A quick comment on open, yin and yang

February 13, 2009 § 2 Comments

Just now, I was commenting on my friend Steve’s post on The Yin and Yang of Open. As sometimes happens, the comment grew into a bit of a tome. Or, at least something long enough that I figured I should make it a post instead. So here it is.

Great post, Steve. While I am always waving the flag of open, I am also a big yinyanger. Balance is important.

But, for the most part, I think were already surrounded by enough ‘closed’. Getting to balance is a long way away. So, closed mostly doesn’t need our help.

There are exceptions. Privacy is a big one. We’re losing it quickly. And it’s a pretty critical part of the balance. You need the privacy kind of closed in order to protect most of what we value in freedom and openness.

On the elements of open, I think you mostly have them. The three that I stick to these days are:

1. Transparency: Can you *see* inside something, and understand how it works.

2. Permeability. Can energy / labour / ideas / whatever get in *and* out of the open thing you are talking about.

3. Malleability: Can you shape / remix / make something new. This is similar to Zittrain’s generativity. Or, in layman’s terms, it’s hackability.

I did a similar exercise to yours here:


… and then iterated and tested by talking to alot of people in alot of ‘what’s open?’ conversations.

A fourth item that may be on the list: permission. As in, you don’t have to ask for it to do something. I am not sure it’s quite the right word. But my colleague Jay suggested it as we were talking about what an open mobile ecosystem would look like. It would be one where you don’t have to ask permission to add new apps, invent new services, and so on. Like the internet.

One small area I disagree: you say ‘openness is not in and of itself a virtue’. Something can be virtuous but, like all things, require moderation and balance. Personally, I see both ‘openness’ and ‘privacy’ as virtues, and don’t see much of a contradiction.

That’s all for this sunny Friday. ‘Hi’ to family and all in Durbanville.

And, to anyone else reading this, happy Friday to you too.

Interview: Gregorio Robles from URJC in Madrid

February 11, 2009 § 1 Comment

Over the past few months, Pascal Chevrel has been introducing Gregorio Robles to the world of Mozilla. Gregorio is part of Libresoft.es — a unit of the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos in Madrid that offers a masters degree in free and open source software development. After some discussions and small add ons workshop, Gregorio and Pascal have agreed to develop a Mozilla development course that will run this coming summer.

As a part of my interview series on Mozilla Education, I asked Gregorio to share his thoughts while he was at FOSDEM:

For the non-video-inclined, here is a quick summary of Gregorio’s comments:

  • Mozilla is important for education. This is the first time in history where students can learn by working on real live code in an open project. But education is also important for Mozilla. Projects like Mozilla need people who know our technologies, and universities can help solve this problem.
  • We already have a masters program on free and open source software, but it is mostly on general topics and technologies. We want to add courses on specific technologies so students can get involved with the community around that technology. Mozilla is a good place to start.
  • Our specific plans for Mozilla are to have a face to face week in the summer followed by a longer online component. Students will take on projects where they get to really touch the code and know the Mozilla community.
  • In terms of Mozilla’s broader educational effort, the priority should be to get materials done and then to re-use them. I am sure there will be lots of people wanting to use these materials. This will make life easier and make it easier to become a Mozilla contributor.

Gregorio will be working with Pascal, Frank as well as Dave at Seneca to prepare his course over the coming months.

Brussels EduCamp debrief

February 11, 2009 § Leave a comment

Last week in Europe was a wonderful whirlwind. One of the highlights was EduCamp — a small, pre-FOSDEM unconference about the link between open source and higher education. It was a bunch of people I knew (eg. Greg DeKoenigsberg from Red Hat, Leslie Hawthorne from Summer of Code), and a bunch I hadn’t met yet (eg. Ross Gardler from Oxford and Gregorio Robles from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos). Plus a bunch of Mozilla people working on education. All great, and all passionate about the learning potential inherent in the open source development process.


Much of the day was spent sharing info about the projects that people are working on or developing. Some things that struck me as interesting:

  1. Folks at Oxford are planning to develop simple training for open source contributors to help them become more effective student mentors. The ideas is to help people know what they’re getting into, and what to expect in return, when they take on a student.
  2. In addition to planning a Mozilla course as part of it’s current programs, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos is also working with a number of universities to develop a Europe-wide masters program in free and open source software development. This would mean standard accreditation and significant numbers of students across the continent.
  3. There is a group at the UN University in Maastricht doing research on how learning happens in open source projects, and how best to link university students into the process.

