How open source could help empower social change

how-open-source-could-help-empower-social-change

Social change is on the minds of everyone across the globe. How can open source help make this a reality? Jack Wallen offers some suggestions.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The world is in a bit of upheaval at the moment; there’s a pandemic and there’s racial and social strife running rampant through the streets of every city. Although you might think the tech sector would be the last place to look for a means to a changed end, it’s time to rethink that take on technology and those behind it.

As we’ve seen with so many other endeavors, tech can help–especially open source.

Open source didn’t originally set out to become a movement beyond code. Eventually, however, it spilled out into various other avenues until it could be found just about everywhere. Now, open source has a chance to show that it can not only be a catalyst for change in the software and hardware industry, but a means for social change.

How?

That’s a good question. 

There are, however, answers. Let’s dig in.

SEE: Diversity and Inclusion policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Software solutions

Let’s start out with the obvious: Software. Because open source tends to be both open and free, those solutions are perfectly suited for organizations geared for change. But, we’re not just necessarily talking about a group cobbling together a solution made up of the usual suspects: Apache, MySQL, WordPress, etc. There are open source projects created specifically to help empower social changes.

Some of those projects include:

  • Givesource: An open source fundraising platform for nonprofits. This project was created by marketing and software company Firespring and includes features like: Ease of use, responsive design, PaymentSpring integration, scalable, quick setup template, online/offline donations, matching fund support, and donor data reporting. 

  • ClientComm: An open source platform that empowers simplified communication between case officers and their clients. This tool gives case officers a powerful platform from which they can track clients and send case workers texts for any situation that might arise.

  • Mifos: An open source platform that banking institutions can use to offer low- or no-cost digital banking solutions to the poor.

  • alex: An open source tool that can detect gender favoriting, polarizing, race-related, religion inconsiderate, and other unequal phrasing in text.

  • tasking manager: A tool to help teams coordinate mapping on OpenStreetMap.

  • if-me.org: A community for mental health experiences wherein people can share their personal stories with allies.

  • refugerestrooms: A tool that helps provide safe restroom access to transgender, intersex, and gender nonconforming individuals.

  • Terrastories: A geostorytelling tool to enable local communities to locate and map oral storytelling traditions for places of significance. 

  • Clear My Record: A platform that can enable citizens to more easily clear their records so that they may remove barriers to jobs, housing, and educational opportunities.

  • pandemic-ebt-mn: A tool to support Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) applications in Minnesota.

  • pandemic-ebt-ca: A tool to support Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) applications in California.

  • B.E.A.R.: An app that provides a desktop GUI that reads California Department of Justice .dat files that contain criminal histories and identifies convictions that are eligible for relief under CA Proposition 64. 

  • Project Callisto: A platform to detect repeat perpetrators of professional sexual coercion and sexual assault.

  • Open Food Network: A platform that enables new, ethical supply chains for food.

Of course, one must also include the regular fare in this list, because without the likes of Apache, NGINX, MySQL, Rails, Rust, Nextcloud, and so many more, social change through open source wouldn’t be possible.

But what else can open source do to help drive change?

Improve terminology

If there’s one thing open source can do that could have an immediate and lasting effect, it would be to start changing some of the terminology used. A perfect example is within clustering technology. Once upon a time, it was common to use the master/slave nomenclature. That is simply not acceptable and many projects were already ahead of this game and switched to master/node. 

However, it’s time to drop the master tag as well. Instead of master, I’ll toss out some options:

  • Main

  • Head

  • Conductor

  • Director

  • Lead

  • Manager

  • Chief

  • Prime

  • Major

The point is, words matter; terminology like this is long past due for change. In that same vein, projects should also go through code and documentation to remove verbiage that might be hurtful or insensitive to specific groups.

SEE: GitHub to replace “master” with alternative term to avoid slavery references (ZDNet)

Embrace diversity

This is one area of change that open source has already taken charge of. I know many open source developers that come together as an entire rainbow of culture–it’s quite a beautiful thing to experience. 

However, it could go much further. A 2017 GitHub open source survey found that:

  • Three percent of respondents identified as female

  • One percent identified as non-binary

  • Ninety-five percent of respondents identified as male

  • Sixteen percent of respondents identified as minority ethnic or national group within their home country

  • Seven percent of the survey respondents identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or asexual

It is also reported that:

The good thing about open source is that, by its very nature, anyone can check out code, fork it, and create something of their own. So any programmer, regardless of color, race, religion, sexual identity, sexual preference, or gender, can start a project. If you’ve got the skills, open source has the code. While you’re at it, create a project focused on change.

Be bold. Code change into the world.

See something, say something

Finally, if you’re a part of the open source community, consider yourself as a means to a better end. If you see behavior that is counter to progress and positive social change, call it out. We’re well past the time for silence. And, at the moment, the court of public opinion has a very loud and large voice that holds powerful sway over companies.

However, if you take it upon yourself to call out unacceptable behavior, consider communicating to the perpetrator first. It could be a situation where the person has no idea they are perpetuating behaviors that have no place in an enlightened society. Educate them. If they reject your offer to help, then reach out to those in charge of the project they are working on. If that bears no results, continue escalating until change for the better happens.

Open source can do wonders for society, be it with software, a simple change in terminology, diversity in numbers, or policing unacceptable behaviors. By design, this community is open, and it’s time to be held to a higher standard. 

Be the change society needs.

Open source can help with that.

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