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The Open Source Revolution


Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, an OWS offshoot called Occupy Sandy quickly made headlines through its rapid response relief efforts, often beating out official relief agencies, like FEMA. Organizers Leah Feder and Devin Balkind discuss how open-source technology can help organize communities, solve problems collectively, and build democratic movements.

This post originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.

There have been a lot of exhausting debates in recent years about the role of online social media in resistance movements, about whether these technologies really help or hurt, and how. Some commentators have even gone so far as to hand credit for home-grown uprisings around the world to the wonder-kids of Silicon Valley, and it can be tempting to believe them. Once there was Gandhi and King; now there is Facebook and Twitter. 

These just-so stories, of course, leave out the in-person, on-the-ground organizing that is still at the heart and center of movements everywhere. But they also cause us to miss what may be the most important questions to ask about movements and new technology: Who made the technology, who controls it, and how? 

Facebook and Twitter are only the most visible ways that technology is transforming how ordinary people build power — a visibility aided by a media culture eager to promote all things corporate. But perhaps even more important in the long run is how free and open-source software can help create transformative institutions. Such software — which much of the back-end of the Internet already relies on, including Waging Nonviolence — is produced through self-organized communities of developers working in collaboration, rather than competition. These communities rely on values like transparency, consensus-seeking, decentralization and broad participation. Yet they’re hardly utopian; they do this because it works. 

For Occupy Sandy, Occupy Wall Street’s relief and recovery effort after Hurricane Sandy last fall, open-source software tools like WordPress, Sahana and CiviCRM helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers in affected areas throughout New York City, and to do so faster and more efficiently than official agencies could. Leah Feder and Devin Balkind were among the organizers of this effort, and they have been working to make open-source tools available to the Occupy movement ever since the initial occupation of Zuccotti Park. They are also directors of Sarapis, a non-profit that promotes free and open technologies for the public good. 

For Feder and Balkind, these tools are proof that a more collaborative and sustainable world is possible; I spoke with them recently about why. 

How did you become interested in open-source software? 

LF: When Occupy Wall Street first started, I was going down to the park but not finding a way to get involved or seeing the revolutionary potential in what was happening. I thought it was exciting, and fun, but beyond that I didn’t see where it could go. It was through being exposed to open source there that I was finally moved to engage on a much deeper level in Occupy, because I saw that there was a theory of change. I saw how continuing on a specific path could take us into a fundamentally different paradigm. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? I was in grad school in media, culture and communication at New York University at the time, but thinking through ideas is fun only insofar as you can’t do anything. Once I saw that there was a possibility of doing something, I dropped out.

DB: I started on that path in college. Some friends and I put together a proposal to create a crowdfunding platform called Beex for charity walks and things like that.

Did you have a software background beforehand? 

DB: I was a history and film major; we definitely botched the development of the thing. But it brought me into contact with large nonprofits, and I realized that the non-profit sector was a disaster, primarily because organizations weren’t collaborating with each other. They basically mirrored the corporate model. That made me curious about good models for collaborative problem-solving. At the same time, I was dealing with a software project that was proprietary, and I was finding that it was a terrible, terrible way to go. So I was learning about the open-source software movement while I was recognizing the need for it in the non-profit sector. That led me down the path of developing a generalized understanding of open-source software for community organizing.

LF: I’m not a techie, either, and as a non-techie one can only get so deep into open-source software. I can’t really contribute to open source projects, for instance. I can use open source tools, though, and that increases my capacity as an individual tremendously. I can spin up a WordPress site and make it look pretty nice, really, really quickly. But then, once I learned more about the open-source model and realized that it’s also an organizing model for doing a lot of other things that can increase our capacity collectively, I saw more of an entry-point for myself in the broader peer-to-peer revolution. What it’s really about is changing the way that we organize ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Occupy could be the overtly political manifestation of this phenomenon, whereas open-source software is how the tech world takes on these same principles.

Devin, how did you first make the connection between open source and Occupy? 

