Should your NGO go open source?

By Catherine Cheney 26 February 2016

Community health workers using the Medic Mobile app. Medic Mobile, a nonprofit organization offering mobile and Web tools to help health workers in the field, began as an open organization, then added open source software, and is now looking at open data. Photo by: Medic Mobile

The open source model of universal access and collaborative intelligence has extended from Web development to global development.

NGO leaders can maximize the impact of their organizations either by taking their models to scale or opening the books on their projects and programs and allowing peer organizations to take them and run with them. Whether proprietary information belongs in the business of fighting poverty is open to debate. On one hand, intellectual property can drive competition and innovation, but on the other hand, collaborative models can lead to greater success stories.

The U.S.-based international NGO Pact has spearheaded a new effort — Locus — to address the knowledge gap around which interventions work best to tackle increasingly complex global development challenges. So far, Locus has engaged ten additional partners to identify shared approaches and eliminate funding silos.

“We recognize if what we truly want is a better model for development, the answers are found in each of our organizations, a range of funders, and across geographies,” Molly Derrick, external relations officer at Pact, told Devex.

Although Locus is a new model for collaboration among organizations that are working toward the same end, it is not the only initiative driving the conversation among global development organizations about what they should consider before they go “open source.”

Don't shy away from sharing

Nathaniel Manning, chief operating officer of the geomapping project Ushahidi, said he has no regrets about the decision he and his team made eight years ago to embrace open source in every sense of the term.

“We’re not gonna put a gateway on here to capitalize on something that’s meant to be saving lives and improving freedom of information,” he said.

By starting with an open and flexible platform, Ushahidi was able to scale far more quickly than it could otherwise, and therefore have a greater impact crowdsourcing geolocated and timestamped reports in areas ranging from human rights abuse reporting to election monitoring to disaster response.

“If you can build a coding community around a mission to make the world a better place you can get free hands,” Manning said.

Medic Mobile, a nonprofit organization offering mobile and Web tools to help health workers in the field, reflects the three main ways NGOs can consider open source. It began as an open organization, then added open source software, and now it is looking at open data.

“Core to our mission is shifting how community health systems are connected and managed – this shift to a ‘new normal’ requires that others pick up everything we're learning and everything we're building that's useful to them,” Medic Mobile CEO Josh Nesbit told Devex in an email.

He said that when implementing partners deploy the platform in new communities themselves, and use new tools like a do-it-yourself toolkit to track and register pregnancies, the organization can have more impact and more bandwidth to support partners.

“Rather than shying away from sharing our designs, features, or ideas with other tool builders, we lean into this as a high-leverage opportunity to reach more health workers,” he said.

Nuru International, a social venture that emphasizes self sufficiency in its fight against poverty, explains on its website that it “seeks to make its work open source so partners can learn and adapt the Nuru model.” When Nuru first started thinking about rapidly scaling its model, the team borrowed the term “open source” from the technology sector, said leadership program director Thomas Hong.

“To provide our model plus a level of support, we now think about rapid scaling in terms of social franchising,” Hong explained.

The organization has spent the last seven years testing and evaluating its model while also codifying manuals, curriculum, trainings and best practices to offer to partners. And it is vetting its first partners to launch +Nuru, its social franchising model, in 2017.

Don't let the data leave with you

Often times, when people talk about open source, what they are often referring to is open data. In this case, the information itself is made free, accessible, and adaptable in forms beyond internal PDFs, like a spreadsheet, database, or an API (application program interface).

“What you’ll find with open source technology is everyone chips in,” said Tyler Radford, executive director of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a network of volunteers who create and provide online maps to disaster responders. “People volunteer to add new features. It’s the kind of a project that keeps advancing over time.”

As their name suggests, HOT works with OpenStreetMap, an openly licensed map of the world. But while OpenStreetMaps is, in fact, open source software, what drives their volunteers to contribute hours to the platform is not the code but rather the free and open data on roads, trails, railway stations, and more.

Stamen, a design firm in San Francisco, California, increasingly working with actors like HOT in the humanitarian sector, is encouraging global development organizations to take an open data approach so that when organizations leave the communities where they work, the data does not leave with them.

“Some NGOs say anything that’s public, that gets out of their control, has the potential to be manipulated in ways that can be used against them,” Seth Fitzsimmons, Stamen’s director of technology, said. “So many of these efforts create this data in silos. When they disappear — and statistically they will — what will they leave behind?”

Making data public means nothing if there is not an audience for it, which is why Stamen works with organizations to make data both accessible and adaptable while protecting the proprietary information they need to protect. One example is a project Stamen took on with Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists. Surging Seas took data on sea level rise that would otherwise live in academic journals more accessible with interactive features like risk zone maps, searchable by city or postal code.

He said he is skeptical that there is any value in keeping most data private. The Sunlight Foundation, among others, has pushed for organizations to set the default to open. And this belief that information is a public good, and that making that data available is a public service, seems particularly relevant to anyone working to address global poverty, he said.

Consider the limits, and the alternatives

Organizations that use proprietary information as a competitive advantage do not see it in their interest to take the same approach as Medic Mobile, Ushahidi, or Nuru International, in part because their in house information and proprietary data is what allows them to make sales and secure deals. Then there are development organizations that favor commercial products over open source software when it comes to areas projects where the reliability and security of management systems is of critical importance.

Even the most stalwart advocates for open sourcing admit there can be some risks. The quality assurance that comes from testing a product 100 times before putting it out there does not exist in the free for all that is open source product development, Manning of Ushahidi said.

Plus it can be more difficult for companies who go the open source route to find a sustainable revenue model. Many groups, like the United Nations peacekeepers, use or build on Ushahidi code at no cost. “Ushahidi could go out of business one day because the people who could really be paying and using the tool don’t necessarily have to, and what would happen then?” Manning asked. “If you treat open source like a freebie, then it will go away eventually.”

He said the money has to come from somewhere and he would much rather it come from people using the product than foundations.

After polling their community and finding that 70 percent were willing to pay for the service, the team behind Ushahidi determined they could pursue both of these principles. On Monday, the company launched Responder, a new dashboard for teams managing large datasets. While open source code powers the plan and is also available at no cost on GitHub, a repository where people build software, teams pay $499 a month for Ushahidi to add further value.

The team at Samasource, an organization that brings digital work to people living in poverty, explored open sourcing parts of the SamaHub, its internal work platform. But the organization found another way to mainstream its model, and will pilot this new approach in the Dadaab refugee camp starting in April.

“In our niche market, we didn't see much demand for our technology on its own, but rather for impact sourcing as a whole, including our operational expertise and workforce development curriculum,” Barb Chang, vice president of product, told Devex.

Instead of investing in an open source community, Samasource pivoted to an advisory services model, consulting with government agencies and NGOs looking to bring socially responsible outsourcing to their beneficiaries. “We believe this is the best way for us to scale impact sourcing globally, and it allows us to expand in areas with fewer resources than our direct model,” Chang said.

NGOs should consider how to make programs that leverage their core competencies more open, particularly when it comes to open sourcing code with the potential to improve the lives of those who are most marginalized, Nesbit of Medic Mobile said.

Derrick from Pact said she does not see why a development organization would not want to be a part of Locus, and in fact Nuru International has joined as one of the 10 partners embarking on a shared research project.

“If you don’t address the interwoven factors contributing to poverty and marginalization, then how can we hope to eliminate poverty in all its forms?”

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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