Under the Hood: Open Source @ gov.za

August 25, 2008 § 2 Comments

As he wrapped up, Aslam Raffee reflected: “We’ve done very well in terms of setting policy, but very poorly at implementation. We’ve got to fix that.” Aslam is one of three people leading to roll out of South Africa’s government-wide commitment to open source. And he’s willing to admit: making it work ain’t easy.


At Open Everything Cape Town, Aslam spent an hour talking with Matt Buckland and Steve Song about how the open source policy roll out is going. The policy basically states that all systems used to run the Government of South Africa must be based on open standards and should use open source software wherever possible. As you can hear the podcast below, he was at once honest about the challenges of making this idea real and optimistic about the future …


Aslam Raffee – mouseover for audio

On the upside, the Government of South Africa seems to be ‘making the market’ by insisting that all departments have open document format (ODF) capability by the end of the year. Microsoft — which had previously given a ‘no way’ — is now on a fast track to integrating to ODF into Word. It seems there are alot of Word users in South Africa who still want to be able to do business with government. Also, there has been good traction on things like open standards and avoiding lock-in with big tenders in areas like government document management. The result is that these systems are most likely to be open source.

On the downside, there is simply a huge amount of ignorance and entropy. Asked if he could give an example of where they’re struggling to get people to ‘be open’, Aslam cited the Independent Election Comission’s brand new web site. When you go to the site in Firefox (I just did), you get this message:

Welcome to the IEC web site! Our server detected that you are using a Browser or Operating System (e.g. Netscape, Mozilla Firefox, etc) which is currently incompatible with our site.This web site is designed for Microsoft Internet Explorer versions 4 and above on Microsoft Windows. The IEC is currently in the process of enhancing the web site so that it will also cater for other browsers. We apologize for the inconvenience caused. Please click on the image below to download the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Even more notably, the ‘currently in the process of enhancing’ language didn’t even exist until a bunch of people blogged about this on Friday. It’s tough to be proud of your government’s commitment to open standards — and equal access to all citizens — with stuff like this.

The other big barrier to implementation is skills.The number of skilled open source developers and support people needed to roll out the government’s plan just don’t exist. Fixing this is partly a waiting game, as it depends on what the education system does … and what’s taught in classrooms is exempt from the open source policy as it isn’t about ‘government administration systems’.

Thanks to Aslam, Matt, Steve and everyone at Open Everything for making this conversation real. I learned a great deal.

The podcast above just includes Aslam’s main talk and the interview by Steve and Matt. You can hear a longer version including another 20 mins of audience questions here (bad audio in some parts).

Mozillian brainpower and passion. Yay!

July 31, 2008 Comments Off on Mozillian brainpower and passion. Yay!

As the old saying goes: ‘There’s nothing like getting stuck behind a rockslide with 400 of your closest friends.’ Okay, maybe it’s not an old saying yet … but it will be as people mythologize and remember the 2008 Firefox Plus Summitfloat planes, candles and all.


And mythologize they should. The brainpower and passion gathered at the Mozilla event was truly awesome. What’s more, it wasn’t just technology brainpower and passion (although it was certainly that in spades). Everyone I met to was just as stoked to talk about broader values like openness, the internet and community as they were about mobile browsers and data in the cloud. This is what drives it all. While this isn’t really surprising, feeling this kind of passion emanate off 400 living, breathing human beings is waaaaaaaaaay more real than just thinking about it in the abstract. Amazing, really.


More concretely: there were many of great conversations at the Summit about both Mozilla’s evolving identity and Mozilla Foundation 2.0. I will post in detail on these topics when I return from off-the-grid holidays in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, thanks to everyone I met for such a warm welcome to the Mozilla community. I am really hoping I have something useful to contribute.

