Cerbumi.org logo
An open-source network approach to real-world problem solving
Home Pilot Proposal II. Background

Pilot Proposal

Previous Topic Return to Index Next Topic

II. Background

(nota bene: Cerbumi is an Esperanto word that means 'brainstorm.' In this document, Cerbumi.org is a reference to the site, while cerbumi is a reference to the concept.)

Strong parallels exist between software development and the work of nonprofits. A piece of software is fundamentally a solution for a problem: it provides a structured means to complete a task. For example, one could say Microsoft Word solves the problem of word processing. Many new applications are solutions to problems that nobody had ever heard of. Apple's iMovie, for example, brought desktop video editing to ordinary consumers who never knew they "needed" it. Other applications, like iTunes, seek to handle a task more efficiently or with better results than the existing offerings. Fundamentally, writing software is a continuous exercise in problem solving. Nonprofits solve social problems.

Successful software development requires substantial financial and structural resources. Human capital and creativity drive the writing of applications. Robust feedback loops ensure that the software meets the needs of end-users. A capacity to recycle previous efforts efficiently reduces work. "Classical" software development projects frequently lack these resources, and many well-meaning software projects are unsuccessful. Similarly, many nonprofits report that they suffer from insufficient resources, limited access to experts, limited feedback from stakeholders, inefficiency, limited knowledge sharing, and a bureaucratic culture.

Source code is the original computer code used to create and change a software application. Under classical software development, the developer holds the source code as a critical trade secret. This protects rights but limits society's access to human capital—hardly a collaborative process. In this scenario, software development is a chore, not a service.

Like social entrepreneurs, software developers are extremely creative. They derive motivation not only from their wages, but also the process of creating elegant solutions to problems. Frustrated with the limitations of "classical" software development, programmers have created the open source methodology. According to the Open Source Initiative, a nonprofit corporation "dedicated to managing and promoting the Open Source Definition,"

The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.

The open source methodology has transformed software development and the computing industry. It provides three crucial advantages:

First, it capitalizes on a new communications infrastructure to create a robust collaborative environment. As Rothfuss suggests in his thesis "A Framework for Open Source Projects," the worldwide adoption of rapid-fire advances in communication technology have given birth to immense collaborative effort, with remarkable results. At the same time, the open source culture made working on open source projects fashionable. This environment encourages rapid software development, enables younger programmers to meet and learn from mentors, and facilitates communication between the end users and developers. Thus, a software developer with a novel idea but limited resources of time and money can attract other developers to work with her. This synergy enriches the project and makes novel solutions possible.

Second, there is no compromise in quality. In fact, the software produced is as least as good as software produced through the classical method. Linux and Apache epitomize the efficacy of the open source methodology via the Internet as a method for research and development. Linux, a world-class operating system, competes robustly with Windows for many business applications. Apache, a web serving application, powers 67% of websites on the Internet.

Third, because user feedback is integral to the development process, the software is much more responsive to the end-user's needs. Furthermore, since the source code is publicly "owned," users can modify the software themselves to meet their own requirements and then share their modifications with other users who may find them useful. Thus, rather than an afterthought, end-user (stakeholder) participation is integral to the creative process.

The advantages demonstrated in open source software could be adapted to enable new approaches to problem solving in many sectors. Cerbumi.org will apply these open-source lessons to the nonprofit sector. It offers the same three advantages over conventional problem solving.

First, the cerbumi environment offers nonprofits access to experts that would not otherwise be available. Just as a small software developer can get help writing software, so too can nonprofit access problem-solving resources. At the same time, Cerbumi.org gives experts access to problems, turning them into stakeholders. It presents experts with opportunities and invites them to join a team.

Second, we cannot conventionally fund answers for the myriad of opportunities to improve quality of life. Therefore, we need solutions that are just as good but cheaper. The best solutions aren't always high-tech, For example, in 2002, the World Health Organization recorded 124,000 cases of cholera and 3,800 related deaths. The simple act of filtering water through sari cloth could have prevented half of these cases. In fact, the sari cloth filter worked better than a more expensive conventional nylon filter.

Finally, the cerbumi process is inherently open. Each step of the cerbumi process is free and transparent to any interested party. This ensures that solutions found remain in the public domain. It also creates a searchable knowledge database, useful to other nonprofits seeking solutions to similar problems.

Previous Topic Return to Index Next Topic