open source

UPDATE: Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

'How Drupal Will Save The World ' by Lullobot's Jeff Robbins has three key ideas that resonate with my post on Drupal and the Dot Org Boom .

1) Tools for the grassroots

My plan for Amnesty was that a switch to open source would allow the main web technology to be rolled out to the smallest section or activist group, anywhere in the world. Jeff's is also excited about the potential of tools like Drupal for grassroots activists and quotes a great example from the netsquared conference:

"My favorite story from the NetSquared conference comes from Kim Lowery of Kabissa who talks about a village in Nigeria that had agreed to let an oil company access their land and resources in exchange for clean water and school buildings. After a few years of letting the oil company get what they wanted, it became apparent to the people of this village that the oil company was not going to fulfill its end of the bargain. Ten years ago, these villagers would have had no recourse. But these days, they have their own website and the leverage that goes with it. They scanned the original contract and posted it on their site and followed up with a few emails to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the like. And before long they had a campaign going to bring people's attention to the oil company's failure to deliver on its promises. A few months later, the oil company began showing up to the village, taking more interest in their needs, and began delivering on some of their promises".

2) usability for activists

His second major theme is usability, and how it's critical if these tools are to be any use to people at the grassroots. As he says about some of the social activists at netsquared

"These are not technical people. And they want to build sites for even less non-technical people. They want to bring Drupal to third grade teachers in Indiana, church-basement activist groups, street orphans in South Africa, or Vietnamese farmers. These people may have very little experience on the web. The idea of "filtered HTML" is likely beyond their concern. And administrative idioms such as "node", "taxonomy", "vocabularies", "terms", even "menu items" and "blocks" are usually only understood after some conscious effort".

Jeff contrasts the clunkiness of Drupal with Apple products like iMovie and Automator which show "how even very complex operations and configurations can be simplified into a friendly user interface that the average user can begin to grasp".

3) drupal distributions

This is a simple idea that could pack a real punch;

"Drupal should have maintained, funded distributions (pre-configured packages of Drupal with add-on modules and themes) to act as a quick-start launch pad for various common website types".

Having specialist server-side distributions would extend the existing idea of operating system distributions (various Linux distros) and application distributions (like tactical tech's NGO-in-a-box series ). Instead of a community group spending months getting up to speed on Drupal, experimenting with various modules and wiring things together, there would be tailored Drupal distributions for specialized purposes e.g. a community events management system with discussion boards and event-related photo galleries and mailing lists.

footnote: linux live CDs and community translators

Part of my enthusiasm for easy-to-use distros comes from running a web project that delivered vital advice in community languages to refugees and asylum seekers in the UK. I needed non-technical tranlsators to be able to generate Unicode text in languages like Bengali, at a time when this was not possible in Microsoft Word. The tech side could be done with a combination of Linux and OpenOffice, but there was zero chance of the community translators being able to install this on their own computers. Then along came Indic language live CDs like Indlinux . They cut right through the problem; simply ask the translators to pop the CD in their computers at start-up and bingo - urgent translated text in the correct technical standards for web delivery.

Drupal and the Dot Org Boom

The news that Amnesty Seeks a Drupal/CiviCRM Vendor signals a move in to open source that should benefit Amnesty and have a wider impact for NGOs and the open source movement. I started advocating for open source at Amnesty's International Secretariat more than two years ago, but anyone who has been a change agent within a large organisation will know that it's a big challenge to get a strategic commitment to FOSS (Free and Open-Source Software). Of course it helps if a like-minded organisation has already taken the plunge, and we got a lot of support from Andrew H. and Romilly G. who had already steered Oxfam's adoption of Plone. This made the case that serious NGOs were adopting enterprise-ready open source and also, through Oxfam's participation in the Plone Foundation, showed that a large NGO can be an active member of an open source community.

The best way to keep pace with the rate that web tools evolve is to be part of a community of innovation. So I was excited by the buzz of community activity around Drupal at the Netsquared 2006 conference, where I could see an emergent sweet spot for web activism at the confluence of FOSS developers and social activists. A stream of developments confirms this trend, from CitizenSpeak's free email advocacy service for grassroots organizations to the fact that Drupal is a leading contender as the platform for development of the WITNESS video hub (a human rights portal).

For me, the increasing adoption of open source tools for real-world impact validates several years of commitment to bringing together FOSS & NGO communities. This work has been inspired by organisations like Aspiration in the USA and the Tactical Technology Collective here in Europe. In the UK we formed a small collective of volunteers which organised the Social Source events in 2004 and 2005, and it's great to see how many of the participants have made important contributions to the common DNA of open source and social change.

One of those groups was Mute Magazine, who became early UK adopters of CiviCRM. and full credit should be given to the CiviCRM community for the way their software has risen to enterprise level. When I looked at it 12 months ago it was hard to see it competing against off-the-shelf CRM solutions by ASP providers like Kintera, Convio and so forth. But such is the pace of development that it is now a credible solution, especially if your criteria include internationalisation and the potential to interface with mobile channels, both of which should be important for international NGOs who want to engage constituencies in the global south.

I think there's an underlying dynamic at work here that goes deeper than the pragmatics of ecampaigning, and I like Juha Huuskonen's notion of the Dot Org Boom "referring to the same development as Web 2.0 but from a different perspective. Dot Org Boom is proposing that the current wave of development is heading to non-profit direction,something that Web 2.0 promoters would probably not want to agree with". Propagated through the PixelACHE festival the notion of the Dot Org Boom is actually a non-web idea, drawn from a study of social entrepreneurs from around the world and focusing on the activities of Ashoka Foundation, but Juha says

Our version of Dot Org Boom consisted of independent media, open source community and NGOs. Considering the fact that all these three areas share the same basic principles - open, non-profit activities based on volunteer contributions and grassroot organisations - it's striking how little collaboration there has been between these areas. The tactical media/indymedia/activist networks used to be very different from the sourceforge/slashdot/geek camp and the NGOs were mostly left out of the loop, happily using their Microsoft tools. What I find essential in the Dot Org Boom is that these three components - open content, open tools, open organisation models - are starting to find each other. Web 2.0 people would like to ignore the organisation component of this transformation.


an open source Second Life?

Are we on the way to an open source version of Second Life? A press release by the Free Software Foundation just announced support for the Free Ryzom campaign (, which plans to purchase the online game and universe known as Ryzom from the bankrupt Nevrax company and release the entire game as free software.
"A fully free MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game) engine and client/server architecture would allow the development of a myriad of universes, each one evolving its own philosophy and unique content - but sharing in general technical improvements. If successful, this campaign would allow any user to create their own universe and produce their own content based on the Ryzom/Nevrax architecture".
ryzomryzom Maybe I'm getting the wrong end of the stick, but this sounds like it could be a move on the way to an open version of Second Life, which I think would be great. I'm pretty uncomfortable with a virtual world who's founding principle is property development, and I sometimes find it disturbing to read the SL blogs where people discuss their relationship to the SL 'gods' (i.e. the owners, Linden Labs). Nonetheless I'm pretty keen on Second Life because I reckon it has that quality that Jonathan Zittrain calls 'generativity' . So the sooner we get truly open virtual worlds, the better.
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