I knew about the people behind all of these efforts and vaguely understood what they were up to. But getting together face-to-face always brings things to life more. I was impressed by the things people are working on.


The last bit of the day was brainstorming simple actions that might keep the energy around teaching open source going. Top ideas from the flip chart included:

  • Plant a flag in the ground, and come up with a name for what we’re all working on (‘teaching open source’ and ‘open source education’ don’t really to work).
  • Figure out how to tell the story of why open source projects are such great learning environments, and about efforts to make the link to formal education. (Chris Blizzard claims ‘tell the story’ is his answer to everything)
  • Develop a simple way to map what people are doing in the open source education space. Maybe this is an online survey?
  • Write compelling (and critical) case studies of people teaching open source in colleges and universities. Maybe this is an O’Reilly book?
  • Create a blog planet of everyone who attended, and others working on open source and education.
  • Develop a monster.com-style site for open source interns.

Truly a brainstorm. But some good ideas here. And some similarities to ideas that came out of the Teaching Open Source track that happened at FSOSS back in October. There is another meeting of people working on open source education happening in Chattanooga next month. It feels like there is momentum building around this whole idea. Hopefully that means some of the ideas above can turned into something real.

The future of open: what’s on your map?

February 10, 2009 § 15 Comments

On Saturday, I gave a keynote at FOSDEM called Free. Open. Future? My goal was to encourage people think of free and open as concepts that extend beyond software, and to spark a conversation about the ideas / design frameworks / mental maps we’ll need to make sure complex spaces like mobile and messaging are open in the future.  The slides are here:

If you don’t feel like flipping through the slides, the basic line of reasoning goes something like this:

  1. Free software and open source have been successful in part because there is a clear mental map and values. RMSfour freedoms — use, study, modify, copy — and similar ideas make up this map.
  2. The mental map that guided free software has also contributed to the creation of an open web. Transparency (study) and remixability (modify) are particularly critical to the web feeling and being open, and have started to bleed into more than just the code that makes up web pages but also into how regular users experience the web when they remix content and reconfigure their online tools.
  3. The challenges we’re about to face in coming years are complex, and it’s clear we will need more than just use / study / modify / copy to chart our future course. If you just look at mobile, we need to figure out what ‘open’ means not only at the hardware and software level, but also in cloud services, carrier pricing, end user rights over their devices. There is a great deal to sort through if we want to get anywhere close to the success we’ve had with free software and the open web.

All of this ends up with a question: what new ideas can we add to our mental maps to make sure we can take free and open even further? Similar to the mobile scenario above, the current state of online shows why this question matters. David Ascher pointed out in his FOSEDM talk that things like Facebook and Twitter now make up a huge percentage our online conversations. Yet they are mostly closed and walled off, much more so than standardized email. If we want messaging to be a part of the open internet we’re building for the future, we need some sort of shared (but probably quite rough) mental map that includes criteria to answer ‘is this approach toonline  messaging open?’ Without this, it’s hard to build innovative products will win win in the marketplace, which is critical to ensuring that ‘open’ wins. The same is true for spaces like mobile and cloud computing.

I gave a couple of quickly hacked together ideas on what I think our future maps need to include, and listed them near the end of my slides:

  • Strong values, freedom beyond just code
  • Great free software, that people love to use
  • Users as hackers, anyone can bend anything

These aren’t necessarily the most important ideas, except for maybe the last one about ‘users as hackers’ — that’s critical to the future of open innovation. And there are definitely places like the Mozilla Manifesto that have key elements for the mental map we need. However, my main goal here was really just to spark a conversation.

And, I must say, I failed dismally at that goal. One question from the floor, and it was off topic. Some good comments from Mozilla people afterwars. But the conversation I wanted.

On the plane to Munich, I asked a fellow FOSDEMer about this — someone who works in big car company and also attends Chaos Computer Club every year.  I figured he’d have a good perspective. His response: “You made some inroads. Ideas like these take time to settle in, and make cracks. But you also need a broader audience. Ask more people.”

Funnily enough, simply throwing my slides online yesterday sparked a few replies. One about the importance of open innovation. And another about the value that comes from ‘acting’ online, simply being a contributor to the openness of the web by posting content. Interesting.

