"I wanted to link to a particular Wikipedia article on my blog, but I found there wasn't one on that topic, so I wrote it myself," says Netha Hussain, 2020 Women in Open Source Academic Award winner. "That's the beauty of open source; anyone can contribute."
Practicality drove Netha's entry into open source culture, and it has continued to be at the center of her work in the ten years since.
She received her first computer in high school, but it did not immediately spark her passion. She says she mostly used it for games and other diversions, as many teenagers do. It wasn't until she entered medical school and realized that technology could be a powerful tool to help her achieve her goals that Netha truly found her path. Taking stock of her many contributions to Wikimedia, Mozilla, and TED, it's fair to say that once she engaged with open source culture, she never looked back.
Finding ways to help
Growing up in India, Netha was initially drawn to mathematics but soon found herself pulled in other directions. "At the time, I would have expected to continue down that path, mathematics or maybe writing, but the thing that I've always most wanted to do is help people," Netha says. "Medicine seemed to be the most direct path to providing real, tangible assistance to those around me, so I became a doctor."
That drive to help continues to guide her now as she prepares to defend her doctoral thesis in clinical neuroscience at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
"At a certain point, I decided that rather than limiting myself to what I could do through treating patients, I could also contribute in a research capacity, working to discover new, better ways to help others. I came to all of this via an unexpected route, but I love the idea of exploring and finding my own ways to help. I'm so satisfied and fulfilled by the work I'm doing now. It has been a wonderful journey."
As she nears the completion of her degree, Netha reflects upon what she's looking forward to next. An infectious smile appears as she remarks, "I'm really excited to have more time to contribute to projects in the open source community."
Why is she so enamored with open source? It comes back to utility. "In open source practices, I found a philosophy that closely matched my own ideals and a way of doing things that allowed me to help more people. Open source is fueled by collaboration. I've seen the things that can be accomplished by people working together, and it makes me very excited to think where it will take us in the future."
Reaching millions, one edit at a time
Her first article, written to help an international audience understand her blog post, was only the first of many. Netha has now written 300 articles (200 in English and 100 in Malayalam), contributed 13,000 edits for Wikipedia, added 9,000 images to Wikimedia Commons, and provided 120,000 edits to Wikidata. Her commitment to bringing useful information to others can also be seen in her five years spent volunteering to translate Mozilla projects and TED talks into the Malayalam language.
Such prolific output was born out of a simple realization. "I had shared so much on my blog but was only reaching a select audience. On Wikipedia and elsewhere, I had access to a potential audience of millions. There's a lot of power in that."
Many of the articles Netha has written center on issues relevant to women, and that is very much by design. "I find myself writing on topics that are important to women because I feel they are an underserved community, and it is important to me that Wikipedia, as such a vital repository of information, be reflective of all users, all voices. I care deeply about the visibility of women on Wikipedia."
Netha's commitment to women's issues led her to organize edit-a-thon initiatives and other activities with women's groups. She was also able to leverage similar strategies to assist the LGBTQ+ community in India during the campaign to legalize gay marriage.
"In India, there are a lot of taboos around homosexuality, and I saw an opportunity to utilize my experience to help another segment of the population. Together, we were able to generate a lot of awareness, whether through raising up biographical articles on famous members of the LGBTQ+ community or shining a spotlight on anti-LGBTQ+ laws. I'm very proud of the opportunities I've had to support such efforts."
A path to the future
It's clear that Netha believes strongly in empowering people, especially other women who may wish to explore open source methodologies as she has. Her advice is simple, but powerful. "Believe in yourself, and know that you have the skills and talent to do whatever you'd like to do," she finds the words easily, as if she's been waiting to be asked the question. "Follow your passion, and do what you want. There will be times of uncertainty but always move forward. Keep studying. Keep learning new things. That's how you grow, both in your field and as a person."
Having achieved so much already, it's no surprise that Netha is enthusiastic about new challenges on the horizon. "I've put in a lot of effort to get here, but as you learn new strategies and new ways of collaborating, the work gets easier. Now, I don't consider it work at all. It's mostly fun to me."
Also read Jay Barber's interview with Megan Byrd-Sanicki, who won the 2020 Women in Open Source Community Award.