Friday, October 15, 2010

Open Source Codeathon for Humanity

Today we have a guest columnist: Shruti Satsangi from Ericsson. Shruti writes:
I’ve just returned from the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Atlanta and had the opportunity to experience my first open source mini-codeathon and learn about the humanitarian open source project, Sahana Eden.
Sahana Eden is an open source disaster management platform that can be used in a wide variety of ways to provide organization on the ground in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Developed in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami by the Sri Lankan free/libre open source software community, Sahana has since matured to encompass multiple systems, including Person Management (Disaster Victim Identification, Missing Person Registry), Aid Registration, Inventory/Resource Management, and Communications. It was also used in Haiti and Guatemala after the recent earthquakes in these countries.
At GHC 2010, the Sahana Foundation organized a two-hour session, modelled after the actual one or two day codeathon events that the organization has held in the past. This event, called the “Codeathon for Humanity,” provided an opportunity for about 150 of the conference participants to get a taste of how open source development works and to learn about the Sahana software and web-based deployment model.
The Codeathon was well organized and, in my opinion, used the little time we had to do two things very well:
  1. Providing help for setting up the development environment in advance of the event. Before arriving in Atlanta, the organizers provided webcasts, Internet relay chat (IRC) sessions, and wiki documentation on how to install the tools necessary to participate in the coding activities. What I liked best was that they used a virtual machine image that contained the required integrated development environment. Although there were still a few hiccups to getting started, this image simplified the setup process and avoided much of frustration a newbie would have faced, enabling them to engage quickly with the task at hand.
  2. Providing projects for all backgrounds, skill sets, and skill levels. The Codeathon provided for differing levels of programming experience by offering a variety of projects in which participants could help. For developers, these projects included bug fixing, UI improvements, test automation, and mobile phone integration. Non-coders contributed by performing usability assessments, adding documentation, and providing localization (translation).
In these ways, the organizers did an excellent job in including all participants and making them feel like they could contribute something meaningful to the project. It is a testament to this that many people returned to continue working on the project even after the session was over.
I believe this codeathon was an excellent example of the practical techniques that can be used by open source projects to engage a diverse mix of contributors to create a strong community. The realm of humanitarian open source is one where a rich community can go a long way to provide effective solutions. This is one area that will definitely benefit from having a variety of skills at the table.

Images courtesy of Terri Oda.

Editor’s note: Humanitarian Open Source is the theme for the upcoming December 2010 issue of the Open Source Business Resource.

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