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Open Source Projects: Help Wanted

17 March 2012

Over the few years that I’ve been exploring the open source world, I’ve come to realize that there is quite a bit about open source that most people, including most technical people, don’t understand.  Since I’m a faculty type, I got beyond some of this early on by looking at research literature.  As with many technical topics, the growth of open source means that it has attracted a good bit of researcher interest.  See for example, Deek and McHugh or FLOSShub.  Most people don’t have much tolerance for wading through research papers though, so many of the things known about open source are not widely known.

One of the misconceptions has to do with the number of developers on most projects.  People seem to expect that projects have lots of developers, when just the opposite is true for most projects.  Research studies show that the average number of developers across the broad sweep of FOSS projects is one per project.  That’s right, most projects have a single developer!

The community team at Source Forge recently blogged about this and published a nice graph showing the distribution of developers by project.  The steep drop-off in that curve tells the tale.  Source Forge “About” currently indicates that there are 324,000 projects on the site.  269,000 of them have only one developer.  Yes, the large and popular projects mostly have quite a few developers, but only 21 have over 100, and of those 21, only 7 are over 200.

This preponderance of single developer projects and overwhelming majority of projects with no more than a small development team presents a very different picture of the FOSS ecosystem.  Clearly, one reason for this picture is that forges contain many projects that have been started but never really gone anywhere.  But, in terms of student participation in open source, it implies lots of opportunity.  Given the large number of projects, there clearly are going to be quite a few that could use some additional developers.

Finding the sweet spot on that curve of development team size is one of the challenges for getting students involved in FOSS.  I don’t think there is a magic team size, but rather that team size is one of the factors that should be considered in project selection.  We’ve been working on a framework to help faculty with this problem of selecting projects for student participation.  This will need additional development, but we recently presented initial ideas at the ACM SIGCSE annual symposium.  The paper is:

Ellis, Heidi J. C., Michelle Purcell, Gregory W. Hislop.  “An Approach for Evaluating FOSS Projects for Student Participation.”  Proceedings, ACM SIGCSE Symposium.  March, 2012.

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