So, taking my flightmate’s advice, this post is another chance for people to answer: what’s on your map? What are the critical ideas that will help us succeed with free and open in the future? If you think these are interesting questions, comment away.

Why Mozilla Education?

February 1, 2009 § 12 Comments

As we scribble and plan for for Mozilla Education, a question sometimes comes up: why? Why is this interesting to Mozilla? Why not just leave educating to the educators? There are at least two different answers to this question.

Mozilla Education as multiplier

The first is straightforward: providing people with high quality, easy to access learning opportunities helps with Mozilla’s goal of promoting openness and participation as a part of Internet life. We can offer courses about things like open source work methods and open web technology. People in Mozilla know these things inside out. By sharing what we know, we increase the number of people skilled in these areas, and we probably pick up new contributors along the way. This is pretty simple, and is reason enough to experiment seriously with education programs.

The other answer to ‘why?’ lays in the fact that well run open source source communities are inherently engines of learning.  People can show up to a project like Mozilla with basic skills and a willingness to contribute. From there, they can: study the code and the project; get feedback on their contributions;  work with more more experienced contributors to create things and solve problems. If all goes well, they leave (or move on to help others in the project) not only with better coding skills, but also with a deep understanding of how to work in a global collaborative community environment. While it’s more like apprenticeship than a PhD, there is no question that this is a process of learning.

Mozilla as learning process

Of course, this alone isn’t reason to create something called Mozilla Education. In fact, some might see it as an anti-reason: people are already learning, so why do anything different?

The answer is: we may be able to amplify and broaden the learning opportunities that flow from Mozilla by looking more systematically at the education side of things. Take the upcoming Labs Design Challenge as an example.  It will use a course-like approach (interactive online lectures, competitive assignments, access to mentors) as a way to engage with human computer interaction design students. By doing this, the Labs people are opening up Mozilla participation and learning opportunities to a group of people that have been traditionally hard to engage through the regular open software development process. They are using education to expand our community and the number of people we reach deeply with Mozilla’s approach to open innovation.

The hope is that Mozilla Education can have this sort of broadening effect writ large: giving more people a chance to learn with and get involved in Mozilla. And not just technical students. Also students from disciplines like design, marketing and business.

On related question that a few people asked in response to my last post: why just focus on Mozilla, as opposed to looking at open source and education more broadly? The reasoning here is that you need real and concrete problems to learn around. In a traditional classroom, students work on ‘exercises’ — problems that someone else has already solved or that won’t actually get used in the real world. Whether its fixing a bug or developing marketing materials or coming up with design ideas, open source projects offer learning opportunities that are built around real world problems. By extension, these are learning opportunities that have potential for significant real world impact. The solution you come up with might just end up in a product like Firefox.

While Mozilla may eventually choose to champion the idea of open source as learning environment in a broader arena, the starting point has to be with the assets we have on hand: real problems in Mozilla projects, and mentors who can help people solve those problems. Eventually, we may learn enough about how open source and education  work that we could do something broader than just Mozilla. But we’ve got to start somewhere more concrete than that if we want to have an impact.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t evangelize and connect with others who share our vision about teaching open source. We have alot to learn from initiatives like Summer of Code that are already making the education + open source link. Mozilla is hosting a small EduCamp event on the day before FOSDEM with this in mind. If you are going to be in Brussels, please consider dropping in. It’ll be a great place to share your ideas and learn about this whole space.

Upcoming posts: explaining education ideas we have on the table by interviewing some of the people who are making them happen.

A city that thinks like the web, slides + audio

November 27, 2008 § 49 Comments

Thanks to everyone who pitched in with comments and ideas for my City of Toronto 2.0 Web Summit talk yesterday. The idea that we can create a ‘city that thinks like the web’ — and that Toronto can learn from projects like Mozilla — seemed to go over well. Here are the slides:

… and the audio:

As outlined in my call for ideas last week, the talk ended with three simple challenges to City Hall. They went something like this:

  1. Open our data. transit. library catalogues. community centre schedules. maps. 311. expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city. do it now.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city.  somebody would have FixMyStreet.to up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen. encourage it.
  3. Ask for help creating a city that thinks like the web. copy Washington, DC’s contest strategy. launch it at BarCamp.

I also made off the cuff encouragements for the city to open source the software it produces and put Firefox on every desktop. Didn’t want to push these, but had to at least mention ;).

