07 Open is power

In traditional funding models, intellectual property is often considered an asset to be held closely, in case it must be sold at a later date to recover investment funds. Open models recognise this is problematic. At best, the traditional approach creates products that can’t be used by others, and ideas that can’t be built upon. At worst, it wastes everyone’s time and money when the project gets shelved.

Keeping things secret or locked means you are the only one who can work on them and develop them. When things are opened, the potential is multiplied exponentially.

The creative worlds of art, writing, fashion and music have long borrowed and referenced previous works, layering intent and meaning, and building on what came before to drive new and interesting perspectives. Open source software works in much the same way, making the original work a basis for innovation, progress and thinking, rather than an end in itself.

What happens if you apply this approach to areas outside of software? The results have been surprising. Open can unlock the energy needed by a fellow to bring about their vision.

In the early days of the Foundation, Rufus Pollock initiated an open source project called Annotator, largely motivated by a desire to mark up Shakespeare on http://openshakespeare.org. Two other fellows, Dan Whaley and Seamus Kraft, picked up Annotator and moved it forward in their own projects – Dan using it as the backbone for Hypothes.is, a decentralised annotation platform, and Seamus bringing it into the realm of government and policy creation. The project evolved and rippled through the fellowship into the world; each time in a different context.

Sean Bonner’s work on aggregating radioactivity data with Safecast highlights another benefit of Open. A volunteer-created information sheet about the bGeigie Nano Geiger counter has been completely translated into more than 20 languages – an initiative driven entirely by the community, without any direction from Safecast. A top-down approach to that same effort would have been considerably more time-consuming and infinitely more expensive.

Adam Hyde’s Coko project is replacing proprietary scholarly infrastructure with open source software. Within one short year, the community has built nine separate publishing platforms, ranging from journal submission systems and micropublications to content aggregation platforms. While the Coko core team built two platforms, the other seven came into existence because of the sharing of this common infrastructure. This is proof of Open as a powerful multiplier of effort in the fight to improve academic publishing systems and processes.

The more we share our thinking, working, practices and outcomes, the better. Releasing open information allows other organisations, project implementers, funders, policymakers, change agents, advocates and academics to engage with and learn from what we have done. This invites feedback and collaboration with other organisations and funders in ways that were never previously possible.

The Foundation’s advocacy for and commitment to Open began with software but has spread to justice, art, health, science, hardware, money, education and the environment. By supporting fellows within their communities, these examples show how Open can be a powerful tool. We replicate this open approach within the Foundation itself, by connecting individual fellows from disparate fields to a supportive fellowship community.

“Let the stories of others hold their own weight because truth is not as universal as we imagine it to be. What’s true for you might not be true for me.”

“Let the stories of others hold their own weight because truth is not as universal as we imagine it to be. What’s true for you might not be true for me.”

Anasuya Sengupta (2017–)