DB: By the fall of 2011 I had incorporated Sarapis and was writing a plan to bring open source to community organizations in Brooklyn. I had already done research on constituent-relationship management systems, or CRMs, and on mailing lists. I had written guides for the organizations about how to use open-source technology most effectively. Then I thought I was going to have to raise tens of thousands of dollars to get people excited about the program — until Occupy Wall Street happened. It was basically free enthusiasm for deploying the ideas. Those of us in the Occupy tech group have spent 18 months building infrastructure. And then moments like the Hurricane Sandy relief effort give us the opportunity to see it work.

What in particular has worked especially well? 

DB: The biggest victories are the ones that no one sees. Occupy Wall Street was this huge movement, but no one was collecting email addresses at first — which is insane. But for Occupy Sandy, there was one email-collection system with one form for volunteers. It all went into our CiviCRM system, which had already been configured, and which a lot of people knew how to use. That became the basis for systematized volunteer outreach, where people have been receiving mailings consistently to see when they can come out to do volunteer work. Right now we’re looking at a sustainable volunteer infrastructure that we never had for OWS.

Why does it matter that these tools are free and open source? 

DB: This is part of a revolution in what I call, maybe wrongly, the means of production. That’s what open-source software is. And not just open-source software, but also hardware, and data, and knowledge, and how we collaborate. There are so many differences between open-source and proprietary systems; it’s like how you used to be able to take apart a car engine, and anyone who had basic mechanical skills could replace an air filter. Now, though, there’s plastic sheeting over the whole thing. It has been designed so that people can’t fix their own cars. In open-source systems, the flow of data is of paramount importance. In a proprietary system, the flow of data is something that you lose money on. Go to Facebook, for instance, and try to export your friend network — not easy, because that means you could migrate out.

LF: When we solve problems with open-source tools, we deliver the solutions back to the global information commons, and we build capacity for anybody who wants to do this in the future. Any such group that wants to arise and start collecting contacts can do the same, and it’s free. We have a whole bunch of tools to use, and we can grow ever more quickly on tools that we own ourselves.

So it’s a matter of self-reliance and independence? 

DB: For the people in the open-source movement who realize where this is going, the next step is to replicate what the government does, but better. How do we out-compete the government using open-source tools? I can tell you that with Occupy Sandy we already did it. We had a better system up within a month — for managing work orders, inventory, requests, workflows. What if we had had that during the occupation? How much easier would life have been for managing the Zuccotti Park experience if there had been people trained in such a system? We’d have had vehicles, warehouses and kitchens all coordinated in a way that was sustainable and easy to plug into. If we can do that, it’ll become competition between us and other systems. Then we’re on the path to the type of changes that people in the open-source world realize is coming.

We’re using the term “open source” now, by the way, but usually I use the term “FLO,” which means “free/libre/open source.” There’s a whole political dimension to these words.

What do you think it will take for more people to recognize this potential? 

DB: Open-source projects, as an organizing endeavor, pose an integration challenge. The question is always how to get one plugin to work with another. When we’ve conditioned ourselves to think more in terms of plugin architecture, our projects will inevitably plug into other projects, and when that happens we’re going to have a whole new set of functionality that’s possible. Once we’re at a certain level of advancement, we get to merge. I think that what’s going to happen is a wave. For instance, when open-source technology merges with open-source ecology in order to produce hardware locally, you’re going to see a tremendous sea-change. You’ll see, say, a new type of open-source tractor that starts selling like hotcakes. That convergence isn’t so far away, and when that happens it’s going to feel different. It is going to feel like a flick of a switch for a lot of folks.

How important is it for people in the Occupy movement to know about this broader process? 

DB: Open-source software itself exists because other models for software production didn’t meet the need. Similarly, I think the Occupy movement’s effectiveness depends on how quickly it recognizes that the best community-organizing practices are rooted in free/libre/open source. In the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, the leaders tended to be people in the Direct Action Working Group, which was organizing the actions and marches. But it was never very effective. Protest loses to production any day of the week. That’s why the Black Panthers had a breakfast program. Give people what they want if you want to be an effective movement. With Occupy Sandy, because there was such a strong demand for relief from the community, we saw the effectiveness of open-source tools. Documentation became more important. A shared Google Docs folder was the center of productivity within Occupy Sandy, and lots of people were realizing, “If I don’t share my docs as widely as possible, and if I don’t orient people to these docs, this falls apart.” That was significant.