A fun story: the mayor was in the front row for the whole talk. Every time I’d say something challenging or controversial, he’d start typing madly on his his Blackberry. I thought he was taking notes. Turns out he was emailing people on his staff with questions about opening TTC data for Google Transit, open sourcing city-made code, and so on.

When my talk finished, the mayor came back immediately with ” … I’ve been emailing people about your challenges. Open data for Google Transit is coming by next June, and I don’t see what we shouldn’t open source the software Toronto creates.” He also said “I promise the City will listen” if Torontonians set up a site like FixMyStreet.com. Great news, and hopefully real encouragement for TransitCampers and open web geeks into Toronto start hacking away at online tools that make our city better. I’ve uploaded audio of the mayor’s remarks here:

The one challenge the mayor didn’t address directly: doing an Apps For Democracy-style contest like the one done in Washington, DC. I still think this is a super and low cost idea. I talked to Tonya, Mark K and Will P about it after the Summit, and all said they want to make something like this happen. In fact, Tonya offered to host a Toronto Social Innovation Camp (geeks gather to sprint on solutions to a problem) where people hack on ‘make Toronto better’ web projects. This could totally blend in with the contest idea. All we need is for City Hall to is open up some data and pitch in the prize money. Fun times ahead.

One the talk itself: a little longer than I’d hoped (40 mins) and got a few Mozilla facts wrong (ooops), but overall think it was okay. Comments on how to improve for similar talks welcome.

Need help: webifying city hall

November 16, 2008 § 18 Comments

In 10 days, I’m doing a lunchtime keynote for 300 councillors, tech staff and agency heads at the City of Toronto’s internal Web 2.0 Summit. Beltzner’s great Changing the World slides (warning: big) got my mind rolling on this talk. So, I started writing it up. My main point will be something like:

Openess and participation created a better internet. They can also create a better city.

The talk will start with the Firefox story, much along Beltzner’s ‘this is how we changed the world’ line. Then I’ll tour examples of people using open, participatory webishness to make cities better. This will feed into a set of simple, concrete challenges to the people who run my city.

open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

Challenges to city hall: open data; crowdsourcing; and listening.

For this talk to rock, I really need help with the last two sections — the examples and the challenges.

On the examples front, I am looking for three very specific things:

  • Cities (or other governments) that have opened up their data so citizens can mash it up and add value.
  • Web apps created by normal people that do things city hall should do (e.g. transit maps), but do them better.
  • Examples of cities listening effectively to their citizens at a customer service level (i.e. whether people are happy with how clean the streets are).

A few people (thanks, Sameer!) have already fed me great examples. FixMyStreet.com. The City of Portland (first to have google transit thanks to open data). Washington, DC‘s recent useful-services-for-the-city mashup contest. But I need more. If you’ve got ‘em, please comment on this post.

On the ‘challenges’ front, I want to come up with some concrete things city tech managers can do to make Toronto more open, participatory and mashable. I’m going to challenge them to:

  1. Open (y)our data. Transit. Library catalogues. Community centre schedules. Maps. Expose it all so the people of Toronto can use it to make a better city.
  2. Crowdsource info gathering that helps the city. I bet somebody would have FixMyStreet.to up and running in a week if the Mayor promised to listen.
  3. Listen to citizens. Not just in a policy-consultation-ish kind of way, but also on everyday things-I-need-from-my-city customer service issues. First step: send a copy of the Cluetrain Manifesto to every manager in City Hall.

The City of Toronto CIO has promised more Web 2.0. That’s great. Maybe it’s the right time for challenges like these to actually be taken up. In any case, my question is: are these the right three things to push? If not, what would you ask for? Again, comments below encouraged.

Constellation model in OSBR

September 25, 2008 § 4 Comments

Over the summer, Tonya and I published an article in Singapore’s Social Space journal about the constellation governance model used by the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Environmental Health. This is a way of organizing NGO partnerships in small clusters — or constellations — based around interest, skill and passion. Obviously, some similarities there to how many open source projects work.

The people at the Open Source Business Review picked up on this and asked to republish the article with an open source spin. It’s out today. Here’s the abstract:

The constellation model was developed by and for the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment. The model offers an innovative approach to organizing collaborative efforts in the social mission sector and shares various elements of the open source model. It emphasizes self-organizing and concrete action within a network of partner organizations working on a common issue.

