Friday, December 17, 2010

Advancing Open Source for Humanity

Today's columnist is Jason Côté from Freeform Solutions. He writes:

Because people who change the world need the tools to do it.”
The Nonprofit Technology Network
IEEE, the world's largest technical professional association, unveiled a new tagline earlier this year: Advancing Technology for Humanity. The tagline is intended to showcase the organization's belief that, “IEEE and its members across the engineering, computing, and technology community worldwide advance innovation and technological excellence for the benefit of humankind.” While reading the press release, my faith in my undergraduate engineering education, and my membership in the IEEE, was suddenly renewed.
The belief that people use and develop technology to benefit society, and the specific and natural alignment of the open source movement toward this effort, is well evidenced in this month's issue of the OSBR, including through other IEEE initiatives. Still, while “humanitarian open source” might be narrowly defined as the application of open source in support of humanitarian response efforts, a broader, more inclusive definition is at least consistent with the expansive meaning of open source itself. Thankfully, the shared values evident in open source are increasingly evident in other areas of society, especially in the nonprofit sector.
Perhaps one timely example is the Humanitarian Coalition, a network of Canada's leading aid organizations, including CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam-Québec, and Save the Children Canada. During humanitarian emergencies, these agencies coordinate their efforts, share resources, and provide information to everyone about the disaster and their response efforts, all while doing what they each do best. On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, reducing much of it to rubble. An estimated three million people were affected by the quake; the Haitian government originally reported that “an estimated 230,000 people had died, 300,000 had been injured, and 1,000,000 made homeless.”
The Humanitarian Coalition and its members responded immediately, and have continued to work together with Haitians, in communities across Haiti, to help rebuild their country and restore their livelihoods. Canadians continue to follow these activities and are sympathetic to the continued struggle of the Haitian community. Now, approaching the one-year anniversary of this catastrophic earthquake, the Humanitarian Coalition has launched the Haiti Portal, a website to share the progress that has been made, and send messages of support and hope from Canadians to survivors in Haiti. The fact that the website uses the Drupal open source content management system is likely of little consequence to most people.
Thankfully, such events lift us beyond the various challenges that otherwise make it difficult for us to coordinate our efforts and collaborate to achieve a greater social impact. Still, what about our daily efforts to bring about systemic change? In my daily work in the nonprofit sector, I see many passionate people working to create change in their world. In the following three examples, there is an emphasis on intentional sharing and on building ecosystems that naturally produce social innovation.
1. Inspired by the participatory culture of open source, the Centre for Social innovation (CSI) in Toronto is a shared physical space where over 250 people work, meet, and connect. CSI has now opened a second location, buying a beautiful old building in downtown Toronto that will be home to another 400 people; you can even invest in the project through a community bond. They have recently released Shared Spaces for Social Innovation, effectively open sourcing their model, and offer specific templates and tools to help other people get started. They are also working to scale their social finance innovation (i.e., the community bond) across Ontario.
2. The Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) is a network of networks of organizations working for public benefit on a variety of issues relevant to the nonprofit sector. ONN facilitates cross-sectoral collaboration, in part through their use of the Constellation Governance Model as a framework for organizing. The model promotes action through “coordinated, mutual self-interest,” and without requiring the creation of another nonprofit organization. Each constellation is a “self-organizing action team” that is led by whomever leads. Accordingly, constellations appear when needed and disappear when their work is complete.
3. The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) recently released their strategic plan for the next few years, and invited the community - “a community transforming technology into social change” - to openly discuss its future. The conversation will continue at the 2011 Nonprofit Technology Conference, the next annual three-day gathering of nonprofit professionals from around the world. Conference participants will learn about becoming networked, building networks and networks of networks, and representing the technology needs of nonprofits as a community that speaks with a single, unified voice.
With a focus on nonprofit technology, open source, and social innovation, my organization is a member of CSI, ONN, and NTEN. I personally do what I can to participate in their physical and virtual spaces, sometimes as a follower, and sometimes as a leader. It never seems like enough. Collaborating takes time and requires effort; it is hard work! It requires persistence and patience. It can be immensely rewarding when it works, and intensively frustrating when it doesn't. Simply put, collaborating is a journey. For me, I expect, a lifelong one. I feel particularly grateful, especially at this time of year, to be travelling among so many wonderful people. Together, I believe we are advancing humanity.

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