Contributing to open source projects from 9 to 5, and beyond

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Luis Ibanez was recently awarded a People's Choice Award by our readers for his contributions to the site. It's no wonder he has so much to say and impart on open source projects—he works on them fulltime! 

In this Community Spotlight, Luis sheds light on what projects he contributes to, why he believes it is important we all give back at some point, and what open source tools he can't live without.

Plus, learn where developers are desperately needed and can make a huge difference in society.

The Basics

  • Name: Luis Ibanez
  • username: Luis Ibanez
  • Location: Albany, NY
  • Occupation/Employer/Position: Software Developer / Kitware Inc. / Technical Leader
  • Open source connection: Contributor to ITK, Director of Science and IP at OSEHRA, Professor of Open Source Software Practices class at RPI, Professor of Open Source Databases and Web Development at SUNY-Albany.
  • Favorite open source tool or application: Vim
  • Favorite channel: Education

Community Spotlight

Open up to us.

I am a Technical Leader at Kitware Inc., where I have been working full time in open source projects since 2002. Kitware is a dream company for anyone who wants to make a living contributing to open source projects.

I started working on open source with the Image Segmentation and Registration Toolkit (ITK) back in 1999 while I was working at UNC-Chapel Hill, and contributed to it for 10 years, both by developing software, and by helping build the community around it. As part of the activities in ITK, I also contributed to the National Alliance for Medical Image Computing (NAMIC), an NIH-funded open source community focused on medical image analysis, and to IGSTK an open source community dedicated to Image Guided Surgery.

In 2011, I started contributing to the Open Source EHR Agent (OSEHRA) as Director of Science and IP. This is the organization set by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to build an open source environment for VistA, the EHR developed at the VA using the M language and database.

Since 2007, in collaboration with other instructors, I have been teaching a course on Open Source Software Practices at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. More recently I started teaching Open Source databases (particularly NoSQL) and Open Source Web Development at the State University of New York in Albany, with the goal of bringing more young developers to the space of open source in healthcare.

What open tools and data help you get things done, and how do they help you?

The tools I use every day are: Vim, git, CMake, GNU Compiler Collection, GNU Project Debugger, LaTeX—all of them on Linux.

Vim is the most productive software for editing files of all types, it is almost a way of life. Working at the level of the command line is very helpful in keeping close to where the real stuff happens, and better understand the software we use. It is concerning that many college students are not being exposed to the Command Line and learning how to be productive with it. Git has been a revolutionary tool, and complemented with hosting at Github, it has completely changed the way I can get things done today, while collaborating with other people. CMake has made possible, not only to simplify the configuration of software for multiple-platforms, but also to implement test-driven environments and to enforce verification of reproducibility. GNU Compiler (GCC) and GNU Project Debugger (GDB) are the most powerful tools we have and make possible all our other layers of open source software, we can never be grateful enough to all the people who develop and maintain GCC and GDB. LaTeX is still my preferred method for generating documents, although lately, the combination of RST and Sphinx has proven to be very productive way of generating nice-looking, maintainable documentation with rather small effort. 

What do you wish were more open?

I wish that Electronic Health Records (EHR) systems were open. The U.S. spends 18% of GDP on healthcare ($2.8 Trillion a year), and it is an industry that by and large has not adopted computerized systems. The large majority of health records are managed and stored on paper, in folders and cabinets. They are not accessible to patients themselves, and they can not be easily shared across doctors either. They are locked away from medical researchers as well. The standard mechanism for transmitting healthcare information is still the fax machine. Under incentives from the government, many U.S. hospitals have started to adopt EHR systems, but the large majority are closed-source and are so expensive that many hospitals go bankrupt in the process of paying for them. These closed-source EHRs are commercialized under a veil of secrecy, by which the hospitals that adopt them are forbidden from taking screenshots or even talking in public about their EHR. 

In the meantime, there are open systems such as VistA, which has been a proven success in hundreds of clinical facilities at the Department of Veterans affairs for four decades. By building on the open source way, VistA could easily be the answer to deploying a rock solid EHR to hospitals, in a form that makes perfect economic sense, by simply distributing the cost of software maintenance across the thousands of hospitals that could adopt it.

The main obstacle in the way of VistA flourishing in the open source space, is the fact that not enough young developers are joining the ecosystem. The large majority of EHRs, both closed-source and open-source are built on top of M, a language that has a NoSQL hierarchical database integrated with it. Both the language and the database have been ignored for decades by academia and the larger IT industry.

Today, there is an opportunity to bring open source to healthcare by taking advantage of combining a popular language, Javascript (through the use of Node.js) with the powerful and proven M database. This is an issue of great social and economic significance, where open source developers can have a dramatic effect on the way our society functions.

What are the biggest challenges to openness that you encounter, either at work or in your life?

Ignorance of basic concepts of economics. It is paradoxical that although we live in a capitalistic society, very few people learn about the basics of economics. As our class on Open Source Software Practices at RPI has evolved over the years, we have come to explain open source simply in terms of economic efficiency, and it is very straightforward.

Many people resist openness based on instinctive notions that if they share, they are losing something. We need to provide better education on the concept of "enlightened self-interest," by which we should share simply because it is good for us in the long term. Economics is not a zero-sum game; what openness does in general is creates value, and it does on a very large scale.

Why choose the open source way?

Because it empowers us to drive change. It is disruptive. It is available to everyone. It allows us to start from nothing and build at higher and higher levels in a constructive way. The open source way makes possible for each and everyone of us to reach full potential by removing barriers to the dissemination of information. It makes available with minimal limitations all the information and resources that we need to innovate and to create robust infrastructures.

Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


Great interview, thank you Jen and Luis. Personally I contribute from 5 to 9, having a 'day job' outside of open source. I one day hope to change this, and work in open source from 9 to 5 also. Why? I like sharing, the culture and openness that comes with the open source way.

Great interview, I really enjoyed reading it and learning more about a work colleague and peer. It is great to work with so many people pushing open source, open science and reproducibility forward! I think Luis works on open source outside of 9 to 5, and honestly wonder where he finds the time to fit so much in!

I definitely agree that using open source in the health eco-system is the way to go. Proprietary systems are so expensive and prohibitive, this becomes even more apparent in low resource settings (or countries) where basic medicinal supplies are lacking.

EDC systems like clincapture *should* be supported by government so that more hospitals, institutions and academics know about them. The official adoption and usage of such open source applications will encourage junior developers to follow suit and develop within these communities.

Building a community is not easy especially in open source. You need to get a right formula for accepting contributions while maintaining quality. This is something that has been perfected in apache products, something that open source communities like clincapture are adopting.

Nice article

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