Archive for May, 2007

How sustainable is open source software?

May 31, 2007

There has been a significant upsurge in interest in the use of open source software (OSS) solutions in recent years in both the private and public sector. Education, due to its specialist nature, is particularly interested in OSS for delivering IT solutions in areas where it feels that traditional, closed source solutions have not always catered for its needs. Prominent examples include the Moodle e-learning environment, the Sakai collaborative learning environment and DSpace, a digital content repository system.

One of the big debates to date has been the question of how sustainable open source solutions are likely to be in the long run. The popular image of open source is that a disparate group of software hackers come together in a fairly ad hoc manner, and, usually led by a charismatic figure (or ‘benevolent dictator’) like Linus Torvalds, produce some software. In time, the people involved will go off and work on other, newer, perhaps more interesting projects. This is a worry for education, which needs the reassurance of long-term stability. Questions arise such as who will be maintaining this code, can I read a manual, is there an O’Reilly book, who amongst my staff will understand the programming language that’s been used? These are timely questions and a project that I’ve been indirectly involved in, which attempts to deal with some of these issues, has just come to fruition. Oxford University’s OSS Watch service have announced the publication of their report, “Sustainability Study: a case study review of open source sustainability models”.

If you’re interested in OSS but have previously felt it was too ‘techie’ for you, then I’d recommend this report. My colleague, Gaynor Backhouse, did the editorial on this and I know she was keen to really tell the ‘stories’ involved in order to provide context for the issues and make them more accessible. It was an interesting project to work on, not only because of the subject matter, but also because it involved, in effect, interviewing some of the key figures in OSS development. We joke about it being ‘extreme journalism’, in the style of extreme programming, as there was an iterative process of development and checking with authors. It is, however, quite a long report (around 60 pages) but it is divided into chapters, so you can dip in and out of it as it suits you.

Can MySpace drive urban regeneration?

May 8, 2007

I’m based in Nottingham, an English city which has not been without its problems in recent years. Its reputation has not been helped by a slew of sloppy journalism which has failed to make accurate comparison with the situation in cities of comparable size. I’m pleased to be able report though that the good folk of Nottingham are fighting back and trying to emphasise the positive things that go on in what is a culturally dynamic city. There’s been a tremendous amount of regeneration and rebuilding in recent years culminating in the city being named as one of six Science Cities in the UK. A lot of this work has taken the form of large-scale projects such as the creation of a bio-technology business centre (Bio-City) and the redevelopment of what’s called the Eastside.

But I’m a great believer in keeping an eye on the below-the-radar, small-scale stuff, especially when it involves clever use of new technologies. AreaFour Recording Industries is one such small regeneration project – a not-for-profit record company being driven by staff from the local area partnership that is bringing together un-signed music talent from across the inner city and helping to promote them to the outside world. They’ve just released a CD, called SoundCheck Nottingham, with eighteen bands, samples of which can be heard at their website.

I declare an interest here, since I have known Alan Carter-Davies, the project manager and producer, since we worked together on a technology transfer project in 2001. But I don’t plug people just because I know them. What interests me about the AreaFour project is how they’ve used Web 2.0, and in particular the MySpace social networking service. The project used MySpace to help find and bring together musicians and Alan told me “I set up my own MySpace account and started trolling for Nottingham-based guitar bands there. I found at least half the bands through MySpace and without it the job would have been a lot harder. All the bands have areas within MySpace and there is a lot of linking between them and other musicians”.

Cities are as much social constructs as they are physical ones where our social relations are as important as the buildings and streets. Urban renewal is surely as much about rebuilding the links between people and communities as it is about shiny new plate-glass buildings along the canals. Maybe there is a role here for social software like MySpace, acting as a reconnection tool, working as an adjunct to regeneration? MySpace is known for its young user group and, well, frankly its triviality. But maybe it could have a more important role in helping to build communities. Suzanne Moore writing in last week’s NewStatesman about the atomisation of our culture in recent decades called for us to a create society that insists on “OurSpace in a world of MySpace”. Perhaps it is already happening, and not in the way she imagines.