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Open source for good

Imagine volunteering to build a home for a struggling family and the entire community shows up to help – that is what open source is all about

In the community effort to help a struggling family build a home, everyone selflessly pitches in, drawing on their own experiences as homeowners, focused on ensuring that this family’s house goes up as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible. Each individual is working with an eye to the future, making sure the place will last so that this family can build a better life for themselves. 

This is how the open source community works. Across the planet – the biggest neighbourhood of all – tens of millions of cutting-edge software developers share what they know for the common good, and they do it, in an otherwise fiercely competitive world, giving each other free access to even their most ingenious, breakthrough computer code. Open source is a development model based on pulling down walls, not putting them up. It’s the power of many, and it works – 99% of the Fortune 500 relies on open source.

In the pandemic, open source has been critical. It has touched billions of lives, and it has saved lives. I saw this unfold daily at SUSE, which specialises in bringing open source software to business. I marvelled at the importance of universal access to critical code to design contact-tracing technology, helping unravel the complexities of the virus’s path across the planet.

When Singapore led the world implementing contact-tracing, open source made it possible. When large-scale Covid-19 testing and analysis became available, open source made it possible (and we are proud to have empowered our customer, Ruvos, to achieve this). When healthcare organisations needed a cost-effective way to analyse torrents of data at a moment’s notice, open source made it possible. 

Open source pervades our lives. It is a remarkable, often unsung, force for good. Open source software is embedded in mammogram machines, it powers autonomous driving to make people safer on the road, air traffic control systems at airports, and weather forecasting technology to warn of storms and even earthquakes. It keeps trains on the rails and satellites in the air, and it helps fight climate change by helping farmers to discover new ways to grow their crops. It has helped unbanked people become banked in the developing world, enabling them to start businesses and change the destiny of a family or entire community for generations. 

Delivering skills to the world

Open source is continuously created by a far-flung community of the world’s most visionary engineers. It is a vast, global conversation, conducted not just from desks in traditional workspaces, but from home offices, kitchen tables, basements, cafes – just about everywhere. This open source community is ever growing, ever evolving, and with it the attitudes and priorities of those developing it.

In fact, this sense of community is greater now than it has ever been, with the volume of both contributors and contributions having increased significantly as the pandemic has unfolded. On Github, there were more than 60 million new repositories in 2020 – that’s 40% more repositories than in 2019, demonstrating how this global community of developers has come together to help the world leverage the power of community to solve the problems we are facing now and in the future. 

The sheer breadth of this community is so inspiring to me. It is also why, I believe, the ingenuity of open source has such a practical streak, rooted firmly in a feet-on-the-ground sense of what the world needs now and how to get there most efficiently and effectively. 

Consider, again, that house going up in the neighbourhood, and this time I mean the neighbourhood made up of all 7.8 billion of us on the planet. We all need a strong foundation, a home that’s affordable, and roofbeams that last. What is good for any one of us is what is good for everyone else. The open source community lives that ideal, the belief that the best way to build the house we all live in is to do it together, drawing on the power of many, choosing open simply because it works.

I’ve been in the world of technology for a while, privileged to work with many dazzling women and men. But my work now at SUSE affirms every day what I have long observed. Every time I have been privileged to contribute to a breakthrough of some kind, it always happened because a team trusted one another. That is truly open source for good.

Amid so many challenges confronting us on the planet right now, collaboration may just be the single most significant, and too often missing, piece – not just to make the world a better place with technology, but to make the world a better place overall.

Melissa Di Donato is CEO of SUSE

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