A New Chapter for Open Source?

Back in April, I wrote about in interesting new venture from the Linux Foundation called the OpenDaylight Project. As I pointed out then, what made this significant was that it showed how the Linux Foundation was beginning to move beyond its...


Back in April, I wrote about in interesting new venture from the Linux Foundation called the OpenDaylight Project. As I pointed out then, what made this significant was that it showed how the Linux Foundation was beginning to move beyond its historical origins of supporting the Linux ecosystem, towards the broader application of the important lessons it has learnt about open source collaboration in the process. Following that step, we now have this:

The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to open source development and technologies, today announced OpenBEL is now a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project.

OpenBEL is an open source software project that enables users to capture, store, share and leverage life sciences content through a knowledge engineering platform. In life sciences, data collection is not the problem; making information interoperable and actionable has proven to be more challenging. OpenBEL aims to address those challenges.

Selventa released OpenBEL as an open source project in June 2012 after successfully using it for more than 10 years to better understand drug efficacy and toxicity, identify mechanisms for drug sensitivity and resistance, and provide deeper insight into disease networks using multiple types of Big Data. Since then it has been used in research by other companies, research organizations, and universities, including AstraZeneca, The Fraunhofer Institute, Harvard Medical School, Novartis, Pfizer, and University of California at San Diego, among others. Foundation Medicine is also joining OpenBEL to advance its mission to bring comprehensive cancer genomic analysis to routine clinical care.

Distinctly different industries are all looking to take advantage of the collaborative development model to accelerate and advance software. Through its Collaborative Projects services, The Linux Foundation provides the essential collaborative and organizational framework so projects can focus on innovation and results. OpenBEL will tap into more than a decade of expertise that The Linux Foundation has in forming and shepherding successful open source projects, including Linux, in hopes that it can parlay that knowledge into a thriving open source project and community that will lead to medical and scientific breakthroughs.

As that last paragraph makes clear, this is another example of the Linux Foundation seeking to apply its expertise more widely, this time in a field that is even more distant from its traditional heartland. That's doubly significant, I think.

First, because Linux Foundation is really striking out in new directions, with new ambitions. That is not just a good idea, but necessary. Paradoxically, it's a result of the success that the Linux Foundation has helped to nurture. Open source software is now so widespread, and so understood, that the number of major projects requiring the Linux Foundation's help in adopting the open source methodology is likely to be rather limited and diminishing. That's a victory, not a defeat.

However, it does mean that the Linux Foundation needs to look beyond its traditional domain of software, and seek to apply its expertise in other areas, like science. As it happens, science is probably one of the best fields it could have chosen. That's because science has traditionally been based on collaboration and on the open sharing of results. Sadly, that sharing is under threat because of the misguided attempts to run science like a business, notably through the pernicious Bayh-Dole Act in the US, and because of similar moves in other countries, including the UK.

This lends an additional significance to the Linux Foundation's latest move, which can be seen as an affirmation of the traditional values that have powered science so successfully for hundreds of years, but which are under attack by profit-obsessed administrators. Open source organisations and coders can play a vital role here, since they know from practical experience that open collaboration works far better than one based around intellectual monopolies like patents.

Indeed, it's no coincidence that another major open source organisation, Mozilla, has recently created what it calls the Mozilla Science Lab:

We're excited to announce the launch of the Mozilla Science Lab, a new initiative that will help researchers around the world use the open web to shape science's future.

Scientists created the web — but the open web still hasn't transformed scientific practice to the same extent we've seen in other areas like media, education and business. For all of the incredible discoveries of the last century, science is still largely rooted in the "analog" age. Credit systems in science are still largely based around "papers," for example, and as a result researchers are often discouraged from sharing, learning, reusing, and adopting the type of open and collaborative learning that the web makes possible.

The Science Lab will foster dialog between the open web community and researchers to tackle this challenge. Together they'll share ideas, tools, and best practices for using next-generation web solutions to solve real problems in science, and explore ways to make research more agile and collaborative.

What's particularly interesting here is that Mozilla is tackling things by helping to spread Web literacy among scientists so that they can adopt digital tools for their work. The Linux Foundation, by contrast, is working with a pre-existing open project that aims to serve a particular area of science.

This, of course, is the real strength of free software: the fact that everyone gets to do what they want, in the way that they want it, building on their personal strengths, while drawing on the shared experience of others. And the simple fact is we need both approaches – bottom-up and top-down, as well as everything in-between.

It's really exciting to see two of the most important and most visible open source projects moving into the realm of science in this way. I predict that this is part of a much wider recognition that open source and open science are made for each other, not least as science becomes more and more digital, and that we are witnessing the start of an exciting new chapter in the free software story.

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