Open Education at OSCON 2008

July 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

Danese Cooper has organized what promises to be an excellent conversation about open education at OSCON in Portland. Mark Shuttleworth will be part of the mix. Karien and I prepared some quick background notes for Mark re: what think is exciting in this space and the specific work we’re doing. I figured it would be useful to share here:

1. A growing number of people are creating open, collaborative learning content. This is exciting. It not only increases access to knowledge, it also adds more creativity and collaboration to the classroom.

  • The Open Courseware Consortium now has 200 member universities
  • Leading sites like Connexions, Curriki and OER Commons house over 45,000 open educational resources
  • Commercial entrants like Flat World Knowledge are stepping in and driving innovation

2. While it draws on the values and techniques of open source, open educational content is different. That’s the point of the Cape Town Declaration: to define the principles that should guide open education.

  • The Declaration calls for open approaches to content, technology and teaching
  • 1600 people and 165 organizations have signed the declaration since January
  • Signatories include everyone from Jimmy Wales to Desmond Tutu to Peter Gabriel

3. It’s also important to do bold, concrete experiments where we figure out the techniques that make open education work. That’s why we’re creating a set of free, collaborative textbooks for South African schools.

  • Will cover all core subjects in South African curriculum from k-12
  • Focus is not just free beer: the aim is to get teachers to create collaboratively
  • Helping to build a platform standard by working with Connexions at Rice University

Other open edu co-conspirators on the panel: Brian Behlendorf (who will hopefully talk about the super cool and disruptive Seneca / Mozilla open source course model); David Wiley (inventor of the first open content license and open ed super hero); and Bobbi Kurshan (fearless leader of the Curriki revolution). If you’re going to OSCON next week, this panel is a must see. Sadly, I won’t be there myself.

Open salad

April 18, 2008 § 2 Comments

Salad makes a perfect open source project. While most people think it’s a drag to produce a whole salad, it’s not so hard to get them to cough up one or two ingredients. The ingredients people contribute automagically turn out to be complimentary, most of the time. And, as more people contribute ingredients, the salad gets better and better. Yum.


So it is that that the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) has made its first foray into open source: a bi-weekly Open Salad Club.

The CSI is a shared workspace for social entrepreneurs and change agents located in a downtown Toronto warehouse. It’s home to about 100cdifferent organizations. The Shuttleworth Foundation‘s International Evangelism Unit (that’s me) is one amidst this multitude.


Every Tuesday and Thursday, about 20 CSI’ers throw an ingredient on the counter, mash it all up into an instant salad bar and nosh together. The rules for Open Salad Club, posted on a cafe table at CSI, are simple: “… each person brings two items that could conceivably go into a salad. Then we share. Your first trip to Salad Club is free.”

The culinary results a wonderful: fancy cheeses; tasty nuts; super fresh produce; all mixed up together. Some of the tastiest and most unique salads I’ve eaten in years. And, without the dreaded ‘what the heck am I going to bring for lunch today?’ crisis in the morning. Just grab whatever you’ve got in the fridge and go.




Of course, it’s the community vibe that really makes Open Salad Club rock. I’ve met (and learned the names of!) people I’ve been brushing past in the hallway for a year. And, my friend Marcia, who’s just taken up residence at the CSI (and just moved to Toronto) is still out there in cafe gabbing away with people. Building salad together is a quick path to meaningful relationships, it seems.

Important to remember: these community projects never come without trouble or controversy. There are already disputes over the name. Is it Open Salad? Or Salad Club? My strategy is to combine the two to avoid controversy, thus: Open Salad Club. Yet even this isn’t good enough. Rumour has it that the people at the Hub in London have forked the name again, setting up Sexy Salad on the same model.

There is also the question of whether Open Salad Club is an original idea or a derivative work. Eric Squair, who got this salad sharing rolling, claims the idea originated at Greenpeace. However, there is no concrete information online about the previous Greenpeace version or the license under which its rule set was released.


In any case, Open Salad Club is tasty, convenient and fun. It’s also one more example of ‘open’ being applied in novel and useful ways. Which, of course, makes it part of the case for open everything. More news, and maybe an Open Salad Club wiki, coming soon.

