The Opening World: An Open Anniversary Review, Part 2

This is the second of a two-part article on openness in everything everywhere. The first part was devoted to the unfortunately necessary defense of openness. This second part presents a case study and more examples.

Open Source Intel: A Case Study

The field of surveillance, originally deeply hidden within murky government institutions such as the CIA and MI6, has recently broken out and become a public endeavor. This trend provides a great example for showing the benefits, potential, and downsides of openness in our world today.

The basic goal of open source intel is to reveal secrets that powerful actors—governments and major corporations—try to keep secret. Open source intel is conducted by loosely affiliated groups of people sharing information and ideas over the internet. Their raw materials consist of any public information they can grab, notably satellite photos. But a stupendous variety of public sources is creatively employed.

(The term “open source” is not quite appropriate for this movement, in the sense where the term was used among software developers. The information is shared but not altered. But the participants build on each other’s insights collaboratively, as in open source software.)

The open source intel movement can boast of several achievements, such as clinching the cause of the crashed Malaysia Airlines in the Ukraine. On the other hand, the movement is at risk of misuse. Just as we’ve seen on social media, malicious actors try to slip in fake data and manipulate the intel movement into disseminating their own false narrative.

Furthermore, open source intel can benefit the very forces it is trying to hold accountable, if the participants are not careful. By revealing weaknesses in oppressive government activities, for instance, open source intel might offer government information that helps them close up their loopholes. This is a problem with all data, because data is always most useful to institutions with the money and expertise to exploit it.

This is why we need the public spaces I described in the previous section to connect well-meaning experts to communities that need that expertise. Only through people power can we hope to counter the money and power wielded by institutions that don’t have the public interest at heart.

Openness Continues to Blossom

Wherever people are trying to solve problems, new ways of connecting and working together are being found. The internet proved a godsend when COVID-19 hit, allowing people to continue working, socializing, praying, and supporting each other together. Those with poor or no internet access suffer particularly during the shutdowns. Those lucky enough to be connected can form new bonds with people from around the world. Many also came to appreciate the interconnectedness to which they had been oblivious before.

Freelancer Support

Look, for instance, how freelancers are handling the stresses of the “gig” economy, which is the source of income for more and more people. The internet plays a role in promoting the gig economy, along with other trends in the global businesses economy. I myself joined the gig economy when I was laid off from my job of 28 years at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown. It’s not an easy place to survive.

The internet allows a digital boost to the old ideas of unions and trade associations: freelancers working together to share leads, demand fair payment, and educate each other. Platform Co-ops provides tools for developing freelancer communities.

Hardware and Manufacturing

Cheaper machines, often driven by off-the-shelf computing components, combine with the internet to drive down the cost of manufacturing. Regions of the world that used to import expensive machines manufactured in technologically advanced countries can now build their own cheap devices with 3D printers or just everyday tools. The Zero Marginal Cost Society, a book by futurist Jeremy Rifkin, described the potential of this movement.

One exemplar of do-it-yourself manufacturing is Open Source Ecology. Their major project is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS), which provides designs for 50 machines. It currently specializes in construction and agriculture.

Another group trying to improve the world through open designs is Precious Plastic, which shows sites how to set up low-cost facilities and turn their neighbors’ plastic trash into useful products.

Health Care

An inherently conservative industry for good reasons (mistaken experiments can kill patients), health care was slow to adopt the basic digital technologies that other industries were exploiting for decades. In the U.S., most clinical providers kept patient records on paper until the 1990s, and when government pressure (along with billions of dollars in incentives) drove the clinicians to adopt electronic record systems, they were clunky, expensive, incompatible proprietary products. Even the cloud has been slow to come. Health care may illustrate a common trend: Regulation tends to reduce competition and innovation, which is hard to re-introduce into an industry even through more regulation.

But slowly, the old health care systems learned from other sectors such as finance how to share data. The most recent major standard for health care data, FHIR, incorporates lessons about RESTful web-based APIs that are nearly universal in modern software environments.

Free Software

What about digital system development itself? It seems set on two parallel paths, one proprietary and one open.

The proprietary path is Software as a Service (SaaS), where nearly all software for the public is deployed (along with apps, which almost always are thin front ends for services running in the cloud). So long as networks can support the traffic and succeed in reaching most of the world, SaaS will remain a dominant model for delivering services because it is so convenient for providers and users alike.

The owners of this software could make it open if they wanted, and a few do so. The rarely used GNU Affero General Public License could ensure that derivatives also remain free. But even if the license requires participation in the open source community, a more fundamental gap remains. The SaaS development model, which features frequent incremental releases under tight testing and incrementation processes, would have trouble mixing with a free software development model.

On the parallel track, free software took over and now provides software infrastructure. Most people don’t realize free software’s crucial, ubiquitous role because they see only the icons on their desktop. But look under the hood everywhere for free software: operating systems for routers, mobile devices, embedded systems, and even cars (Linux), application deployment tools (Maven, Gradle, Docker, Kubernetes, etc.) programming languages, system administration tools, and more. Proprietary companies rarely want to build idiosyncratic systems for this grunt work, which would slurp up precious development time. Instead they create, maintain, and use free software.

Have I shined too kind a light on current events? If so, I do it because so many other commentators paint so dire a picture. Although the trend toward openness throughout the world is under threat, it also has an inherent momentum. We must grasp that momentum and continue to support it.

<< Read the previous post of this series

About Andrew Oram:

Andy is a writer and editor in the computer field. His editorial projects at O'Reilly Media ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM (Brussels), DebConf, and LibrePlanet. Andy participates in the Association for Computing Machinery's policy organization, USTPC.