Open source: the future of technology for your business

7 April 2015

Hear about two organisations embracing open-source technology and how it can benefit your business.

Open source is nothing new. The internet was even built using open source technology, a term which describes software coding that is a public resource. Open source means anyone can make, modify or contribute to coding – making it a public resource. Innovative, tech-savvy businesses like social enterprise hub Enspiral, and its venture project Loomio, are two good examples of organisations pushing the boundaries in the open source space.

What is the idea behind ‘open source’? 
Rich Bartlett, Enspiral
The idea behind open source is mutual benefit from shared innovation. Open source acknowledges that all good ideas are the product of collective work, so it puts those ideas in the commons where anyone can improve them, use them, and learn from them.

Sam Rye, Enspiral.
For me, it’s about a shared repository of knowledge which we can all build on, remix, repurpose and use to make things better and faster, together. The idea that the best work happens behind closed doors and non-disclosure agreements kind of sucks in my mind.

How does Enspiral use open source technologies and open business?
Sam Rye
Enspiral is heavily reliant on and a (big) contributor to open source technologies – whether it is code-based, or in real life. Most of the developers at Enspiral seem to work with open source [coding] languages, and many of the designers’ and entrepreneurs’ work draws on ‘open source’ content. We are also generating some content which we’re sharing back into the world. We’re very keen to share what we learn – whether that’s in person through workshops, online through resources, or a hybrid – sharing our insights through video, online webcasts and more.

What are the benefits for businesses that embrace the ethos of open source?
Sam Rye
Better insights, faster, together. There’s a huge cultural shift happening which is leaning toward information being open and free, which is affecting how people interact with companies, the products they sell, and services they provide. Increasingly people aren’t just happy to consume, they want to know how and why something is made. The ethos of open source lends itself well to organisations doing good work and being increasingly transparent about it – an authentic relationship instead of a transactional exchange.

Occupy and open source: Loomio’s successes
Loomio is an example of a tool built around the open source philosophy. It is a collaborative decision-making tool that came out of the global protest movements of 2011, initiated by the Arab Spring and continued through movements like the global Occupy movement. Occupy spread to more than 1000 cities, including Wellington, where Ben Knight and the Loomio team saw the potential of collaborative decision-making on a large scale, and also its limitations.

“When you need to be in the same place at the same time to participate, it’s inherently going to affect the effectiveness of that decision-making and limit the participants. We felt like surely we could use the internet, which we are using every day to communicate, to also make decisions together.”

Enspiral gave the team from Loomio a desk and an internet connection, and hosted them in their Wellington co-working space. Both Loomio and Enspiral started using the tool straight away. “We were working out of this space that collaboratively governed using the tool, that we are building sitting in the space. In terms of having rapid customer feedback it was an ideal situation,” says Ben.

The tool has both a non-commercial revenue stream through donations, and also a traditional revenue scheme for commercial organisations, that pay a subscription fee per person per month. Community groups and informal networks can use Loomio for free. “Our commitment is that money shouldn’t be a barrier to people making positive change using Loomio,” says Ben.

Loomio is an open source tool, meaning that developers around the world can contribute to the code. “However, it is still tightly controlled by the Loomio team,” emphasises Ben. “It just means other people are able to offer contributions. They’ll take the code, write some new code and say ‘Hey. I wrote some new code. Do you want to integrate it into the system?’”

Believe it or not, open-source code can actually be safer for businesses, because the security is much stronger when anyone can see the code and check where there are ‘bugs’ in the system.

Since it began over three years ago, Loomio has been translated into 32 languages, including Ukranian and Russian (translated at the same time during the recent conflict), traditional Chinese (translated by pro-government-transparency activists in Taiwan and now used by the Taiwanese Government for collaborative decision-making), and various Spanish languages including Catalan and Aragonese (which has about 20,000 speakers).

Loomio has more than 75,000 users and last month, more than 25,000 decisions were made through it.

Loomio has been widely adopted around the world to engage the public on important policy and public engagement decisions. Provo City Council in Utah recently agreed to pilot the use of Loomio for policy development, and has agreed to vote on whichever proposal comes out of the process. 

“Gauging public reaction is something [organisations] have only been able to do before by telephone or public meetings, but the problem with both of those sorts of things is that they are either one on one collecting information or they are in public meetings, where it can be the person with the loudest voice who gets heard. Loomio provides a way for everyone’s voice to be at the same level and everyone can have their say if they are interested,” says Loomio’s Michael Elwood-Smith.

Find out more about open source technology in the Open Source // Open Society conference in Wellington, 16th-17th April.