Unconferencing collaboration (and public policy)

January 28, 2008 § 3 Comments

I was just reading on the Doors of Perception blog that Collaborative Innovation is this year’s theme at the World Economic Forum. Maybe this is a good thing (Jimmy Wales got to talk), and maybe it’s not (Don Tapscott got to talk). In either case, the really sad thing is the continued trend events about mass collaboration that are as uncollaborative as possible. Davos is just one long-lecture-fest, with most people zoned out in the audience in passive listening mode. It’s not collaboration, it’s television.

Unconferencers and openspacers of the world have be running real collaborative events for years. However, trying to roll participation into conferences ranging from WEF (big and showy) to the iSummit (small and groovy) almost always meets with heavy push back. Even when talking about collaboration, most event organizers seem to think TV-style lectures are the only viable format. Strange, and maddening.

Happily, today saw a small victory for the unconference crowd, with an article on Toronto’s TransitCamp appearing in the Harvard Business Review’s 2008 Breakthrough Ideas section. My friend Mark Kuznicki describes it here:

… [the HBR] piece tells the tale of a community and a public agency coming together to solve problems in an innovative new way, using social web technology, social media and design methods together with the Barcamp unconference framework. The approach helped to shift the relationship between the organization and its customers and community stakeholders. That organization was the Toronto Transit Commission and the event and the open creative community that emerged from it was called Toronto TransitCamp.

Put simply, TransitCamp was an unconference to gather input on the redesign of the Toronto Transit Commission’s web site. What’s amazing is that the chair of the TTC attended and that many of the new and creative ideas from the event actually got fed into the site design process. Vancouver and San Francisco have ripped off the idea by holding their own TransitCamps.

My hope (and the hope of the TransitCamp ringleaders) is that the HBR article will give some legitimacy to the unconference idea, especially as a way to engage in both public policy dialogues and big conferency conferences (a participatory unDavos? … okay, maybe not). Here’s to hoping.

PS. You can read the article in Harvard Business Review, or visit this wiki page
for links that provide a comprehensive overview of the background, the
design, the experience, the media coverage, the conceptual foundations
and the influence of TransitCamp.

Next steps: digging into open source thinking

November 16, 2007 § 1 Comment

As hinted in previous posts, I’m planning to spend the next few years digging deeper into how we can use networks and open source thinking for social change. Part of this is continued work with the telecentre.org community. Another part is open philanthropy and open education work with the Shuttleworth Foundation. A third bit is now coming into focus: reflecting more on ‘the meaning of open’ and feeding it into experiments with the Centre for Social Innovation and others here in Canada.

Luckily, I’ve stumbled across some good collaborators for this. The obvious one is my wife and CSI ED Tonya (we talk about this crazy network stuff almost every morning at 6am). Also, I’ve been bouncing ideas around with Jason Mogus, Michael Lewkowitz and Michael Manolson. These conversations have helped me shape up some questions I want to ask in this ‘reflecting and experimenting’ bit of my work. What I have sketched out so far is this:

As open source thinking spreads like wildfire, one has to ask: is there any ‘there’ there? And, if there is,  can the ideas and values bundled up in the word ‘open’ help change the way we change the world? Now is the time to dive into these questions and see what open source thinking can do.

Open source and web 2.0 have driven one of the biggest social innovations of our time: the use of massive and distributed collaboration to create knowledge, manage organizations and mobilize movements. These innovations are leading to significant changes in the media, education and the economy at large. They are  giving us new tools to do our work, and are also ushering in a new way of thinking. Open source thinking.

However, these technologies are only half the story. We are seeing the idea of ‘open’ pop up everywhere. Ideas about ‘open systems’. ‘open space’ and the ‘open society’ have been with us for years. But a scan of Wikipedia and the blogosphere turns up almost a dozen new ‘open’ or ‘open source’ domains including content, research, media, education, philanthropy, cities and even religion. The open meme – and open source thinking – are spreading.

