Open Source Is Good, but How Can It Do Good?

open source

Open-source coders: we know you are good—now do good.

The ethical use of computers has been at the heart of free software from the beginning. Here's what Richard Stallman told me when I interviewed him in 1999 for my book Rebel Code:

The free software movement is basically a movement for freedom. It's based on values that are not purely material and practical. It's based on the idea that freedom is a benefit in itself. And that being allowed to be part of a community is a benefit in itself, having neighbors who can help you, who are free to help you—they are not told that they are pirates if they help you—is a benefit in itself, and that that's even more important than how powerful and reliable your software is.

The Open Source world may not be so explicit about the underlying ethical aspect, but most coders probably would hope that their programming makes the world a better place. Now that the core technical challenge of how to write good, world-beating open-source code largely has been met, there's another, trickier challenge: how to write open-source code that does good.

One obvious way is to create software that boosts good causes directly. A recent article on discussed eight projects that are working in the area of the environment. Helping to tackle the climate crisis and other environmental challenges with free software is an obvious way to make the world better in a literal sense, and on a massive scale. Particularly notable is Greenpeace's Platform 4—not just open-source software, but an entire platform for doing good. And external coders are welcome:

Co-develop Planet 4!

Planet 4 is 100% open source. If you would like to get involved and show us what you've got, you're very welcome to join us.

Every coder can contribute to the success of P4 by joining forces to code features, review plugins or special functionalities. The help of Greenpeace offices with extra capacity and of the open source community is most welcome!

This is a great model for doing good with open source, by helping established groups build powerful codebases that have an impact on a global scale. In addition, it creates communities of like-minded free software programmers interested in applying their skills to that end. The Greenpeace approach to developing its new platform, usefully mapped out on the site, provides a template for other organizations that want to change the world with the help of ethical coders.