Why Growstuff is Open Source

This was originally posted on the new Growstuff blog, which I set up the other day. I also set up a fortnightly newsletter, to which you should subscribe if you want to keep up with what’s happening with Growstuff as we count down to our public launch, in (eep!) about 2-and-a-bit months.

My background is in open source software, and I’ve been using and producing it for almost twenty years. Sometimes it’s easy to live in the open source bubble, and fail to notice that there are areas where open source software is not common or standard. Over the past few months, working on Growstuff, I’ve attended a number of events for social enterprises and sustainability, and checked out dozens of websites aimed at food gardeners or people trying to live more sustainable lives. Venturing outside my former bubble, I’ve found that open source software is the exception rather than the rule in these areas, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about why Growstuff is open source, and why we think it’s important.

It’d be traditional at this point to talk about what open source software is, and to give a quick definition. But open source is at least three things, and each needs its own explanation.

First of all, open source is a political movement that aims to change the power balance between software creators and software users. When you use traditional software, you have to take it as-is. If you don’t like it, you have few options. Software makers can change the software any way they like, charge you what they want for it, or withdraw their support for it at any time. You’re locked in an unequal relationship with them, where they hold all the power. Open source software gives power back to the users, letting them — us — understand how it works, use the software how we want, modify it if we need to, and access it regardless of who we are, where we’re from, or how rich we happen to be.

It does this through special software licenses. You’ve probably clicked “Accept” on a lot of software licenses in your time, and open source licenses are just like this, except that they offer you (as a software user) a bunch of rights, where other licenses typically take them away. An open source license says that you have the right to use the software for any purpose whatsoever. It says that you’re allowed to read the source code — the underlying program that makes the software run — and to change it if you need to, to suit your needs. It says that you can share the software freely, passing it on to friends or colleagues without having to pay license fees or worry that the software creator will come after you. In some cases (as in the license Growstuff uses) it says that if you modify the software and share it with others, you must use the same open source license, to make sure that people down the line have the same rights you do, and to share the love as widely as possible.

Finally, by changing the balance of power between software creators and users, and enshrining that greater equality in a formal document, we open ourselves up to a more collaborative way of working. Software creators and users are able to come together to build the software they need, and users can even contribute directly to the software itself, by modifying the source code and offering their changes back to the original creator. Over the years, open source software developers have learned all kinds of effective ways to work together as distributed, often international teams, and to engage their user communities in developing something that they really want to use and in which they feel a sense of ownership.

So what’s this got to do with social enterprise, sustainability, and Growstuff? In my mind, open source, sustainability, and social enterprise are closely intertwined, to the point where I feel that choosing open source is a vital part of the whole picture.

When we talk about social enterprises — businesses that hope to achieve a social good through their business activities — we seldom look at their software practices. But the choice of software to use, or decision to develop software under a closed or open model, has a social impact, just as do the choice of environmentally friendly materials for physical manufacturing, or the decision to employ people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We expect social enterprises to follow ethical business practices; why not expect them to follow software practices that support equal access, transparency, and accountability?

When it comes to sustainability, it’s about more than changing your light bulbs or using a fancy water bottle. Sustainability’s about developing communities and ways of living and working that can survive and thrive in the long term. Open source is a sustainable way of building software. If a company that writes closed software goes under, the software dies with it, but an open source software project can live long beyond the people or institutions that started it. Since there’s a broad community of people familiar with the software, who know how to read and modify its source code, new developers can step up. An open source project is one that builds community and resilience against all kinds of change: exactly what sustainability is about!

These are the reasons why we think it’s important that Growstuff be open source. We want to work openly and ethically, in collaboration with our members, building a community that feels a sense of ownership and deep involvement in the software that runs our website. We want other projects, especially those working in similar areas, to be able to look at what we’re doing and learn from us, through reading or re-using our source code. We want to know that if something happens to Growstuff itself, a new Growstuff — or a hundred new Growstuffs — could sprout up, and that people could continue to benefit from what we’ve built far into the future.

