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Collaborative World Shaping: Why Open-Source Tech Matters in a For-Impact Future

By 3p Contributor

"Governments, business and civil society can't alone address the multifold challenges we have on the global agenda. We need collaboration." - Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum

By Eric Boucher and Mia Shaw

How many lives could be saved if there was a way to vastly cut down inefficiency and through bureaucracy, by problem solving at a global scale? Could technology help us reach more individuals in need more meaningfully, substantially helping people affected by disasters - in less time?

The technology is already out there - but not enough people know about it.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma—the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean—made landfall; with widespread, “catastrophic” damage, disaster relief organizations were overwhelmed. “A lot of traditional means of crisis response are very top down, and they didn’t really kick in — we saw headlines about how the Red Cross didn’t show up to shelters,” said Greg Bloom, a community organizer and civic hacker who knew he had to step in to assist.

“It was just not clear what the plan was for very anticipatable crises, so on the spot we created place where people could process options and information,” said Bloom.

Within 24 hours, 100 people from Florida and around the country went to work compiling information on shelters making resources accessible to the public; after a week, nearly 700 volunteer hackers were using tools and code created for Harvey relief to do everything from coordinating rescues to food supply.

Maybe the best part of it is that the resources that the team created are still out there - open and available to be put to good use again by anyone willing to work on solutions.

Open-source is more than simply “published code” - open-source development is about acknowledging that many people face the same challenges, and that those people are stronger together to overcome them.

OpenMRS is a collaborative open source project “by and for the entire planet” to support the delivery of health care in developing countries. Growing from the critical need to scale up the treatment of HIV in Africa, since 2014, it has brought together hundreds of volunteer coders, becoming a critical piece of health management systems in the developing world.

Being open-source enabled OpenMRS to create a robust yet transparent system - easy to set up worldwide. It is intended as a platform that many organizations can adopt and modify - avoiding the need to develop a system from scratch.

In previous unimaginable ways, open source technology makes possible collaboration on urgent issues by partners across continents. It has the potential to significantly lower costs and wait times for (sometimes desperately needed) assistance - all by more efficiently utilizing the community, and building tools that are adaptable.

Sadly, many impact organizations end up developing with contractors without the same principle of openness. Leading to higher costs and creating expensive dependencies for the future of the project.

While nonprofits have been lagging in adopting and utilizing technology to its full potential, open-source provides a unique opportunity of overcoming this challenge.

As modern societies face a barrage of potential catastrophes - from natural disasters escalating in intensity due to climate change, to increases in extreme inequality - this kind of international, collaborative problem-solving can save the world.

Eric Boucher is CEO, Oviohub.

Mia Shaw is an independent journalist covering tech and society.

Illustration: Oviohub

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