Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Unlocking the Potential of Open-Source
by David Geilhufe

Community building is fundamentally about local problems being solved at the local level by local stakeholders.

What if we were to apply this philosophy to technology development in nonprofit organizations? Already, NPOs are building technology to support their needs. Organizations like the Fast Forward Neighborhood Technology Center have built databases with national resources to help other CTCs improve their internal operations. Project Open Hand in San Francisco has built a custom database to manage their delivery of over 400 meals per day to people living with HIV and AIDS.

Local technology solutions are being created for local technology problems. This is fundamentally different from traditional software development where entrepreneurs build a piece of technology for CTCs or HIV/AIDs meal providers because they expect to realize a profit on the sale of that technology.

Open-source principles and practices allow the principles of community building to be applied to technology development in the nonprofit sector. Three key ideas of open-source relevant to the CTCs are distribution, licensing, and community.

  • "Distribution" refers to the availability of software. Open-source allows easy access to software usually via the web.
  • "Licensing" refers to who has the legal right to use, modify, and distribute a piece of software. An open-source license allows people to do these things freely.
  • "Community" refers to the ongoing group of stakeholders who support, extend, and improve the software. Open-source software has a number of people continually contributing changes back to others.

In applying these principles to my two examples, we can see where community building and open-source share many of the same goals and values.


The Fast Forward CTC database embraces the open-source principle of distribution by making the technology freely accessible from the America Connects Consortium (ACC) web site and advertising it widely. The Project Open Hand product, however, is not available for download. In fact, a reader of this article might never have otherwise known it even existed.

An open-source approach mirrors how the ACC distributes the CTC database. The technology is easily downloadable and advertised to people who might be interested in it.


Project Open Hand chose not to license their software at all. Other HIV/AIDs meal providers have no legal right to use it. If they want similar functionality, they will need to build it themselves at a cost of over $100,000. A commercial software alternative is a virtually impossibility since the potential market is so small.

Fast Forward's database is owned by Education Development Center, Inc. Their license reads: "This material may be downloaded, reproduced and distributed only in its complete, original form. The material can not be sold, modified or incorporated into other works or materials without the express, written permission of EDC." If someone wants to add a single field or otherwise modify the database to better meet the needs of local CTCs, they need to obtain written permission from EDC.

Under open-source licensing principles, local stakeholders determine for themselves how best to employ the technology according to their local needs. If the software needs slight modification to be useful, they do not have to seek permission before doing so. If a group wishes to modify the technology significantly and distribute it to an entire sub-group, perhaps PowerUp centers or Ohio CTCs, they can do so. [The most common open source software license is the GNU Public License (GPL).]


The final open-source principle, community, is both the most beneficial and the most difficult to achieve. "Community," here, refers to the group of people that can innovate and extend a piece of technology. Rather than use a static application, community builds new functionality, fixes problems, and generally makes needed changes.

In both examples, the original "owner" of the technology is the only member of the community. Single-member communities are easy to manage—it is pretty easy to avoid conflicts with yourself. At the same time, there is value in the diversity that comes from community. Different ideas, different needs, and different resources lead to innovative and effective solutions. This is at the heart of why we value community building. Now we can bring some the same concepts into community technology through open-source and realize some of the same benefits.

What can you do?
  • If you participate in a technology project, take the time to examine the project through the lenses of the three open-source principles of distribution, license, and community.
  • Consider licensing the software you are responsible for under the GPL.
  • Encourage those responsible for software you use to license their software under the GPL.

David Geilhufe is the founder of Social Source Software, LLC., and edits the Social Source Newsletter.

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