Five Ways to Benefit from the Open Source Mantra

The nice thing about open source software development is that it delivers on the Utopian ideal that community-based wealth counts. For many of those committed to the spirit of open source, it’s more than code. It’s about making the world a better place. Yet, a common misconception is that in order to make a contribution to the open source movement you need to sling a lot of code for a living. While it’s true that the fundamental form of open source contribution is to check-in code, there are many other ways for any of us to make a contribution that makes a difference. In fact, I am going to show you five ways that you can use the spirit of the open source movement to make contributions that count.

1. Get Equipment to Those Who Need It

In the modern world using a computer is like breathing. It’s one of the baseline activities for being able to participate in life. Yet, despite continuously dropping costs of devices, there are a lot of kids and schools out there that do not have the basic computer equipment required to participate in modern society. To be adequately educated, every kid needs a computer, and every kid should have a computer. Having an adequately educated population is an open source baseline in terms of a society’s economic and political viability. The alternative is pretty dismal. One of the easiest ways to get computers into the hands of kids who need them is to donate your old equipment to a community refurbishing center. Here in Los Angeles we have Komputers 4 Kids. On the national level there are organizations like The Cristina Foundation. There are others. All you need is to do some snooping on Google for find a donation center near you. So the next time you plan to replace a system, put donating your old system at the top of your list.

2. Support the Software Freedom Law Center

Opens source products may be free to use, but that does not mean that they come without investments. Making software always requires an investment, usually in the form of an enormous amount of time and expertise. As with any investment, protection is necessary. Sometimes that protection takes the form of lawyers. The Software Freedom Law Center is a non-profit organization made of attorneys and technologists whose purpose is to “provide legal representation and other law-related services to protect and advance Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS)”. The Software Freedom Law Center provides services in the following areas:

    * Licensing
    * License Defense and Litigation Support
    * Trademark Counseling
    * Patent Defense
    * Non-profit Organizational Assistance
    * Public Education, Legal Consulting and Lawyer Training

There are two ways you can help out immediately. One way is to put a Software Freedom Law Center logo/button on your web site or blog page. The other way is to donate money.

You can learn more about the center by going to: www.softwarefreedom.org.

3. Get Your Government to Use Open Source Voting Solutions

Consider this excerpt from Secretary of State Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s 2007 top-to-bottom review of voting systems in California: “… the expert reviewers reported that all of the voting systems studied contain serious design flaws that have led directly to specific vulnerabilities, which attackers could exploit to affect election outcome…” (http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/voting_systems/ttbr/diebold_102507.pdf)In a truly open, democratic society, the voting process is too precious to be left to private companies. The Open Source Voting Consortium (OVC) is doing something to make sure the voting is a public process from the ground up.In terms of software, the OVC has developed an open-source prototype that allows a simple PC to be used as a voting machine. On the hardware end, it’s designed an electronic voting machine that emits a paper ballot that can be scanned for verification and use by visually impaired voters. In the spirit of open source, the OVC is making it possible for anybody to see how the machines are programmed and how they work. There are no trade secrets to be protected. Nothing is hidden from the voting public. You can help the OVC by making a onetime donation for any amount. Or you can become a continuing supporter by pledging ten dollars a month.

4. Observe the Ubuntu Code of Conduct

Sadly, there is a dark side to the open source movement. The darkness manifests itself in many ways: flaming, derogatory remarks, misogynous statements in forums; unfinished critical path code that stops a project from shipping. It’s not pretty; but it’s there. The Ubuntu community has a Code of Conduct that was published a while back that outlines an expected standard of community behavior. The primary points are:

    * Be considerate
    * Be respectful
    * Be collaborative
    * When we disagree, consult each other
    * When we are unsure, we ask for help
    * Step down considerately

Following the Ubuntu Code of Conduct will indeed make the world a better place for all coders everywhere. So as the old commercial says, Just Do It! Read the entire Ubuntu Code of Conduct here.

5. Become a Documentation Contributor to an Open Source Project

The next time you think that contributing to an open source project is about contributing code, think again! A commonly overlooked opportunity for making a contribution is by way of documentation. Let’s face it — most coders are really good at writing code and not so good at documenting it. If you have technical writing chops, you can really help. All you need to do is to check out an open source project that interests you. Take a look at the documentation. If it’s lacking, make it better. Your efforts might require no more than making a diagram easier to understand or bringing clarity to some JavaDoc. Well-documented projects are easier to use and easier to maintain. You’ll be doing your community a big service.

So there you have it, five things you can do to make the world a better place. All of them require that you make some sort of contribution. After all, that’s what open source is about: making a contribution into the common wealth that allows us all to get better at what we do, for the improvement of all.

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