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Open Source, Development and Design
Jamais Cascio, 17 Jan 06

Nilesource.jpgWhy do we consider the "open source" model a driver of leapfrog development? There are (at least) three good reasons: it enables production as well as consumption; it enables localization for communities that don't have the resources to tempt commercial developers to provide local versions of their products; it can be free as in "gratis" as well as free as in "libre" -- an important consideration for developing communities. All of this will be familiar territory for regular readers, but two more good examples of the utility of the free/libre/open source model emerged in recent days: the Africa Source conference in Uganda, and the Open Source Appropriate Technology discussion at Agroblogger.

The Africa Source II conference, held in Kalangala, Uganda, has just finished up, and it looks to have been a real success. Africa Source II focuses on how open source technologies can be implemented by non-governmental organizations working in Africa. Sponsored by the Tactical Technology Collective (which also produced the Asia Source conference Ethan talked about last year), Africa Source II mainly looked at how free/libre/open source software could be applied to education and development support, but also addressed the role of Citizen Media as a model for information distribution. A conference wiki contains links to notes from all of the sessions, and the conference blog has back-channel discussion and some interesting interviews with participants:

Q: From your experiences, what works best?
[Stephen Settimi, USAID's Global Health Bureau's senior technical advisor for knowledge management and ICT4D.] The solutions that have proven the best in international development are those that are heavily-driven by community expressions of need and desire to develop in certain ways. Needs for better health, or needs for better transportation of water. When it's community-driven, we get better outcomes. Specially if the community is integrally involved.
Q: Could you cite any small-but-successful projects?
Small is a relative term. Let me think... ICT for communications, exposing people to new ideas, giving people a chance to exchange and share knowledge. Among youth, internet cafes are a real good investment. Community portals for using internet technology for a variety of purposes also help.
Some of the larger ones could be the Last Mile Initiative. It's an attempt to bring technologies, specially internet connectivity, out to the most rural areas in countries.
I guess if you're also looking at the specific tools, once they get their wikis and blogs, these could be very important for the community; such tools serve as channels for communication. It offers learning from people who live elsewhere on what could be done or not.

Africa Source II billed itself as a hands-on experience, with education and learn-by-doing examples side-by-side with presentations and plenary discussions. This is exactly the right sort of environment for talking about open source technology, as it emphasizes the participatory nature of the model. (Via Black Looks)

The open source model can be applied to more than software, as we well know. One of the more interesting applications -- and one that's still in its infancy -- is in the realm of "appropriate technology." The website Agroblogger has published an interesting ongoing series of articles about the role of the open source concept in the world of appropriate technology, including a few links to pioneering organizations.

Let us imagine an active online community participating in vibrant discussions and sharing of AT plans and experiences. Let us imagine the AT equivalent of a, a place where designers and field workers can go to download plans of greenhouses, beehives, water pumps, animal traction implements, and biodiesel equipment. And, within the legal framework of an AT General Public License (GPL), those plans can be used freely, modified, and republished under the same AT GPL. IRC channels dedicated to specific programmatic areas could serve as a dynamic forum where "newbies" can gain wisdom and insight from experienced field practitioners.
In this way, appropriate technology will become a true rival to the megalithic technologies that have so dominated civilization since the industrial revolution.

Jeff at WorldChanging ally Sustainablog raises an important question: "Is this a concept that generally will appeal to the more technically inclined, but leave the rest of us out of the loop?" Although many open source advocates would likely be quick to assure Jeff that this is not the case, I'm inclined to share his concern. The problem isn't whether or not the open source technologies can meet the needs of potential users, but whether the technologies can do so in a way that encourages continued use. It's a question of interface.

Historically, open source projects (software and otherwise) have tended to focus on the nuts-and-bolts of the underlying processes, and leave the interface aspects for the last minute. Computer users are familiar with the digital implementation of an interface, but many designers use the term to refer to any point of connection between the object and the user, be it keyboard or pump handle. The questions a good interface designer must contend with are daunting. Does the interface make sense to the unexperienced user? Are there ways that the interface can be misinterpreted, leading the user to do the wrong thing? What happens when the user does the wrong thing -- is there any indication of a problem, does the system just sit there, or (worst of all) does it misbehave in a dangerous way? How can the user tell when the system is operating properly? How well could an experienced user instruct an inexperienced user on the details of the system? How could we make the user experience more pleasing?

As non-technical people who have given Linux a try know, too many open source designers see good interfaces as somehow "dumbing down" a system, and strive instead for complexity as a sign of completeness.

This all ties back to open source appropriate technology when we stop to consider the ways in which seemingly-simple tasks can be made difficult through obscure design, and the way that good design can make even tedious tasks a joy. Jeff cites the Play Pump as an example of good appropriate technology, and not only do I agree, I see it also as an example of truly excellent design.

The lesson here for open source appropriate technology creators is that functionality is necessary but not sufficient. Of course the technology has to work, but if commercial/proprietary technologies are simpler to use or provide the user a better sense of control over outcomes, it doesn't matter how gratis or libre the technology is -- it won't be widely used.

Ultimately, I think that the free/libre/open source model is an ideal engine for leapfrog development. This requires due consideration of how the technologies fit into the lives of potential users, from both a cultural impact perspective and a user need perspective. The connection between open source and the appropriate technology movement is potentially quite fruitful, and I look forward to seeing how it will evolve.

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Hello Jamais, and welcome to the discussion. A great article. Thank you! Trackback doesn't seem to be enabled.

In response to some of the issues addressed in this article, please read the following:


Posted by: Agroblogger on 18 Jan 06

Actually, looking at the latest releases of Open Office and Linux, I think the user-friendliness threshold has been crossed a number of years ago.

There are window managers in X that more or less copy the interface behavior of Microsoft or Apple. Of course, in open source development, it's harder to enforce a uniformity of behavior across all applications but in general I think average users, considering what they put up with in Microsoft and Apple, will general tolerate this.

Firefox and Evolution in Gnome/Ubuntu look and behave pretty much like Outlook and IE in XP. As far as average users are concerned the differences are small enough that they can transfer over without changing their habits much.

If the average user installs most of the new distros on hardware that's more than couple years old, it's very likely Linux will not confront them with any driver puzzles. From what I've seen it's nearly as plug and play as Microsoft is brand new hardware.

But there is still barriers. Most of the rest of the world's business and productivity applications are Microsoft, Adobe and other smaller proprietary formats. GIMP and Open Office users will always have to contend that and average users will find that frustrating. Microsoft knows this, even though they don't state explicitly, and works night and day to make certain the world stays this way.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 19 Jan 06

Open Source is also great because it gets you out from under the thumb of the corporations. Any step away from corporatism is a step in the right direction for humanity.

Posted by: Ben Wendt on 19 Jan 06

Hi, I work with an organization that is activly developing and disseminating open source appropriate technology. To date we have created a machine that shells peanuts at a rate of 125lbs an hour, compare that to the 3lbs per hour that can typically be done by hand. We have also created the world's most inexpensive corn grinder driven by a foot pedal. However we are always interested in collaboration, take a look at our blog and our discussion forums at

Posted by: Roey Rosenblith on 19 Jan 06



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