of this technological revolution. I can confidently say that I'm glad I took my boss' advice and succumbed to my friend's convincing. Open source is the future we can believe in--- one that is universal and harmonious.

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© 2023 by Kurien Thomas.