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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

This is Just the Begining

Following on from the last post and the topic of the increasing returns properties of ideas, Francisco has sent me this link from Wired. Open the code, open the code!

Open Source Everywhere

Software is just the beginning … open source is doing for mass innovation what the assembly line did for mass production. Get ready for the era when collaboration replaces the corporation.

By Thomas Goetz

Cholera is one of those 19th-century ills that, like consumption or gout, at first seems almost quaint, a malady from an age when people suffered from maladies. But in the developing world, the disease is still widespread and can be gruesomely lethal. When cholera strikes an unprepared community, people get violently sick immediately. On day two, severe dehydration sets in. By day seven, half of a village might be dead.

Since cholera kills by driving fluids from the body, the treatment is to pump liquid back in, as fast as possible. The one proven technology, an intravenous saline drip, has a few drawbacks. An easy-to-use, computer-regulated IV can cost $2,000 - far too expensive to deploy against a large outbreak. Other systems cost as little as 35 cents, but they're too complicated for unskilled caregivers. The result: People die unnecessarily.

"It's a health problem, but it's also a design problem," says Timothy Prestero, a onetime Peace Corps volunteer who cofounded a group called Design That Matters. Leading a team of MIT engineering students, Prestero, who has master's degrees in mechanical and oceanographic engineering, focused on the drip chamber and pinch valve controlling the saline flow rate.

But the team needed more medical expertise. So Prestero turned to ThinkCycle, a Web-based industrial-design project that brings together engineers, designers, academics, and professionals from a variety of disciplines. Soon, some physicians and engineers were pitching in - vetting designs and recommending new paths. Within a few months, Prestero's team had turned the suggestions into an ingenious solution. Taking inspiration from a tool called a rotameter used in chemical engineering, the group crafted a new IV system that's intuitive to use, even for untrained workers. Remarkably, it costs about $1.25 to manufacture, making it ideal for mass deployment. Prestero is now in talks with a medical devices company; the new IV could be in the field a year from now.

ThinkCycle's collaborative approach is modeled on a method that for more than a decade has been closely associated with software development: open source. It's called that because the collaboration is open to all and the source code is freely shared. Open source harnesses the distributive powers of the Internet, parcels the work out to thousands, and uses their piecework to build a better whole - putting informal networks of volunteer coders in direct competition with big corporations. It works like an ant colony, where the collective intelligence of the network supersedes any single contributor.

Open source, of course, is the magic behind Linux, the operating system that is transforming the software industry. Linux commands a growing share of the server market worldwide and even has Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer warning of its "competitive challenge for us and for our entire industry." And open source software transcends Linux. Altogether, more than 65,000 collaborative software projects click along at Sourceforge.net, a clearinghouse for the open source community. The success of Linux alone has stunned the business world.

But software is just the beginning. Open source has spread to other disciplines, from the hard sciences to the liberal arts. Biologists have embraced open source methods in genomics and informatics, building massive databases to genetically sequence E. coli, yeast, and other workhorses of lab research. NASA has adopted open source principles as part of its Mars mission, calling on volunteer "clickworkers" to identify millions of craters and help draw a map of the Red Planet. There is open source publishing: With Bruce Perens, who helped define open source software in the '90s, Prentice Hall is publishing a series of computer books open to any use, modification, or redistribution, with readers' improvements considered for succeeding editions. There are library efforts like Project Gutenberg, which has already digitized more than 6,000 books, with hundreds of volunteers typing in, page by page, classics from Shakespeare to Stendhal; at the same time, a related project, Distributed Proofreading, deploys legions of copy editors to make sure the Gutenberg texts are correct. There are open source projects in law and religion. There's even an open source cookbook.

In 2003, the method is proving to be as broadly effective - and, yes, as revolutionary - a means of production as the assembly line was a century ago.

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