President's Report

Decoding open-source software

In late August, the founders of Diaspora, the free software social networking site, announced they were turning over control of the site to its community of software developers.

In a statement, two of the founders said the site has developed into something “people all over the world care about and are inspired by,” and it was time to “put our code where our hearts lie.”

The news excited Associate Professor of Computing Sciences Megan Squire. She leads a project called FLOSSmole, in which she and her students write programs to gather and analyze data about free and open-source software projects. The team also looks at the structures of the community that makes the software. How is the team set up? How is all this work getting done if nobody is getting a paycheck? Their findings are put in a database and provided free to the research community.

“What we are trying to do is figure out how to make a product in the freest way possible, providing the most rights to the most number of people,” Squire explains. “Putting a free software license or an open-source software license on a product means that you are retaining some rights for yourself, but you are also giving some rights to your users.”

Under this model, users can not only download an open-source package for free but also, assuming they have some programming skills, look inside the code and fix or change it to fit their needs. They can, for instance, translate a software package into their language, if they live in a country with very few native speakers, and make it available to others in that community.

Squire says about 80 to 100 papers have been spun off from the data she and her team has produced, adding that the results are practical and readily applicable to research in a variety of fields, including economics, business and software engineering.

In a time when profits guide business practices, Squire says the open-source software concept is radical but not new. When computers first were introduced in the 1950s software was distributed in this open, free fashion. By the 1970s and ’80s, however, commercial manufacturers started locking down the source code and made software development into a business. Today, both trends are popular.

“We went from a main frame, server-centric model to a kind of personal computer desktop model. Now, we are going to this cloud/apps kind of thing,” she says. “I think there is a lot of experimenting with what is the right way a company can play in this space while holding on to what they need to do to stay in business.”

Squire says the open-source model used in software development can be a valuable one for other industries to follow and serve as an antidote to current top-down management business models and big corporate interests.

“This past year has been really inspiring for me. We’ve seen a lot of unrest in certain countries about finances and structures and the powers that be,” she says. “I feel like when I am working on open-source software, I’m helping to understand a bottom-up, grassroots driven anti-capitalist phenomenon that we really need to understand.

“If we can pilot this and understand it in software, we can kind of get it going” in other areas or at least determine why it’s limited only to software. By doing this, Squire adds, “we can really make some new ways of organizing ourselves and our work.”

Squire joined Elon’s faculty in 2003. She holds a bachelor’s degree in art history and public policy from the College of William and Mary, and master’s and doctoral degrees in computer science from Nova Southeastern University. She has written numerous articles and book chapters on data collection and open-source code.

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