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Trash Talk

The story of "Let's Do It!" is both a story of civic triumph and a validation of open source software technology. But like the successful campaign of Barack Obama, the story of the actual open source software used is far less important and far less interesting than the story of how much the principles of the open source model were brought to bear in solving a problem that seemed virtually hopeless using conventional means.

The story begins as many do, with the current generation inheriting all the good that Earth can provide minus all the accumulated harm that generations of human stupidity, greed, and unchallenged status quo have wrought. In Estonia that equation had reached a point where one visionary said "Enough!" Rainer Nõlvakorganized a project which effected the cleanup of 10,000 tons of garbage throughout the country's forests in a single day for a cost of €500,000. It was estimated that if this task could have been performed by the government, it would have taken 3 years and cost €22,500,000. The project that Rainer organized thus delivered not only a cost savings of 45:1 (on par with the 50:1 ratio achieved by Hill Air Force Base when they dumped proprietary hardware and software for open source and commodity technologies), but done so quickly that the population of Estonia as a whole could enjoy an additional 5 million person-years of clean forests that had been despoiled by previous generations. You can see the story for yourself:

One of the keys to the success of the project was to make it doable in a single day, and the key to making it doable in a single day was to make it a massively distributed project. The hyper-modularity of open source is amenable to mass participation. I truly believe that one reason we are seeing open source software technology leapfrogging proprietary software technology in virtually every category in which innovation is still legal (i.e., not overburdened with software patents) is precisely because we can coordinate and manage the creative inputs of millions of open source user/developers while the largest proprietary software vendors have fewer than half a million total employees (and far fewer people writing actual code).

I can hear you saying "yes, but my problem cannot be solved in a day." And I have no doubt that when the idea was proposed to collect 10,000 tons of illegal waste in a single day in a country with only 1.4 million people, there were probably those who also thought "this is not possible." Yet here's how they did it:

Step 1:
Team Building (bring together the 20 best cross-disciplinary professionals, and let them recruit the next 600 volunteers)
Step 2:
Engaging Partners (who have staff, technical equipment, etc.)
Step 3:
Mapping of Garbage (using open source)
Step 4:
Communication (outreach)
Step 5:
Registration (give people a meaningful role in being part of the solution)

This reminds me of one of my favorite Alexis De Tocqueville quotes:

When a private individual mediates an undertaking, however directly connected it may be with the welfare of society, he never thinks of soliciting the cooperation of the Government, but he publishes his plan, offers to execute it himself, courts the assistance of other individuals, and struggles manfully against all obstacles. Undoubtedly he is often less successful than the State might have been in his position; but in the end the sum of these private undertakings far exceeds all that the Government could have done.

After publishing their plan, offering to execute it themselves, courting the assistance of others, and struggling against numerous obstacles, on the day of the event more than 50,000 people showed up to help, which would be the equivalent of more than 15M people in the US. And to repeat: they did the job in a day for about 2% of what it would have cost the government to do, which brings me to the following observations:

There are those who believe that property and capital are all that matter, and are all that motivate anybody to do anything. Would the forests ever get cleaned up if a property-only, capital-only mindset were presented a quote for €22,500,000? Or, if scaled to American proportions (which are approximately 200 times the population and 200 times the land area), a cost of more than $600,000,000? Probably not. But if the cost could be reduced to less than $15M? There are lots more people and foundations with that kind of money than $600M, so if nothing else, they could solve a heck of a lot more problems than the plutocrats.

How many other major, mainstream problems could be solved through cooperative social action rather than making the false choice between exclusive reliance on the government and exclusively ignoring the problem altogether? Surely this model can work for things other than picking up the trash. (And has, if we look at the long list of grand-challenge problems solved with open source technologies...)

Is there something about Estonia that makes them special? According to the Open Source Index, they have the highest Community Activity rank of all the countries measured. Now, the US is not far behind in that metric, but I think we should look a little deeper. Perhaps Estonia scored so high because they have an ethos of community activity that naturally carries over to software. And perhaps the US scored so high because within the open source community we get it. But we remain a small minority within an enormous landfill of proprietary software development. When enlightened, American software programmers can be as good as the Estonians at community activity. The trouble is, there just aren't enough of us. Yet.

Comments

It may be misleading to draw an analogy that compares the "millions" of people who can conceivably participate in open source software to the "half-million" employees of e.g. IBM. Those hypothetical millions are not coordinated with each other just by virtue of working on "open source" -- not any more than the efforts of all people working an economy are "coordinated" by virtue of capitalism. The very few largest open source projects may have genuine coordination of a few hundred or thousand people, but these are not dissimilar in scale from large proprietary vendors.

Great article. This may be about the best blog I have read from Michael. In Africa, the thought is that I am because we are. Community cannot be divested from Open Source. Funding is certainly important for projects, but it will never replace the human capital. There is an Igbo (An ethnic group in Eastern Nigeria, where my origins are) saying that 'onye nwere mmadu ka onye nwere ego' which translates simply into - he who has human beings is greater than he who owns money. On the same point, I have been tempted recently to blast some of my emotions on the blog here.. about Open source folks who canNOT communicate, who do NOT see the importance of communication, or who relegate the role that communication plays in human development. Another African saying is that the one who has the best product in the market may not be the one to sell more.. but the one who shouts loudest to attract customers. We have had issues with great solutions, great developers, great applications whose advantages are not being communicated. It is not sufficient for Open Source solutions to be better, it is not enough to know that their source codes are downloadable and free. Open Source people must be able to put technical words into everyday language. Code must may not be 'human readable' but the application must be understandable. Volunteerism and motivation are key issues in community. And a big chunk of the two is hinged on human sentiments. We need more of these. Code is for machines, communication is for human beings.