The Greatest Success of the Open Source Movement

open source wide meaning

I was watching British TV last week, and a newsreader asked if a politician should “step up to the plate”.

It’s strange for a BBC newsreader to use a U.S. baseball phrase, right? Not really. That phrase has such a strong and memorable meaning that almost all viewers would understand it. “Keep calm and carry on” is a war-time phrase that has gone in the opposite direction from the UK to worldwide use.

I think the same thing has happened to “open source”.

I keep finding uses of the phrase “open source” being applied in situations where no code is involved.

“Open source” has become short-hand for transparent, collaborative and community-minded.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever heard of open source chickens? An open source tractor? Here are some examples of “open source” being used far beyond software:

Open Source for Chickens

This article from National Geograpic talks about open-source genetics for chicken:

“Whether the chicken is the white-feathered, big-breasted Cornish Cross in millions of supermarket cases, or the sturdy, long-lived “red birds” of pastured producers, chances are that it can be traced back to hybrids owned by one of just a few hatchery companies scattered around the globe.

“These are corporate genetics from huge companies,” says Nigel Walker, proprietor of Eatwell Farm outside Dixon, Calif. “I’m embarrassed to say I am not even sure where my genetics come from right now.”


Open Source for Education

This is probably the most successful example on this list. The Wikpedia entry for “Open-source curriculum” lists over 20 different projects.

There’s the California Open Source Textbook Project which aims to solve the high cost, content range, and consistent shortages of K-12 textbooks.

OpenStax College offers free textbooks that meet scope and sequence requirements for most courses.

I could go on all day, but you get the picture. The use of “open source” metholodogies is booming in education.


Open Source for Mental Illness

Ed Finkler is a web developer at Purdue University.

He’s also the co-host of the Development Hell Podcast. Back in the summer of of 2012, he posted a podcast episode that ignored technical issues and talked about mental illness. In particular, Ed talked about his ongoing struggles with depression and anxiety.

Ed’s openness hit a chord with his listeners and that initial podcast has become a campaign. Ed regular gives a talk entitled “Open Sourcing Mental Illness” to raise awareness and understanding of mental illness in the developer community.


Open Source for Farm Machinery

Farmbot is an agricultural tool based on 3D printing technologies running open source software.

Using an Arduino and Raspberry Pi, the FarmBot tool head can be positioned for a variety of operations such as soil preparation, seeding, watering, fertilizing, weed control, and data acquisition.


Open Source for Bee Hives

Last year, around a third of honeybee colonies in the United States vanished in a crisis known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The death of so many bees threatened to have a knock-on effect on other plants because so many are pollinated by bees.

Open Source Beehives is a project that’s trying to help diagnose and solve Colony Collapse Disorder. Open Source Beehives have created two beehive designs that can be freely downloaded and 3D printed. The beehives are filled with innovative sensors to log and track bee colony health.


Open Source for Beer

The project, originally in Copenhagen, applies open source methods to beer.

Free beer is based on traditional recipes, but with addded Guaraná for an energy boost. The recipe is available online under a Creative Commons (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5) license. Anyone can use the recipe to brew their own free beer or create a derivative of the recipe.

There’s also an open source soda.


Open Source for Religion

There are a ton of people trying to apply open source principles to religion.

Open Source Religion says it is “the practice of mixing religious and non-religious beliefs in an individual, even across multiple religions”.

There’s even a religion called Yo! (no, I don’t think it’s related to the social networking app) that claims to embody all these religions via an open source process:


Open Source for Industrial Machines

Open Source Ecology is all about open source industrial machines that can be made for a fraction of commercial costs, and sharing the designs online.

Their current aim is the complete the Global Village construction set. They want to open source the 50 most important machines that it takes for modern life to exist – everything from a tractor, to an oven, to a circuit maker.


So what does “open source” mean now?

Start by realizing that developers have lost control of the phrase “open source”. It is one of those phrases that has successfully moved into the mainstream, adding to it’s original meaning.

Here’s what, a Red Hat-owned site, defines as “open source” in 2014:

  1. Open exchange: Information is openly shared.
  2. Participation: Anyone is free to collaborate.
  3. Rapid prototyping: Rapid prototypes can lead to rapid failures, but that leads to better solutions found faster. Learn by doing.
  4. Meritocracy: The best ideas win. Successful work determines which projects rise and gather effort from the community.
  5. Community: Communities are formed around a common purpose.

As someone who’s sometimes been pessimistic about the success of open source, I think this widespread use of “open source” is great.

As an open source movement, we have values to share. And let’s be glad that people from school teachers to farmers want to learn from these values that started with developers.

Over to you. Have you seen any examples of “open source” applied to things beyond code?


  • Steve Burge

    Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.

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Dan Knauss
Dan Knauss
9 years ago

“Open Government” was a promising movement that seems to have had its idealistic bubble popped, at least at the national level in the US.

9 years ago
Reply to  Dan Knauss

Ah, there’s a can of worms 🙂
However, even there you can see some positive signs: [url=]…[/url]

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