“Youth Voices” is a blog series as a part of ArtsPond’s commitment to celebrate the thought leadership of the next generation of social changemakers in arts, culture, technology, and more. The following brief on open source software and its applications and benefits for co-creation was prepared by Sydney Sheridan, ArtsPond’s Youth Knowledge Seeker for DigitalASO and Hatch Open in Summer 2021.
What is Open Source Software?
Open Source Software (OSS) is any software that has source codes that users and programmers can inspect, modify, and distribute. Source code is a set of instructions and statements that are fundamental to a computer program. Source codes can be open (as in the case of OSS) or proprietary. Proprietary (or closed) software means that only the original author can inspect and modify the source code.
With OSS, users can access, copy, modify and redistribute the code at minimal or no cost. Additionally with OSS, programmers may not discriminate against any person(s) by preventing them from using a program nor can a programmer restrict the use of the program for any particular purpose.
The OSS model depends on a community of users and programmers who make and unmake the software all over the world. For this reason, no single programmer is the “owner” of the code.
Open Source Software, Copyright, and Copyleft
OSS is protected under copyright law. Open source licenses allow for the use, modification, and re-distribution of the software. These licenses set the terms and conditions for further use and re-distribution and establish an enforceable sharing ethos. A copyleft license ensures that when a code is copied, modified and re-distributed as a derivative work, the derivative work must be distributed on the same terms as the source code.
Open Source Software and Co-Creation
OSS is constantly created, edited, improved, changed, and redistributed by any user with access. This practice is unlike traditional and hierarchical systems of software design and management. OSS often inspires communities of users who collectively work to modify and improve a software through an iterative process of continuous evolution. Moreover, OSS communities are built on trust, transparency, and openness where users can learn from others in the community. In that sense, OSS can be thought of in terms of ArtsPond’s iterative co-creation process of learning, creating, and (in)validating.
OSS has the potential to facilitate community-initiated software development. A Tech for Social Justice (T4SJ) Project report, #MoreThanCode, argues for the importance of a co-design methodology for technology. Co-design methodology is when the communities that technology is meant to serve play an active role throughout the design process. Here, it is the needs of the community that drive the development of technology and its solutions.
In their report, #MoreThanCode, practitioners were asked to define the role of OSS in social justice, social good, and the public interest. Many practitioners responded that the values of OSS are compatible with values of equity, social justice, resource sharing, and technological development.
Open Source and Sustainable Development Goals
The fundamental values of OSS can be applied to help further United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals:
- SDG 9: “Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation.”
- SDG 16: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”
- SDG 16.10: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
In an article for First Monday, John Willinksy argued that “open source and open access are nothing less than two practical and proven means of resisting that constant capitalization of knowledge work that marks this economy.”
OSS is well-positioned to help build sustainable, transparent, and inclusive institutions from academia; the arts, culture, and creative industries; to government. Government of Canada has advocated for the adoption of open source projects for digital spaces. In regard to Canada’s Action Plan on Open Government, OSS would promote Canadians’ collaboration and participation in the way data is produced, and would increase Canadians’ ability to use the OSS in work and business. The increased attention given to OSS by the Government of Canada is due, in part, to Canadians’ concern over transparency, accountability and involvement in the government’s work and data undertakings.
Access to information is a global concern, and OSS is one of the ways we can cultivate a free and open exchange of ideas. OSS offers an innovative alternative to the restrictions placed on traditional software and economic practices. Its iterative and constantly evolving nature offers sustainable solutions and alternatives to a single creator approach.
Limitations and Risks of Open Source Software
OSS ecosystems face a unique set of challenges. There exists a misconception that OSS is synonymous with software that is freely available and free of restriction. This, in fact, is not the case. The heightened access to open source code can cause opportunities for cyber security risks. OSS may be an opportunity for actors to access another’s information for negligent purposes. OSS also may not have the same level of testing and verification as with the development of proprietary software, disadvantaging the IT infrastructure of OSS.
These risks and vulnerabilities can be addressed with improved support, policies, and education specific to OSS.
Despite the open nature of OSS, the social values that drive it, and its benefit to community development, we cannot deny that systemic barriers predicated on income, education, location, and geography continue to hinder access to technology, thus preventing potential contributors to the OSS community. The digital and technological divide that pervades much of the world hinders the adoption of such an open and collaborative practice.
OSS is only one way we can foster a global exchange of knowledge. It is not only the unrestricted flow of knowledge that makes OSS a contribution to a more sustainable and innovative future, but the inherent value of collaboration and co-creation that undergirds its existence.