Constellations are self-organizing action teams that operate within the broader strategic vision of a partnership. These constellations are outwardly focused, placing their attention on creating value for those in the external environment rather than on the partnership itself. While serious effort is invested into core partnership governance and management, most of the energy is devoted to the decision making, resources and collaborative effort required to create social value. The constellations drive and define the partnership.

The constellation model emerged from a deep understanding of the power of networks and peer production. Leadership rotates fluidly amongst partners, with each partner having the freedom to head up a constellation and to participate in constellations that carry out activities that are of more peripheral interest. The Internet provided the platform, the partner network enabled the expertise to align itself, and the goal of reducing chemical exposure in children kept the energy flowing.

Building on seven years of experience, this article provides an overview of the constellation model, discusses the results from the CPCHE, and identifies similarities and differences between the constellation and open source models.

This issue of Open Source Business Review is all about the intersection of open source and social innovation. Some interesting stuff, including a piece on the OLPC as educational innovation and something on the McConnell Foundation’s approach to community engagement.

Evolving Shuttleworth theory of change

September 19, 2008 § 1 Comment

One of the first things that I took on in my Shuttleworth open philanthropy gig was to help the team develop a ‘theory of change‘. The aim was two-fold: create a simple compass to guide internal decisions and develop a tool to help the rest of the world understand what we’re up to. Basically, we wanted a snapshot of how our collective brain works as a team.

Well, that was 18 months ago. We’ve had at least two all staffs, a dozen small group chats and countless online conversations since. And we’ve produced many iterations, at least one of which I have blogged about here. Not surprising. That’s how strategic planning-y things often go, especially when they are intentionally open ended like this one.

What is surprising was how useful all of this conversation has been in aligning our everyday thinking. Words that we didn’t have before — words we invented for the theory of change — have become a part of everyday thinking and decision making in the office. And, things we’ve believed in for a long time, like transparency and open licensing, have actually become a more real part of our work. Which, in the end, was probably the point.

As I leave the Foundation (last day :( today), I promised to do one more iteration based on recent conversations. It looks like this [big version] …

The aim was to simplify as much as possible, just showing the essence. Also, there are lots of changes to some of the core language we are using.

Also, I agreed to write up a series of notes describing each element on the theory of change with a little more detail. I’ve done this as a (pretty ugly) slide deck …

In the near future, our designer Eugene Badenhorst will soon take a shot at making the above diagram real pretty and then doing a small booklet based on the slides.

In the meantime, I highly encourage you to start adding thoughts into the mix, especially if you work closely with the Shuttleworth Foundation. Are we on the right track? If we aren’t, what’s missing? If we are, how close is our theory to our practice? Where do we need to work harder? Where are we full of it?

The idea is that this snapshot of our collective brain will continue to evolve, even after the pretty design. Getting feedback — good and bad —  from people who work with us is a critical part of this. Leave comments here, or send mail to Steve Song (the new lead on this), Helen and I.

Open Sourcing Cambodia

September 16, 2008 § 5 Comments

I love meeting practical people working hard to implement big dreams. Noy Shoung is one of those people. He’s trying to infuse open source into how Cambodians enter the computing age. And he’s making some headway.

Noy is the Deputy Secretary General (In Charge of Human Capacity Building and Free/Open Source Software) at National ICT Development Authority (NiDA). Cool title to have. And, one that is hard earned. Noy’s built up a team inside NiDA to localize open source desktop apps into Khmer (a language too small to be interesting to Microsoft), build up open source development skills amongst young people (still early days on this one) and train end users on Linux, Open Office and Firefox (20,000 people and counting). He’s also the major champion behind Khmer OS, a localized OpenSuse distribution.

What’s interesting is that Noy’s headway is built on very practical foundations: most Cambodians don’t speak English, especially outside Phnom Penh. KhmerOS and related applications are the fastest route to computer skills for these people. And, these people want computer skills. So, Noy’s small army of 45 public servants is training people up, with most of the training happening in provinces and smaller cities. He’s also offering training to university students — most of whom show up without ever having used a computer — who can’t afford to go to private computer tutoring schools.

Noy’s next step is to localize Ubuntu and update some of the existing apps (there have been some problems with Suse KhmerOS). He also plans expand the developer and sysadmin tech training that he offers jointly with universities. And, he’s in the midst of updating the government’s FOSS Master Plan. If there are any folks out there reading this who have deep tech skills that they want to share to help with this effort, Noy has put out an open ended invite. It’s a fun and important thing to pitch into.

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