Free software Fridays. Let's promote participation.

One of the most enjoyable benefits of working with a not-for-profit workers' co-operative is being able to invest some time into activities that aren't exclusively tied to generating revenue. New Internationalist has long-relied on free and open source software and this year we will try to formalize our efforts to contribute back to projects that have helped along the way. The concept is "Free Software Fridays," which is something we hope will catch on at other organizations.

The concept is simple: those of us that work on technology-related aspects of New Internationalist's operation invest two hours per week, or one day a month, into supporting the free software projects that we rely on, or toward releasing the tools that we've developed internally as free software. The idea itself is open source, in the sense that we've taken the broad strokes from the idea of "Open Source Fridays" started by our friends at the Web Collective in Seattle and re-purposed them to fit with the work culture at NI.

Obviously, the concept of "Open Source Fridays," or "Free Software Fridays," isn't something limited to the purview of non-profits, or co-operatives, and it's clear that lots of organizations are already making huge contributions to free and open source software as part of what they do (and that's an incredible thing). The key concept here is that any organization can choose to prioritize and institutionalize those commitments and investments with just a small token gesture of time.

The idea isn't new and the amount of time we're talking about is not much. However, for those of us here at NI -- working to support the day-to-day technology needs of a publishing operation that spans the globe and runs 24/7 -- being able to prioritize some small amount of time to participate and contribute to the free software ecosystems we rely on makes a big difference. Sure, as free software activists, we'd probably be doing these things anyway in our personal time -- but having dedicated work hours helps to underscore the ongoing importance of these investments to the rest of the organization.

What are some of the ways that we currently (or are planning to) invest that time?

  • Promoting the tools that we use here at NI publicly (through writing and blogging);
  • Fixing bugs in systems that we're using, and then contributing them back to the originating project;
  • Releasing templates, code, and tools that might be useful to other organizations.

Simple stuff. No magic here. But how often do these items fall off the to-do list when time and budgets are tight? 

One of the most rewarding projects for me at the moment is writing the Bricolage "Output Channel" newsletter every few months. It requires a fair bit of work to sift through various sources and come up with the newsworthy content, but the personal notes I get back from those that read it tells me that it's a valuable contribution to the community.

Let's face it: technology is a growing part of almost every organization's operations. And, there's a good chance that free or open-source software is either part of the mix currently, or will be one day soon. So here's my pitch: let's promote some easy ways to participate and contribute to free and open-source software projects that any organization -- no matter how big, or small -- can make each and every month. If we all invest a day, that will add up pretty quickly.

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