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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.

Blogging Habits and Openness

7 March 2012

I’ve been increasingly involved in the world of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in recent years, and that involvement has made me re-think the role of blogs.  Blogs always seemed like an interesting development in the evolution of the Web, but didn’t have much appeal to me personally.  As I came to understand the FOSS world however, I had to re-consider blogging.  If you follow FOSS, it becomes clear fairly quickly that blogs are a key communication vehicle, and also a key mechanism to establish presence and credibility in the FOSS community.  So I decided to blog as part of joining the the FOSS world.

That was almost a year and a half ago.  As you can see, my initial blogging effort consisted of exactly one post.  I’m sure that there are many blogs that are started with a single post and stop right there, so this isn’t a surprising result.  But it is interesting to consider why this might be so.  In particular, it seems that professionally oriented blogs are an uneasy fit (at best) with professional life.

In my case, the profession is being a faculty member at a research university.  Writing is part of the job, but not the sort of writing that appears in a blog.  Academic culture is very much more about publication of polished, finished products.  And publication also includes a filtering process (and stamp of approval) provided by the peer review and editing process typical of academic publications.  Publications that have not been through that filtering and approval process are not valued much, and faculty have little incentive (or have actual disincentive) to spend time on other writing, like blogging.

While academic culture is relevant to my failure to blog, I’m also struck that similar cultural biases exist in the commercial world.  In academia, the writing issue is primarily related to reputation of an individual.  In the commercial world, the concern is much more about reputation, intellectual property, and liability of the organization that employs the blogger.  But the effect is much the same in creating no incentive and some disincentive to blog.

So yes, on one level I was just “too busy” to blog.  But I managed to get to a whole bunch of other things during this time of being “too busy”.  Blogging never got the priority in part because the openness that a professionally oriented blog implies just doesn’t fit the culture that surrounds me.  It seems that this issue applies to all attempts to marry openness principles with existing organizational cultures and personal work habits.  That doesn’t seem insurmountable, but it’s an issue to remember when encouraging openness in the workplace and among students.

Grace Hopper 2010 – Mirage and Oasis

5 October 2010

Last week I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing held in Atlanta.  As you might expect, the attendees are predominantly women, and roughly half are current students.  I noted to several of my fellow faculty members that the experience was something like seeing a mirage.  Many of us with interest in computing education would like to see many more women among our students.  The number of students in computing majors remains far to low to meet the projected demand for computing graduates.  And current representation of women in computing majors is dismal. Given that women represent roughly 50% of the population, they are by far the largest under-represented group among our majors.  So if computing were more successful in attracting women as majors, the potential to really solve the overall shortage in majors is excellent.  But thus far, this goal has been elusive.

Seeing so many women students in one place is refreshing and a sharp contrast to the everyday experience in our classes.  A bit like a mirage in that we don’t have that sort of concentration of women computing students at any one institution.  But also a bit like an oasis because the gathering was a very concrete reminder that a substantial population of women in computing does exist.

Another bright spot in the conference was a chance to catch up with some of the people who share my interest in having students participate in communities that develop open source software.  The picture below shows a gathering of old friends and new sharing ideas for Teaching Open Source over lunch.  My thanks to Mel Chua of Red Hat for supporting our gathering!

Teaching Open Source Lunch

FOSS friends: Leslie Hawthorn, Deb Nicholson, Greg Hislop, Heidi Ellis, Anita Verno, and Bill Madden