Global Shifts conference

Tomorrow I’m off to Global Shifts, a three day social enterprise conference being hosted at RMIT. I’m very glad someone happened to mention it to me last week, just in time for me to register.

I’ve started describing Growstuff, in appropriate circles, as a social enterprise. Lots of people don’t know what the term means, so I’ll just quickly define it: a social enterprise is a business which hopes to achieve a social good, but does so through its business practices rather than the fundraising/donations model that most charities use.

I consider Growstuff to be a social enterprise on several levels. The first is that by helping people grow their own food, we are addressing food insecurity and promoting environmental sustainability. The second is that by aggregating data about people’s food growing activities and releasing it under a Creative Commons license, along with our open source code, we’re freely providing technology to help other people build tools and services for food growers, or to help researchers understand how people are growing food. The third way that Growstuff works as a social enterprise is through our community and development processes: as a non-traditional software project, we offer training/mentoring and a supportive environment for people from non-traditional technology backgrounds or who are marginalised in the technology industry to learn, improve their skills, and take leadership roles.

I’ve been to an uncountable number of tech conferences over the past decade or so, but Global Shifts will be my first social enterprise one. I keep remembering something someone said in an intro session the one time I attended SXSW: “Don’t attend sessions about things you already know. You’ll only sit there being annoyed they’re not covering your favourite topics, and thinking you could do better. Instead, go to sessions about things you know nothing about.” Some of the best conferences I’ve been to have been the ones where I’m stepping outside my usual field — I’m thinking especially about the museum/library/archive events and digital humanities “THATCamps” I attended in 2010-2011 — and I’m hoping that Global Shifts is going to have the same effect: lots of new subjects to fill my brain, and very few where I doze off because I’ve heard it all before.

Here are some of the sessions I’m hoping to attend:

Wednesday

  • Developing your social enterprise idea to a workable model — 2 hour workshop, hoping it will be very useful, but slightly worried that we’ve already advanced beyond it. On the other hand, I suspect the other main contender in this timeslot, “B Corporations (what, why, how?)” will be covering material I definitely know from having pored over their website over the last week or two.
  • Structuring a social enterprise – what are the options? — 2 hour workshop, and I’m very interested in this, because this is one of the next steps for Growstuff.

Thursday

  • Measuring Impact — not the obvious choice (that would be “Paddock to plate, food is leading the revolution”) but another Growstuff person will most likely be attending that one, so we’ll each take notes and swap info afterwards.
  • Making Change: If it’s so good, why aren’t more people doing it? — another one that’s on against a green/environmental session, but I’m planning the same note-swapping deal in this session too. I actually think this session might be useful for insight into why people might not want to use our stuff.
  • SOCIAL DRAGON’S DEN: Real projects pitch to real investors — I want to watch other social enterprises pitching their ideas, and see how they’re doing it — and how we can do it. Not that we’re pitching to investors, but it’s good to be able to explain our project in a compelling way to all sorts of people.

Friday

  • State of Australia — I’ll just quote the description and you’ll see why this is so interesting to me: “What structural supports are in place to get social enterprises up and running successfully? Who and what is available to back-up your start-up? Where do you go when you need support, guidance, direction or simple good advice?” Yes please.
  • Structuring success — this is a session about co-ops, B-Corporations, and other alternative governance models. I actually think this might be more interesting than the B-Corp workshop on Wednesday, since it presents a wider range of options.
  • Leadership and people: how to create a movement — not super psyched by this (suspect it might be a bit Social Media 101) but it looks way more interesting than the alternative (“Can big business save the world?”) so I’ll probably go to it anyway.

So, that’s my plan for Global Shifts. I’ll probably be tweeting from there (hashtag #globalshifts). If anyone reading this is attending and wants to meet up, drop me a line.