Jonathan Brun

Open-Source Life

Open-Source systems are projects where people can build on existing work without the worry of copyright infringement. Open-source projects and online communities have taken off in the past few years. Linux, Wikipedia, and Joomla have driven software and collaborative work, MySpace, Facebook and Youtube have become beehives of cultural activity and World of Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons and MIR II have formed alternate universes.

These communities have produced important technical products and spurred creativity. Which begs the question: What are the possibilities of applying open-source philosophy to non-technical concerns?

The best News website that has taken this approach is Guerrilla News Network. At the site, anyone can post an article, which is then awarded points by fellow community members; once the article has passed a specified threshold of points, it is published. This method allows for rapid peer-reviews and dissemination trustworthy information. Their system works relatively well. The articles are then subject to comments and discussion.

Can such a system be applied on a broader social level? Can the city of Montréal (4 million people) have a central website where people post initiatives for city authorities, tips to police, resources for fellow citizens to consult, etc etc. Or, is it necessary to allow the internet and its users to discuss topics on specific websites for their respective organizations?

One issue with these communities is reaching critical mass. It takes a certain quanitity of people for a community to remain active. It would therefore take an initiative on the part of the government to set this up. For example, all proposed bills could be posted along with the ability to comment and link. The discussions would have an expiry date where a vote would be taken on the topic, closing the topic – or opening another.

However, the real problem with collaborative work on non-scientific matters, is the difficulty of proving a concept right or wrong. Political ideas and their implementation are always open to interpretation and it is therefore not obvious that an open-source collaborative platform would help launch good initiatives. I do maintain that it would encourage debate and the dissemination of relevant information.

Moderators would be needed and large decisions would still require some form of paper voting. Collaboration and discussion is far more powerful than any army or elite. The EU rose out of the ashes of WWII, discussion brought about the end of slavery (in the UK), and collaboration was essential to scientific progress.

The old format of feeding pre-packaged goods to a stagnant consumer or individual is dead. A good talk by Leadbeater was recently given at the TED conference

TED is a conference where the brightest people in various fields come together to share ideas and demonstrate new technologies. Make sure to look at the presentations by Wade Davis (National Geographic), Robert Wright, Neil Gershenfeld (MIT), Ray Kurzweil, Peter Donnelly, and many many more.

There is substantial proof that students at schools who embrace an open, collaborative environment learn much more. The original school is Summerhill, where kids are encouraged to run projects and utilize resouces from teachers, but are not spoon fed excercises in a typical classroom. There have been pilot projects in Quebec for project-driven curriculum and students do in fact learn much more. Just as humans are inherently good (in a good environment), students have a natural desire to learn when placed in a good environment (see Ted Talk by Gershenfeld).

Another great example of the miscommunication is a study which identifies the right time to intervene with problem children. While it is extremely to change the behavior patterns of a 17 year old, 13, or 10 year old: small changes at the kindergarten (6 years old) level can make a world of difference. A student with poor hearing is likely to feel ostracized from his peers and will compensate with disruptive behaviour (bullying, fighting…), by identifying the problem early and providing a hearing aid, the child will have much fewer problems.

We need to take a step back from emotionally charged issues (poverty, children, health care, military intervention, …) and share ideas amongst many people, not just the politicians. Once we see our options and the research available, then we can start to move forward.

Some friends and I have taken these ideas and developed Strike a Light, a program that provides a platform for teaching students environmental sustainability at school. Without providing the detailed checklist format that is typical of school curriculums, we provide a general outline and the ability to collaborate on projects within a school and between schools. The students can then build on each other, the resources provided and their teachers’ knowledge to create solutions to our resource consumption.

We have just started, but it feels promising, and we hope to work with more schools over the summer to give this program a chance. We are always looking for help, so drop me a line and check out the site.

The future is only possible through collaboration, the concepts of uni-directional information, a teacher in front of a class, an all powerful New York Times editor or traditional patent protection is dying.

Published on February 26, 2007