[Remember that even though I work for IBM I am an individual with my own thoughts and ideas. Anything I write here may not necessarily represent the views of the IBM Corporation or its partners... though I'm hoping that's only a matter of time before they catch up.]
Today I read the article "Mitsubishi's gift to the community of people affected by the Japan earthquake" on opensource.com. It's based on a New York Times story about how Mitsubishi donated electric cars to Japan keep food and materials moving through disaster-torn areas where gasoline was not easily available. What a great story!
This idea of "community" and "cooperation" comes up again and again when I talk to people about open source. How can you make money by giving stuff away? Why would you do that? It's really less about money than it is about value. I attended a scientific software symposium at the Texas Advanced Computing Center in Austin, Texas. A common thread through several of the presentations was that these people did not consider themselves to be software people. They were physicists, anthropologists and other kinds of "ists." They wrote software because they wanted tools to help them with their work which just weren't available to them. Being smart, motivated people, they just began to tinker on their own. As it turned out what they were doing was of value to others in the community, who also contributed. Some of these people don't consider themselves developers. The value they receive from writing the software is a tool which helps to further their science. Science is their goal... software is a means to that end.
I think this sort of "barter" system of value for value is an important core concept for understanding the open-source universe. Now, I'm not some sort of anarchist who wants to abolish money. I would have to come up with a lot of chickens to pay for my house! However, I do think that there is a lot of benefit in stepping outside of the "governmental currency" system when it comes to solving community problems. Money is a means of exchange for people who don't have something else that the other person needs.
In the open software world this kind of exchange can come in many forms. If you have development skill, then that is usually appreciated. Projects always need help with code. If you don't, there are likely other things that you can contribute. Have you ever been to a wiki for one of these projects and not found the information you were looking for in the documentation? Did you find it elsewhere on a forum? Did you go back and contribute your answer back into the documentation so that people after you could find it? You don't have to be a great writer. If what you contribute needs a little editorial massaging there will be someone after you who has a passion for grammar who will fix it up. They put that documentation in a wiki format to remove barriers to contributions from the community. Honestly, how long would it take to write a short paragraph about the answer to your question, just to get it started?
There are other kinds of contributions that add value to your community. IBM does a lot of work in this area, encouraging employees to be involved in a variety of community programs. Here are a few examples:
- tryscience - Tryscience is a tool to introduce kids to contemporary science and technology through on and offline interactivity with science and technology centers worldwide. It's value is to promote interest in science and give anyone who is interested the opportunity to experience that process of discovery. It's a partnership between the IBM Corporation, the New York Hall of Science (NYHOS), the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), and science centers worldwide.
- mentorplace - MentorPlace is a volunteer program that brings adult professionals and students together in online relationships focused on academics. Employee-volunteers are charged with providing students with academic assistance and career counseling, while letting them know that adults do care about their issues and concerns.
In case you're beginning to think that this community drive is only pointed to children, here are some other types of IBM community projects:
- Eternal Egypt - This site, aimed at all ages, provides a rich, interactive exploration of the history of egypt. Personally, I think the preservation and access to history is a critically important part of culture. An online museum like this brings culture and knowledge to people who might not have a chance to see these things in any other way.
- World Community Grid - World Community Grid's mission is to create the world's largest public computing grid to tackle projects that benefit humanity. It makes technology available only to public and not-for-profit organizations to use in humanitarian research that might otherwise not be completed due to the high cost of the computer infrastructure required in the absence of a public grid. As part of our commitment to advancing human welfare, all results will be in the public domain and made public to the global research community.
There are other examples which can be find on the IBM Corporate Citizenship page, a somewhat stuffy title for the good things that IBM is contributing.
I guess my point, to all of this is that
if our community fails, where does that leave us as individuals? I'm
all for personal responsibility, but I like living with the other
humans. We all have talents to contribute, whether it is technical
skill or another kind. In some cases what we get for those
contributions is money... a generic exchange. In other cases we get
smarter kids, more beautiful environments and neighbors who contribute
to our well-being. Surely that's value for value.