Newsflash, non-geeks: Computer software isn't inherently pricey. Chances are, if you have a computer, you paid a good chunk of money for the software running on it. For most of us, forking over a wad of cash for the new Photoshop—not to mention our operating systems—is a necessary evil. What you're paying for, actually, is the proprietary nature of the program—the knowledge that no one can meddle with its workings. But what if you wanted someone to meddle with it?
That question is the spark behind open-source software, OSS for short: Why not create computer software whose source code—its blood and guts, if you will—is openly available, permitting all of its users to meddle and redistribute the program in any way they see fit? Of course, most of us don't know OSS source code from Adam—but enough people (ahem, nerds) do, and those people have been continuously, collaboratively working to make programs better and more foolproof than their big-business equivalents since the early 1990s. To boot, most open-source software is free. That's free as in speech, mind you, on top of often free as in "free lunch."
It just so happens, too, that Portland has been an internationally recognized breeding ground for pioneering open-source activity for more than a decade. Linus Torvalds, the creator of the original "open" operating system, Linux, calls Beaverton home (see "The Rebel Alliance," WW, Jan. 28, 2004, for more on him ), and even mayor Tom Potter runs open-source software on his laptop. Our fair city will play host to not one, but two huge conferences on the subject this month: OSCON, a bazaar of open-source technologies now in its ninth year, and the shiny new Ubuntu Live!, an event celebrating the most popular Linux variant, an operating system that's a free alternative to, say, Windows.
We took advantage of these upcoming Geekapaloozas to get to know some of our hottest hometown innovators, and ask them what's changed in the past 10 years of this city's altruistic geekery.
Urban Edibles (urbanedibles.org)
Like most recent "Web 2.0" trends—Wikipedia, YouTube and Flickr, for example—the new generation of OSS is all about using the power of the masses to achieve community-minded ends that somehow stretch beyond mere desktop whiz-bang; that is to say, things that won't give you carpal tunnel syndrome.
Urbanedibles.org, a playful NoPo-based site designed to aid urban scavengers in their quest for natural food sources (think parking-lot berry patches and low-hanging neighborhood nut trees), is a perfect example of this youthful, collective spirit. "Urban Edibles lives up to my oxymoronic philosophy of using the computer to get people off the computer," says Michael Bunsen, the bespectacled twentysomething behind the idea. The site uses a Wikipedia-style editing system, encouraging users to forage their own neighborhoods and report new sources of unsprayed dandelions and rosemary bushes; for the more technically inclined, the Edibles crew have put their source code online, ripe (no pun intended) for tampering and modification. "With the help of open-source software and the Internet," Bunsen adds, beaming, "I really believe a responsible use of technology can reconnect people with nature."
Portland Metro (metro-region.org)
If you imagine that open source is only implemented by dewy-eyed fruit gatherers, think again. The limitless, endlessly modifiable nature of the software makes it suitable for just about anyone, including the city of Portland.
It isn't surprising, then, that the city planners at Portland Metro's Data Resource Center, who, among other thrilling tasks, create and maintain maps of economic and demographic data for the region, aren't much more than a digital stone's throw away from the kids at Urban Edibles. They use open-source software to create useful, interactive maps for Portlanders—like the "Find a Park" application, which Mark Bosworth, director of Geographic Information Systems at the DRC, particularly likes.
Although the DRC isn't quite ready to abandon its flagship software, a proprietary program called ArcGIS, in favor of a free alternative, they're not entirely opposed to the idea. "As a government, we believe our mission is to deliver the best value and highest quality service for our constituents," Bosworth says. "And open source is certainly a strategy for achieving both goals."
Brian Jamison knows something is in Portland's water. Sure, open source is a global phenomenon, he admits, but this town is brimming with brilliant techies. It makes sense, of course, considering that Stumptown culture is rife with collaboration, individuality and experimentation. "Those are [also] the fundamentals of the open-source culture," Jamison affirms, "so it's natural that an open-source scene would be more vibrant here." He would know. Jamison is the co-founder and CEO of OpenSourcery, a for-profit team of OSS consultants primed to tech out small businesses with free software, liberating them from the often parasitic relationship that most software companies seek to establish with their clients. OpenSourcery, like Urban Edibles (and, implicitly, Portland Metro), is a sustainable operation, running its offices on PGE's Green Source energy program and making house calls in veggie-oil vans. Jamison explains his commitment to sustainability with the same words as he does his love of open source: "It's the right thing, so we do it."
Free Geek (freegeek.org)
If the correlation between open-source and do-goodery isn't apparent enough, then you haven't heard about Free Geek. Ubiquitously described by local techies as the "mothership" from which most not-for-profit, creative, open-source activity radiates, Free Geek is a community organization hell-bent on recycling used computers into free, Linux-running machines for whoever needs 'em. Since its inception in 2000, Free Geek has recycled an impressive 360 tons of electronic scrap and refurbished over 3,000 computer systems, unabashedly living up to its motto: "Helping the needy get nerdy." Michael Westwind, Free Geek's tech coordinator, notes that since the founding of the organization, OSS development has "moved away from personal, specialized tinkering and towards overall systems that work together better." It's those user-friendly models that keep Free Geek volunteers and OSS users all over town "less frustrated and more likely to use their computers for the long term."
Of course, sometimes a crew of able programmers and a dream aren't enough—you need a little help. Take Wyatt Baldwin, for example. Convinced that Portland needed a user-friendly interactive bicycle trip planner, he sat down to hash out Bycycle.org, a mashup of local bike route data and a Google Maps-style interface. But there was no way he could create a comprehensive bicycle map of Portland all on his own. Enter Portland Metro's DRC department. Running on a handcrafted backbone of pure OSS, Bycycle incorporates Metro's detailed transportation databases (which are rich with bike-specific factors like elevation and traffic) to create an accurate, functional tool; and, as at Urbanedibles.org, the source code is open, so like-minded bike geeks can kill an afternoon improving the algorithms that make the whole application work. Like with the rest of Portland's populist and tech-savvy projects, everyone wins. Neatly summing up the values of OSS's second generation, Wyatt says: "There's also the possibility of making money, but that's a secondary consideration."
Ubuntu Live! takes place all day Sunday-Tuesday, July 22-24. Conference fees range from $245-$895. Exhibit Hall is free. Visit ubuntulive.com for more info. Ubuntu and its umbrella event, the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, take place at the Oregon Convention Center, 777 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. OSCON takes place all day Monday-Friday, July 23-27. Conference fees range from $695 to $2,285. Exhibit Hall is free. Visit conferences.oreillynet.com/os2007 for more info.