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Sizing up open source: Not so simple

Stacy Collett | May 7, 2013
Choosing open-source software is more complicated than picking traditional software. Is your IT department prepared to contribute code fixes to the community?

West Texas A&M chose the CAS project for its single sign-on system because CAS had been successfully deployed at Texas A&M University in College Station "and the references were solid," Webb says. His team also attended user events and higher-education conferences related to CAS as part of the decision-making process.

Open Source Gives Back

Several nonprofit open-source organizations now help companies give back to the community by providing their programmers with opportunities to volunteer their time and talents to benefit social causes.

Through the work of nonprofit organizations such as Benetech, FrontlineSMS, The Guardian Project, Mozilla Webmaker and Wikimedia Foundation, so-called humanitarian free and open-source software has emerged as an important tool in tackling global social challenges, including civic engagement, disaster relief, education, healthcare and human rights.

Several tech companies already connect their technologists with opportunities to contribute their skills to projects that benefit social causes -- as VMware does through its #ContributingCode initiative, for example. But any company can get involved in such initiatives. One source of information about these efforts is SocialCoding4Good, which is running a pilot program with several nonprofit organizations that develop humanitarian free and open-source software.

What can companies and employees gain by giving back? Plenty, according to one of several nonprofit groups that organize open-source projects to improve the lives of people worldwide.

"It creates a tremendous professional development opportunity for employees," says Gerardo Capiel, vice president of engineering at Benetech, which sponsors open-source projects benefiting literacy and education, environmental conservation and human rights. Some programs leverage their company's existing technologies and can influence how they affect the world. Others let programmers choose their own cause from a list of nonprofits.

Contributing to social change can have an impact on employees, as well. Programmer Abhi Mahule was looking to donate his skills and time to a cause when he learned about Benetech, which wanted to build an Android-based e-book reader for the visually impaired. Mahule took an existing open-source e-book reader and adapted a version for Android that could "read" books aloud as audio. He built a prototype, and Benetech secured funding from the U.S. Department of Education to bring it to market. Today, thousands of people use the app, Capiel says.

The project "helped me [hone] my technical skills," says Mahule, but adds that the intangible benefits were more significant. "It was a source of joy and a nice feeling that in a small way you're able to contribute," he says. "You should always look out for a larger cause for the greater good. This is the perfect opportunity for that."

It Takes a Village

For many open-source projects, the developer community is the lifeblood of the software, and those who are new to open source should know that these communities all operate differently.


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