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Open source is an integral part of who we are at the Open Food Network: our platform, the way we work and much more. It’s even in our name! So, let’s talk about it.

In today’s society, open source software exists as an antithesis to the systems we have grown accustomed to under capitalism. In this blog, we explain what open source tech is, how it differs from closed source and why we should all care. Plus, we’ll look at some of the great things going on in the open source sphere that we think you’ll be interested in.

What is open source tech?

Before this can be answered, we first need to look at what closed source tech is.

Closed source software (also called proprietary software) is developed by private companies – think Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office etc. The ultimate aim of these firms is to maximise profit for a small handful of private owners.

The large majority of us are misled in our perceptions of technology, assuming that all tech is closed source. This assumption has led to a very skewed perception of technology in its entirety. Uncertainty about technology can even deter us from using it to develop our business, if it is viewed as another obstacle to overcome.

When profit is the goal of a technology, motivations shift. Profit is usually earned by charging users for licences to access the software. This means closed source firms will hide their source code from public view such that competitors cannot use or improve it for their own purposes.

By contrast, open source software can be accessed and contributed to by anyone. This is because the purpose of open source tech is for development and improvement, not for profit. The real beauty of open source is that it fosters collaboration, community and rapid improvement – more on this later.

Letting users and developers contribute to the code openly allows for a more inclusive process. This process incorporates skills and needs across the user base, not just from those with the loudest voices or the biggest wallets.

This is the essential difference between closed source and open source tech. Closed source does not allow users and developers to contribute to the code and make it better. Open source does.

Why should we care?

There are many ethical issues with closed source tech, which we touch upon throughout this blog post. But there are also some important practical ones.

Let’s say, for example, that there’s a “bug” which is messing up user security and users’ passwords are at risk of being harvested. This bug will not be flagged until there is a breach of security, when it will already be too late.

By definition, open source is very open. (Note: not in terms of user data but in terms of code!) This openness of code means that something like a security bug could be flagged and dealt with before anything went wrong.

Now let’s explore the ethics of these kinds of tech. Closed source software platforms are built on extractive business models. This tends to lead to “silos” of data and disconnections between communities. And we all know how important connected communities are for resilience in times of crisis.

Anything that is open source is not owned and controlled by any one person or organisation. No one entity is able to claim ownership. If it was owned, it could be controlled, changed from its original form, exploited or destroyed.

Imagine if the Open Food Network was closed source. Maybe the owner would change it against the will of the food enterprises, or even would destroy it – ruining the livelihoods of thousands who have a shopfront on the platform.

Something similar to this actually happened to Farmdrop last year. But this won’t happen to Open Food Network, or any other open source project for that matter. In fact, anyone could install and run the software themselves if they so wish!

There is much transparency in open source software and data can be shared freely. This means that anything open source can continually evolve to suit the needs of its current users. And this evolution is driven by users, rather than by a single owner with selfish goals.

So a project that is closed source is incapable of truly fostering a sense of community or collaboration – because its foundations are not based on collaboration nor benefits for the community.

On the other hand, open source can build a community of like-minded folk. Because they all work together, bringing their own skills and passions and knowledge to contribute to something greater than the individual.

Open source is bottom-up, not top-down. It is designed and built by the community, for the community.

One of our core beliefs at the Open Food Network is that collaboration is far more productive, healthy and sustainable than competition. And closed source is based on a more competitive philosophy, a scarcity mindset and on the idea of a dog-eat-dog world.

Learning about and working with open source software can lead to a paradigm shift in developer thinking and user experience. It can also result in a culture shift towards a more community-driven way of working and living.

Let’s take a trip back to the origins of the internet…

Before the internet, information and knowledge was scarce, labour intensive and valuable. The printing press changed this slightly and managed to reduce barriers to knowledge.

But the digital world has been fundamental to the development of our civilisation. We’ve seen knowledge and information become ever more accessible with the internet. And this has undoubtedly changed society.

Some say it’s difficult to pinpoint a specific date or person to the birth of the internet. However, the internet as we know it today was driven by a community with a specific vision.

The internet was dreamt up as a place where information and knowledge could be shared quickly and easily – across time zones and cultures and for all people.

Some of this seems familiar and even similar to how the internet looks today. But in reality, the internet today is dominated by private firms, whose aim is to maximise profit for a small handful of owners. And information that is spread can be inflammatory, misguided, downright exploitative…

We’ll stop the rant there. But it’s clear that early internet communities are no longer at the forefront of its evolution today.

Open source is the antidote to this. And when used well in projects like the Open Food Network software, it embodies the vision that was dreamt up by those first on the internet.

What are some open source success stories?

We’ll highlight a few of the many success stories, otherwise we’d be here all day!

Google released a Javascript engine in 2008, an open source technology which made everything much faster. It worked better because so many people had contributed to it. Same goes for Linux – an alternative to Windows and MacOS.

FarmOS, an open source farm management software platform, are looking at integrating with the DFC standard. This means that they’ll be able to integrate with other local food retail platforms that use the standard, like the Open Food Network. This empowers producers to seamlessly integrate their products with multiple sales platforms, reducing admin overheads and barriers to accessing local markets.

Call us biased, but the Open Food Network itself is a pretty great story!

Way back in the early 2000s, a group of friends from Stroud heard of a cool project happening in Australia. It was a software that had been designed specifically for food hubs and community support agriculture called the Open Food Network. The software was adopted and adapted slightly for the UK and turned into the Open Food Network UK – only possible because it was open source! Since then, there are Open Food Network instances across over 20 countries worldwide!

What we dream open source tech can achieve:

When data and code is shared so openly, everyone can get involved and can collaborate to make systems work better. The FDC project is a fantastic example of what open source tech can achieve. Learn more about the project here.

Using open source software is a way everyone can get involved in making collaboration and community-leadership the norm. If you use a computer (we see you reading this blog!), check out Linux and Ubuntu. They have lower hardware requirements – meaning you can use your computers for longer. You can use a laptop that’s 12 years old and use the latest software for basic computer tasks!

If you’re interested in software development, we’d love for you to join us on slack and join the community. Click below to do so!

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