Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

Open Source Open Society: open source beyond technology

(Note: This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, at It appears here via a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license.)

Open Source Open Society logo What drew me to open source was the technology. What kept me interested were the ideas and concepts around open source, and how they could apply to society as a whole.

As you might know, I’m a community moderator at The staff, the community moderators, and the contributors try to show how the ideas underpinning open source go beyond technology and apply to all aspects of life and society. I’m not sure we always succeed, but we try.

Imagine organizing a conference around that idea. That happened on April 16 and 17, 2015 at Open Source Open Society. The event brought almost 400 people together for two days in Wellington, New Zealand. I flew down to Wellington that week, and was treated to one of the most unique open source events I’ve attended.

Here are some of my observations and thoughts from two very intense, very enlightening days.

A little background

Open Source Open Society was organized by four rather diverse organizations: Enspiral, Loomio, GitHub, and Chakle. The idea for the conference started with two seemingly simple questions: “what if?” and “why?”

Using those two questions as a jumping off point, the idea behind Open Source Open Society was to get a diverse group of people — including creatives, technologists, journalists, people who work in government — together to:

  • Learn more about open source
  • Think about how to apply open source to problems small and large
  • Ponder how open source can change society

The event originally started small — organizers expected a couple of hundred people. But in the days before Open Source Open Society kicked off, there was enough interest that the organizers made 50 more tickets available. In the end, close to 400 people attended. Not bad for what some would consider a very niche conference.

Open Source Open Society attendees

Highlights of the event

Like any conference, it was impossible to attend all of the sessions at Open Source Open Society. Which is unfortunate, because the program a number of excellent sessions running in parallel.

Half of the event was a set of 15-minute keynotes. That limited amount of time forced the speakers to focus on their key arguments, and they did a fantastic job of that. Some of the highlights of those talks were:

Sascha Meinrath, founder of X-Lab, taking political leaders to task for not understanding or being aware of the technology that’s underpinning the world. Meinrath said that technology can be liberating, or it can lead to digital feudalism. He added “Technology is quickly displacing folks and decision makers are ignoring that.” In true open source fashion, Meinrath stated “The changes we need in society are larger than any decision maker can comprehend. It’s up to us to push those changes.”

GitHub’s Ben Balter talked about pushing governments to become more open. Balter pointed out that the development of open government has paralleled the development of open source. People want to question and challenge information from the government, and the government’s antiquated workflows and feedback loops didn’t make getting answers quick or easy. Now, Balter said, the U.S. government is using open source to deliver information, and is publishing policy and data on GitHub. It’s a slow process, but things are changing.

Dave Lane, president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, talked about the meaning of open. He said that while open is better, the idea has been co-opted by marketers trying to convince us something is open when it’s not. It leads to open fatigue. Lane added that “Open eliminates gatekeepers. You just need to adhere to some simple rules to participate and you can take your ideas to the world.”

But Open Source Open Society wasn’t merely an echo chamber or an exercise in cheerleading. Questions were asked and encouraged. Lillian Grace of Wiki New Zealand pointed out that while “nothing makes more sense than to build on the thoughts that others have had”, she finds “open source communities intimidating, especially if you don’t know how to become part of those communities.”

Jessica Lord, a Javascript developer at GitHub, killed it with her talk about her journey to becoming an open source developer. She discussed how “privilege and community can both derail and strengthen open source.” And Lord made an impassioned, persuasive argument for diversity in open source by saying “If open source is for everyone, it should look like anyone.”

My only complaint was that those talks were too tightly packed. One ended, and another one began almost immediately. It didn’t give me much time to reflect on what was said or to reset before the next speaker took the stage.

“Open source has nothing to do with software”

Ben Balter said that in his talk. Open source is, as Balter said, a philosophy and a workflow. Open source is about people. People connecting, people collaborating, people working to solve a common problem.

It wasn’t all listening passively and tweeting. The other half of Open Source Open Source was a series of breakout sessions and casual discussions. Those sessions involved groups of people coming together to discuss topics like:

  • Whether the internet is a tool for liberation or control
  • How companies and governments use open and closed source
  • Open sourcing education
  • The importance of open source to preserving the cultures of indigenous peoples

Everyone was encouraged to not just discuss issues with the groups they were in, but to drift in and out of other groups. It was a great way to be exposed to other ideas and viewpoints, and to share thoughts and information and opinion.

The exchange of ideas went beyond the breakout and discussion session. During breaks, at lunch, and even before the day’s events started there numerous discussions taking place among the attendees.

Some of the art from the event

Taking a seat at the World Cafe

As I wrote in the last few paragraphs, discussion wasn’t just actively encouraged. It was embraced. Nothing at Open Source Open Society illustrated that like the World Cafe session.

Not familiar with the idea of a World Cafe? I wasn’t either. But I found it fascinating. According to Wikipedia, it’s:

a structured conversational process intended to facilitate open and intimate discussion, and link ideas within a larger group to access the “collective intelligence” or collective wisdom in the room. Participants move between a series of tables where they continue the discussion in response to a set of questions, which are predetermined and focused on the specific goals

In this case, it was six questions that centred on the open source ethos. I watched the process and on the surface, it seemed a bit like organized chaos. It was more than that, though. The conversations were animated, but civil. Ideas were batted around like whiffle balls. Everyone was intent and engaged.

Open Source Open Society World Cafe

Final thoughts

Open Source Open Society exposed its participants, many of whom weren’t embedded in the open source world, to the open source way. If the conversations during and after the event are any indication, it got them thinking about how to apply to ideas and principles of open source to society as a whole.

Will the people who attended Open Source Open Society change the world? It’s hard to say. But I can see them trying to improve their own slices of the world. And isn’t taking small steps how change starts?

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