The spread of the  open meme into worlds as diverse as systems theory, organizational design and software raises a number of important questions for those of us concerned with social innovation and social change:

  • Is ‘open’ really something to pay attention to? If so, what does it mean? What do things like open systems, open space meetings and open source software have in common?
  • Can open source thinking help us change the way we do social change? How can we leverage the values and tactics of ‘open’ to  accelerate social innovation?
  • How can social tech activists – people already using open source thinking for social change – help others weave weave open thinking into the way they work, play and innovate?

‘Open’ may simply be a fad. Or, it may be part of a new way of thinking and working that can help us break free of the ‘stuckness’ we feel in the worlds of social service, education, social change and philanthropy. Looking around, diving in and experimenting is the only way to sort out fad from massive opportunity.

I am posting this here because I’d love to get feedback on these questions at an early stage. Does this line of inquiry resonate? What other questions would you ask? What other kinds of ‘open’ would you look at? Are there other people doing similar work I should know about? Do you know of people in universities doing formal research that I could link into? Thoughts on any of these fronts would help.

I have to say, I feel like I am at a watershed moment: all of the networking / open thinking bits and pieces I am working on are coming together. At the same time, there seems to be support from many quarters to spend a bit of time reflecting and framing in a way that links everything together (or not). Fun. Fun. Fun.

Undefended territory

July 23, 2007 Comments Off on Undefended territory

My favourite Ubuntu Live slide so far was Stephen O’Grady‘s Sun Tzu quote: “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.”


O’Grady intended this as a reminder to the Ubuntu community, highlighting the upside of taking unclaimed territory (e.g. simple, clean, easy-to-use window on web applications). However, it also raises some questions for those working on open (source) education. Should we go for big policy change, or  can we create educational materials and apps that are so good that teachers just use them?

I dug into this question a little bit with Mark Shuttleworth and Jeff Waugh over dinner. Mark’s opinion: you can only do the educational end run strategy if you ‘hit it out of the park’ with something like Wikipedia (is this Curriki?). My sense is that it’s still possible big leaps through smaller (or maybe the word is ‘narrower’) wins, as long as the idea is at once radical and useful.

If it works, Kusasa might be exactly this. It’s fun. It doesn’t look like anything else in education. It breeds curiosity, inventiveness and collaboration. And, it meets a real need: stronger analysis stills amongst students graduating from high school. It could be one of those things that teachers and students ‘just use’.
Having slept on it, I am now thinking that policy (slow and incremental) and end runs (fast and radical) don’t need to be an either / or proposition. In fact, they probably work together well in yin / yang-ish sort of way.

Radical approaches like Kusasa can work in positive tension with initiatives like Free Textbooks that are targeted at the current mainstream of education. While this interplay is already at work in the Foundation, it might be useful to think about it more consciously … and to open up to a few more radical change bets in the coming years. It shouldn’t all be about policy change.

Open source chamber of commerce

July 2, 2007 Comments Off on Open source chamber of commerce

The open source chamber of commerce is one of the few ideas really sticking with me from last weekend’s Open Cities Camp.

The concept is simple: create an association to network and promote open source businesses in Toronto (or wherever you live). The members could be big (Google) or small (the Linux Caffe), focused explicitly on open source (a Linux support company) or just use open source (a phone company or a bank), work on software (Mozilla) or on other kinds of ‘open’ (why doesn’t Lulu.com have a Toronto office?). The common thread would be that open source plays a central role in the work of all these companies.


Why? To focus and build buzz around the significant volume of open source activity that is quietly (and disconnectedly) happening in Toronto. The number of companies, projects and research labs focused on open source is growing in this city, yet they are spread out a thousand nooks and crannies. There is no sense of community, no sense of anything bigger. Of course, that’s totally okay on one level. No need to invent community, especially when most people are tapped in globally. However, there is another level where staying disconnected locally represents a missed opportunity to make Toronto a better place to work on open source.

