3 New Kinds of Open Source: DNA, Journalism, Shoes

One of the most powerful proofs of the strength of the ideas underlying open source is the way they are being successfully applied in fields very different from computing. Many of these are familiar enough - open content, open data, open science...


One of the most powerful proofs of the strength of the ideas underlying open source is the way they are being successfully applied in fields very different from computing. Many of these are familiar enough – open content, open data, open science etc. But what I find inspiring is how new examples are appearing all the time.

First, a fascinating project to create open source biotech consumables. These are often proteins, and the biotech consumable industry exploits a key biological fact to extract huge sums from users for something costs almost nothing to produce (just as closed-source software does). As John Schloendorn explains in a fascinating article published in the BioCoder journal:

DNA is the most upstream source of biological information. It harbors the genes, which are the “blueprints” for making functional biological entities. Uniquely, DNA has the gift of self-renewal, as it gets replicated during cell division. The nonfunctional “blueprints” written in the DNA get translated into protein (through an RNA intermediate, which we will neglect for the purpose of this article). Proteins are the functional agents that make biology go, and they are also functional tools that scientists need to do biological research. In a way, this is analogous to “compiling” a software program. The important difference to software, however, is that once “compiled,” proteins are a dead end. If you have only a protein, but you’re denied access to the DNA coding for it, then there is no known way to make more of it, and there is no known way to turn it back into DNA.

As you can see, the similarities with compiled proprietary code that can’t be inspected or copied, are close. And the solution – providing the source code – is exactly the same too:

What if there was a source of DNA, tested and certified for the production of high-value biological reagents, that does not impose any restrictions on how the DNA gets used? If this alternative was available, the existing closed-source system would become obsolete overnight. Different reagent production companies could snap up these DNA constructs and start competing on efficiency of gene expression and reagent production, rather than on efficiency in keeping secrets. The prices of biological reagents would collapse, and the quality would improve, as these characteristics take the place of corporate secrets as the main criteria for competitive success. The power of free-market capitalism (meaning the nonsecretive, noncrony kind) would finally be unleashed to tear down the barriers to biotechnology-based scientific wealth, as it has done with so many barriers before it.

Particularly interesting is how the business model of these open source reagent companies mirrors that of open source businesses: when the basic code is free, they must compete on offering better services. It’s an amazing parallelism – even down to free software’s Four Freedoms that are offered:

I have synthesized, manufactured, tested, and fully validated a collection of open source plasmids coding for some of the very basic building blocks of biotechnology. I do charge an initial purchase price to pay for storage, ongoing quality control, and the provision of a reliable source of these molecules. But there is no proprietary barrier of any type on their use. You may grow them on your own, modify them, give them to others, sell them, sell products derived from them, and do whatever you (legally) want to do with them.

Code and DNA turn out to be extremely similar in key respects, which allows the open source approach to be applied almost directly. But what about something as different as investigative journalism? How might open source principles be applied there? Well, something like this new Kickstarter project, Bellingcat, perhaps:

Bellingcat will bring together both critically acclaimed and emerging citizen investigative journalists using open source information to investigate, collaborate, and report on worldwide issues that are being underreported and ignored.

Open source information, which is information freely available to anyone through the Internet — think YouTube, Google Maps, Reddit — has made it possible for ANYONE to gather information and source others, through social media networks. Think the Syrian Civil War. Think the Arab Spring.

The idea here is to draw on openly-available information, and to use a distributed collaborative group to analyse and investigate news stories. That’s clearly a cognate approach to drawing on open source code to work collaboratively on new software projects. The results can be extremely impressive, as this post on the Storyful blog indicates:

Reports emerged in the immediate aftermath of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17 that members of a Russian backed separatist militia had possession of a ‘Buk’ surface-to-air missile system prior to the incident. Evidence points to the separatists being in possession of the Russian-made ‘Buk’ missile system, or SA-11, which is capable of the attack which targeted the passenger plane, resulting in the loss of all 298 people on board.

As images and videos purporting to show the missile system in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine began to flood in, Storyful, alongside other journalists and social media experts in our Open Newsroom and elsewhere, worked to verify this information and determine the veracity of these claims. From the images and videos, we were able to determine that members of the Donetsk People’s Republic separatist militia, at the very least, did appear to have access to an anti-aircraft system capable of an attack like the one carried out on MH17.

The rest of the post details the clever ways tiny scraps of information on the open Internet were brought together to extract new details – it’s well-worth reading. A the time of writing, the Bellingcat Kickstarter project has achieved about half of its target, and runs until 15 August, so you still have time to support it if you wish.

Finally, an open, collaborative project that is a little more down-to-earth – the open source wellness shoe:

The Open Shoes project consists on creating a healthy, modular and open source footwear, that you may make for yourself, using new technologies, or can acquire it at a reasonable price. The rise of 3D printing allows us to take a first step in this direction.

Being open source, the user or a professional can modify standard designs and tailor it to some specific needs. Therefore, we aim to create a community around the project of interested users, both professional and private, that will be a key part to being able to offer alternative versions or upgrades.

In summary, the project consists in the design of the midsole and the creation of the files needed to do it in all sizes; creating some tutorials that will allow anyone to manufacture it in a way as simple as possible and developing a website for support this and the community of users who can provide their input.

One interesting aspect here is the modularity that is also a crucial part of “traditional” open source:

The modularity of the product will allow its different parts to be interchangeable, making it unnecessary to have entire “set” and in the event of damage some part of the shoe, the rest are reusable, giving the project also ecological dye.

Happily, this project has already achieved its crowdfunding goal on the Goteo site – which proclaims itself as “100% open” - so all you need is a 3D printer, and you’ll soon be able to walk on open source, as well as work on it.

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