What is Open Source and how do you use it?

Open source is a term thrown around at civic hackathons and especially when we’re hacking for the social good.

I know for us non-technical folks, it can be overwhelming to understand what open source actually is since we don’t write code, but it’s important for us to understand the benefits.

I could sit here and write an entire post about what open source is and how you approach it, but (much like open source itself) I’d rather build on the great work of those who come before me, so here’s an awesome video that breaks it down in less than 4 minutes: 

Now that you know what open source is, let’s talk about the benefits of open source at a civic hackathon. These events are focused on elevating great community ideas and empowering folks to come together to make a difference.

Can you imagine what a network of civic hackathons happening simultaneously around the world where anyone can jump in and add, alter, and improve the same code/idea would look like? Now you’re starting to get why I think open source is so exciting.

As suggested in the video, there is an amazing amount of community support that goes into open source, and it’s the same kind of inclusivity and mutual beneficence that hackathons try to foster, so it’s a natural pairing.

Make Your Projects Open Source

One way to keep the spirit of collaboration and continual change alive is to make sure that all of your civic hackathon projects are open source. This way, you can be sure that you’re able to pass on all of the important information to others at future events and you can keep the momentum going on important issues in your community. It’s a lot easier to make headway on something if you can take the baton from another project rather than starting from scratch again and again. In fact, making your work open source allows for the possibility of hacking a multi-part project over a series of events. The goal here is to ensure that anyone else can grab the baton if they want and use your framework to start creating solutions anywhere.

Tap into Other Open Source Communities

As mentioned in the video (and something I’ve already pointed out multiple times in this post), there is already an amazing open source community out there. These are people who are typically passionate about using technology to make change — sometimes even social change — and they can be a huge resource for you in terms of brainstorming, networking, and connecting you to available resources. Ensure that you can tap into these networks during your hackathon event and utilize those resources for your projects.

Educate Peers on Open Source Benefits

Sometimes the only way to show others the benefits of a change is to walk them through the process themselves. This is definitely true with open source benefits, as those who start working on a project that uses some open source code quickly learn to understand how powerful it can be. There’s nothing like appreciating something when you need it most, kind of like how we need food…or air.

I understand that there can be potential setbacks from using certain code from companies given their legal restrictions, as well as the occasional operability hurdle. But here’s the thing, we have to start somewhere when it comes to our civic hackathon projects, and it’s typically better to start where there is already a framework in place rather than spend the event reinventing the wheel, so to speak.

Just imagine how monumental it would be if there was truly a one-stop-shop for global civic hackathon projects where everyone could take, share, contribute, and build on each other’s code.

The impact of projects that could span across multiple hackathons and shift through the input of countless hackers would be incredible!