Open Source Values and Realities

by: January 18th, 2011 comments: 2

Map Kibera, and especially the reflection part of our research with IDS and DFID, has finally changed assumptions that have led my work for the past five years. Open Source software development, and its progeny in collaborative media and especially OpenStreetMap, are all guided by core values. My assumption has been that these values are so powerful and inherent in the practice of engaging with these technologies, that they can overcome the gaps international development attempts (but often misses) to bridge. Turns out, maybe obviously to non-technologists, that technology rapidly adapts to different cultural contexts and individual conditions, and those vital values can be lost without a well-thought-out methodology of working in new communities.

Open Source is transparent in its operations, requires collaboration among very different kinds of actors, requires self-motivation and a spirit of volunteerism, and is a true meritocracy. Anyone can participate, and the results are available to everyone. This is ensured by open source software licenses, and backed up by well-developed communities of practice. These ideas have influenced the formation of the Web, and Web 2.0, participatory projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap. In OpenStreetMap, we are completely driven by individual contribution, and ideally the most expert mapper is anyone who knows their home and neighborhoods well. When it comes to international development, engaging within an open source approach means valuing the individual, trusting them inherently, making sure they benefit from giving something away, and opening up new opportunities. Transparency has potential to improve the efficiency and accountability of international development, which too often operates business as usual, opaque with its finances and its results. Personally, this potential has taken me to India, Palestine, and influenced my involvement in the HOT response in Haiti.

We’ve had some success this way, but for this to really work, it takes a lot more context. I’m reminded of my disillusionment with Artificial Intelligence. The idea is that human-like thinking and knowledge-grappling can by engineered entirely from algorithms, separate from the entire physical, emotional, social experience of being a human being. The view is that “Intelligence” is something separate from its emergence in human beings, and can be transplanted to another context completely. Whatever. When you realize that computers can’t even successfully replicate the intelligent workings of an insect, and that insects are actually very complicated, you start to appreciate not only the complexity of the entire system, but its absolute necessity. In my case it led me to study emergent systems.

Open Source is a lot like that. It emerged from a particular cultural domain and we’re still learning how it will adapt to other contexts. I particularly find interesting the interaction of 1960s American counterculture, American expansionism, and early Silicon Valley, explored in What the Doormouse Said. We’re free and we can do what we want … with the machines! Douglas Englebart, the pioneer of making computers humanly approachable, had plenty of time in hippie hot tubs in the woods above Palo Alto. The Homebrew Computer Club pranksters believed in openly sharing knowledge (even if some of them founded secretive Apple). And as the meme of open source spread out of the States to Finland, Germany, India, wherever, it has had to find suitable grounding in a culture which supports these sames values in some form. Any kind of endeavor, including participation in Open Source, needs to be tied to someone’s personal motivation, and often the motivation for hacking into the night or writing Wikipedia articles is to stand out and show off, do something never done before, to contribute something important after the drudgery of everyday needs are taken care of.

Kenya and Kibera are certainly entrepreneurial places, but so different from freewheeling San Francisco. We’ll talk about the challenges facing individual participants in other posts, but broadly, the prime concern is on day to day survival, and there’s little space for frivolous activities. Especially if you are working with foreigners, the community expectation is that you are banking it today, not necessarily contributing to growth for the entire community in the future. People operate in groups, are used to face-to-face communication and are most comfortable working in teams. Standing out from the group and taking personal initiative is an exposure risk that is usually too great. Transparency is still viewed as a risk by organizations operating in Kibera; even if they see the value, they face a prisoner’s dilemma of possible short term loss by giving away their details. Certainly personal motivation is more oriented towards finding immediate economic opportunity. There are other intangible motivations for participating in such a project, such as acceptance as equals in OpenStreetMap, on Youtube, as colleagues in Nairobi and international conferences. However, they’re usually not the same rewards that motivated those who started the Open Source movement or those who keep it going in the rich world, today.

There’s a hierarchy of needs, and I guess a hierarchy of open source needs. Just introducing a participatory technology doesn’t lead to participatory development. It doesn’t mean open source isn’t the right or appropriate choice for technology, it usually is. However, it must be embedded within another context and methodology that accounts for the much more vital and complex lives and social scene. The challenge will be to show that the opportunity to share freely is so important, as the urgency to address poverty is so high and a barrier as simple as information should be easily hurdled. In the Kenyan context and culture, the focus of open source work is much more on well functioning groups and networks, rather than individuals, who need a supportive space within which to express their individual motivation. And when forming such groups or networks, meritocracy in the technology must be matched by meritocracy in participation in the program as a whole. For participants, the opportunity for real influence on how a project operates is key, with the ultimate goal of ownership. As ever, we don’t have all the answers, but especially through this research, we have learned that we have to find ways to keep listening and adapting.

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

§ 2 Responses to “Open Source Values and Realities”

  • Mark says:

    Hey Mikel

    Its great to get this insight into where you have been coming from with this project. Sadly we didn’t really get the chance to talk properly when I was over doing the Inquiry Led Learning workshop.

    When you say “there’s a hierarchy of needs”, I guess you’re referring to Maslow’s model. It has become so prevalent, its tempting to treat it as axiomatic: needs form an hierarchy. We might be tempted to conclude that ‘day-to-day survival’ trumps ‘frivolous’ participation in open-source ventures by virtue of being lower in the hierarchy.

    Max-Neef’s work on Fundamental Human Needs as a foundation for alternative economics is a major source of my personal optimism about sustainability and development (See p29 onwards in I find that shifting our focus from needs to satisfiers sometimes enables us re-evaluate situations that otherwise feel stuck, such as the apparent race conditions between introducing open-source technology for development and helping people out of poverty.

    The matrix of satisfiers (reproduced at makes me thik that team-working, face-to-face communication and maintaining one’s position in the group are all part of a system of satisfiers. Such systems develop in a cultural context, and the systems in place in Palo Alto in the ’70s will have had quite a different balance. Re-jigging a system like this requires some careful systems-thinking.

    The Max-Neef’s Human-Scale Development research repositions poverty as lack of satisfiers for any of the fundamental human needs. I like to think that the experience of participating in Mak Kibera, and the other related projects, provides part of a package of Being, Doing and Interacting satisfiers that will help make more sense of what Having information commons might mean to the community in Kibera.

    • mikel says:

      Thanks Mark, what a lightblub! In the broadest stroke, thinking about needs in a systematic approach, rather than hierarchy, seems so obvious. Yet I was stuck in an old way of thinking. Thanks for pulling the rug out!

      Look forward to some time to read and dig into this.

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