This ‘make Toronto a better place to do open source’ impulse was the thing that originally got me talking about open cities in the first place. The event last week had people taking the idea in all sorts of crazy and fun directions. Yet my interest in open cities still centres around the idea that there is a huge economic and cultural opportunity around becoming a hub for open source business, research and culture, and that a number of cities around the world will soon start actively wooing projects and companies in this space. We already see this in other industry sectors, with cities actively trying to attract and cluster businesses in green energy, biotech and so on. Why not do this with open source? And why not Toronto?

Of course, there are a number of good answers to ‘why not Toronto?’ Our colleges and universities focus very little on open source (with the exception of CDOT at Seneca). There are no big name open source or open content companies headquartered here. And, the idea that open source represents a huge economic development opportunity – or even an interesting topic of conversation – is totally off the City of Toronto radar. We don’t have a buzz or critical mass around ‘open’.

Or, at least, we didn’t. The buzz factor is slowly starting to increase. CDOT’s annual Seneca at York open source conference is building a name internationally. Open cities made a connection and got some attention from 70 people spending a day talking about how ‘open’ impacts their work. Places like the Centre for Social Innovation and SIG@Mars are talking about open source as a potential driver of social invention and innovation. We’re building some buzz, slowly.

The Toronto Open Source Chamber of Commerce (or whatever it wants to be called) could be one way to amp up this buzz, and to engage business more actively in promoting Toronto as a good place to work on open source. Getting it started – and making it useful – wouldn’t be hard. The Chamber of Commerce could: convene a few open source focused barcamps; run occasional networking breakfasts / lectures when key open source people are in town; build volunteer teams to use open source to help local charities. It could start small, and grow if there is traction. The only way to find out is to try.

PS.  David Eaves and I are thinking about doing a session on the Open Source Chamber of Commerce at the Seneca FSOSS conference in October. Ping us or comment here if you are interested in being involved.


July 20, 2005 Comments Off on Community-business-minded-ness

Vancouver, Canada

The community-business-minded-ness of the Bryght team was a refreshing surprise. They get community, they get business … and they know open source can be both.


Boris, Kris and some friends run Bryght, a Vancouver company that offers quick and dirty (plus almost-as-quick and very pretty) web sites based on the Drupal online community platform. Most small open source companies live off customization, set up or support fees. Not Bryght. They just set up your Drupal site in a flash, and then charge you for hosting by the month. In less than a year, they have 800+ sites and a rock-solid ‘beta’ product.

Now, Drupal hosting may not excite you. But, I would argue, open source application service providers (companies that offer hosted applications) should raise your eyebrow. In my opinion, the ASP model offers companies a way to provide real value to customers (simple, fast, always updated) AND participate in the collective production process of open source (the Bryght guys are from the community and submit tons of code back to Drupal) at the same time. Despite the value, and obviousness, of this model, there are only a handful good open source ASPs on the planet.

For me, Bryght’s ASP model points to a future where open source businesses survive through innovative business processes and good customer service, not through technical superiority. Boris, Kris, et al have rolled up much of their business process knowledge into the (proprietary) Bright Provisioning Platform. This is what they use to set up Drupal sites fast, and is also something they will license to others who want to do the same thing. All the while, they keep innovating Drupal, contributing code back to the community and creating happy customers.

Also worth noting, the Bryght guys instantly got the telecentre.org online vision. They’ve seen what a bunch of small pieces loosely joined (many small sites + RSS + common passion) can do. In fact, much of the Drupal innovation they are playing with – collective translation of content, large scale implementations of interconnected sites, content aggregation, etc. – is really hooked into the idea of distributed, community-driven approaches. Which, of course, is perfect: we need allies who get this vision.

PS. Thanks to Kris Krug and hist photostream for the pic above.

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