A few weeks ago I traveled down to a conference put on by the DOD called STAR-TIDES with Willow Bl00 on behalf of Geeks With Out Bounds. Ostensibly the purpose of the conference is to mesh NGO’s with government based relief organizations and share information and designs under a more open source and open access ethic. You can read more about the event on their about page, though their language a little dense. There were a few distinct groups that attended, and I think they each came out with a different picture on the purpose of the event.
The conference ended up having three broad categories of participants: vendors hoping to catch government buyers for their tech (many of them showing products that had direct military applications with plausible uses for relief), government agencies getting a handle on the field of NGO open source tech, and hackers. As you might be able to gather I was incredibly enamored by the hackers that showed up.
One thing that disappointed me was the way “open source” was used as a catchall phrase for everything. The term was brandished as a solution to all possible problems that could be painted on any technology or idea carte blanche. It was often used interchangeably with “crowdsource” and “public domain” which made me suspicious that it had been picked up as buzzword du jour rather than a conscious goal.
I believe in building tools and frameworks that are openly shared. I believe in releasing all possible details on a design so that the knowledge contained within enriches the environment in which you’re designing. I believe that open access to ideas pulls in a tide that raises all boats. What I wanted to see was people with code to share, schematics to download, and databases to pull from. I was hoping to talk with a relief organization that actually had a Thingiverse account. Instead there were more promises and assurances than results. I suppose the best way forward is to have an organization that’s willing to publish their data openly, and hold their hand through the process of releasing it and building a support network of auditors who can review their data, build on it, hack together improvements, and keep the project alive in the public domain. I think that organizations have seen projects like Makerbot develop, know the advantages being open holds, but don’t have the agility or fortitude to commit to the philosophy yet.
Let’s get to the hackers. I first met the Synergy Strike Force, an intimidatingly talented and driven group of hacker humanitarians who specialize in below-the-radar relief. They most recently spent time in Afghanistan adding to the Open Street Maps project with crowdsourced GPS data, providing support and education for AIDS sufferers in Jalalabad, and helping set up a Fab Lab. I wrote about them in detail on the GWOB blog.
I also had the chance to talk with Eric Rasmussen, who is a bit of a legend in his own right. He is a teacher, hacker, and programmer of the first order and it was fairly thrilled to share some conversation with him. Hopefully we’ll be collaborating on something soon. I’d relish the opportunity.
I’ll be posting updates on the results of STAR-TIDES, what we gathered from it, and where to go from there. Keep an eye on GWOB for details. You can check out a selection of photos from the event on my Flickr.