Friday, March 5, 2010

There is More than Code in Open Source

Today's columnist is Carlo Daffara, the Italian member of the European Working group on libre software. He writes:

Even among researchers, when you talk about “contributions” to open source software you invariably talk about code. Packages, patches, lines of code, whatever: code. In my view, this is quite restrictive, and it is important to start to think about all the possible contributions that are outside of pure code, and how to incent these contributions within projects.

When we think about an open source project, what types of contributions can we find? During a presentation, Aaron Seigo of the KDE project discussed these:

  • artwork

  • documentation

  • human-computer interaction

  • marketing

  • quality assurance

  • software development

  • translation

Software development is one of the aspects, but not the only one. After all, if the software is ugly, few people will use it. If it does not work in your language, you may find it less useful, and so on.

Matthias Mueller of the Open Office project published an interesting graph with a similar story. The graph shows the number of active participants in each project, with each area proportional to the number of committers. In other words, the larger the area, the more people are active in that area of contribution. The yellow area on the left is related to code, while the coloured part on the right is related to everything else. If you look carefully, you will find that the number of people working on the code aspect is less than the “non-code” part!

In a report published in 2006, one of the project managers of (a sophisticated library and toolset designed to create computer aided design (CAD) systems, based on the commercial CAD sold by Matra Datavision) published an interview. Among other things, it stated: “In the year 2000, fifty outside contributors to Open Cascade provided various kinds of assistance: transferring software to other systems (IRIX 64 bits, Alpha OSF), correcting defects (memory leaks…) and translating the tutorial into Spanish, etc. Currently, there are seventy active contributors and the objective is to reach one hundred. These outside contributions are significant. Open Cascade estimates that they represent about 20% of the value of the software.”

The reality is that non-code contributions are significant, and should be encouraged in any possible way. In your open source software project, create a place to help those that are willing to give you more than source code, because that value will get lost if not properly collected. Even small things, like knowing that the code is used by someone, is a positive contribution.

In the next column, I will talk about possible strategies projects can use to improve non-code participation.

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