But Google Docs isn’t open source. Where are the lines to be drawn? 

DB: I like to say “practically possible.” Use freely-available, open-source solutions whenever practically possible. Google Docs isn’t open source, but sharing data on spreadsheets is about as open-source as you can get. Any absolutes about this stuff aren’t particularly useful. What’s useful is recognizing the purpose of the activity as being new forms of productivity, not merely creating a spectacle. But this takes a lot of practice to do right. It’s hard. By the time of Occupy Sandy, there were a lot more people who understood how to do this kind of thing than during the original occupation, and they started out-performing the people who don’t work this way.

Was your experience with free-software communities in some ways preparatory for knowing how to participate in Occupy Wall Street’s decentralized structure? 

DB: Yes. Philosophically, for sure. The media would say, “They communicate over Facebook and Twitter,” but if you’re involved in organizing, you’re emailing all day. It’s emails, and it’s listservs. I came in knowing how to have intense decision-making conversations on email lists, while the vast majority of people did not. By now, the growth of people’s aptitude for that type of communication has been stunning.

LF: Although we’re still not there!

DB: No. But we’re so much further along.

LF: Whatever the political intentions of the open-source community, it models a different way of working together. Last fall, a lot of people were down with the idea that “shit is fucked up and bullshit.” But people will only go so far if you don’t show them something better. There’s a portion of the population that will really be galvanized by marches and occupations, but if you want many more people to get excited about your political project, you need to provide an alternative — alternatives. That’s what drives the politics forward, because there’s a limit to the horizon of possibility when it’s a politics of protest. But once it’s a politics of solutions and alternatives, you’re playing in a different field, and a lot more is possible.

Does that help you when you’re opposing a system backed up by state violence? 

DB: During the early months of Occupy, I would have experiences where I’d be talking to a cop who didn’t look like he was enjoying being a pawn to suppress protest, and I said to him, “Hey dude, have you ever talked about getting some land and going to a farm? If you ever need some help acquiring land, we’ve got a bunch of acres upstate, we have training, and Occupy Farms can get you up there, and you don’t have to do this anymore.” I’ve had cops say to me, “You show me that, and we can have a conversation.” The existing system is just not that competitive. It’s more competitive than chaos, or anarchy or protest, sure. But how good, really, is our suburban lifestyle, or our urban-ish suburban existence? At some point, the other option is going to look better, and then the air starts coming out of the balloon.

How close are we to that point, do you think? 

DB: A lot of the software, for instance, is still a disaster in terms of usability and other capacities. That’s just where we are as a society. We’re using it at just about 5 percent capacity. But what’s fun about this stuff — and I think this is really how good software gets made — is that you cobble together solutions, and everything kind of sucks, and you evaluate how each piece works, and then you roll it all into one. If our movement worked like a big open-source software project, there would be an extensive wiki and forums and trainings to on-board people. There would be an issue-tracker and requests for help, for what you can do at various different engagement levels. An assembly could be happening in some place like Trenton, N.J., and someone there might say, “I work in case-tracking for a homeless shelter, and it would be better if x happened,” and then bam, it would be tagged in the minutes of the meeting, and the developers somewhere else would have a filter for whatever code was used to keep the minutes, and they’d implement the suggestion in the next update. That’s the type of performance we’re going to be able to achieve.

We’re not that far away from being able to allow people to unplug from the proprietary information ecosystem. And once we get there, we’re talking about real political change. The best part of the whole open-source thing is recognizing that we can see into the future and recognizing that it’s not all crazy. It’s just going to require a lot of people to work. And that makes it a lot easier to be an activist.

Image of Occupy Sandy volunteers by Erin O'Brien (Occupy Sandy Facebook page).