Open source, a healthy choice |

Open source, a healthy choice

Five questions
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"In 2004, six months after suddenly losing my father, I became a single dad. I was forced to give up my travelling position as an application specialist for a large ERP software manufacturer."  

Aaron Nursoo first became interested in open source software because it was free.  He saw in it an opportunity to teach himself skills that would help him to restructure his life and allow him to support his family.

"Through open source, I rekindled an old flame, so to speak; I taught myself the very skills I use to support my family and I get to give something of value to others for free. And, as a result of this opportunity to work in a field that I love, I also reconnected with my college sweetheart, and am now happily married."

Aaron initially got interested in programming back in the late '80s, but it wasn't until he started using open source software that he was able to get back into it.

After three years of aggressive open source study and about 10,000 hours of independent learning (according to Aaron, the time necessary to become an expert at something), he became the Data Management Coordinator for the Barrie Community Health Centre in Ontario, Canada.  He continues to maintain a web hosting business using open source automation tools running on a Linux server, doing most of the work for that during his spare time and in the evenings.  

The health centre is an organization of about 50 employees, dedicated to serving the needs of an ever-diversifying community. The mandate of a Community Health Centre involves more than just clinical interventions. It is a community-governed organization that mentors clients and members through the process of improving and maintaining their own health and the health of their community.

Aaron is keenly aware of the similarities between the Community Health Centre model and the open source way.

1) What one big opportunity, outside of technology, do you think has the best chance of being solved the open source way (i.e., through collaboration, transparency, sharing, meritocracy, rapid prototyping, community, etc.)?

The scenario that is playing out in Egypt could benefit greatly from an open source approach. The people have risen because they are unhappy with what the system has dealt them--poverty and inequality. The people need to be able to take responsibility for themselves. They are asking the government to give them what is in their best interests: a true democracy.  The same open meritocratic mentoring that empowers a programmer to work in the field s/he loves can apply outside of technology. Corporate interests control almost everything and many Egyptians suffer in poverty as a result.  Open software tends to prevent a monopoly.   If an open approach guides the building phase that will need to take place after this uprising, I believe that the Egyptians will be far less likely to need a second revolution down the road.

2) What are some of the unexpected things you've discovered from your experiences in the CHC sector that have strengthened the communities where people live?

The use of volunteers in IT raised my curiosity. Having noticed the effective use of volunteers throughout the centre, I began to wonder how I could integrate volunteers into IT.  Open source is an excellent way to get into the field.  The software and training is free. Some of the people I was working with didn't start out with computer abilities. What they had was an enthusiastic desire to learn. As they gained abilities, they were excited about sharing what they had learned with the organization that had trained them. Working alongside people who started out with only a wish to learn and to give back to the organization created a wonderful symbiosis.

3) Thinking about your role in the BCHC and your involvement in the open source community, what is the most difficult thing about building communities in a funding environment used to conventional models? What advice would you share with others?

It would be nice to be able to avoid a funding tree.  Working under a corporate thumb, the value of mentoring seemingly unlikely candidates may not be understood.  It is truly amazing how much money we have saved the health care system by using open source. Working within a model that supports the open source mentality also helps further develop our community.

Large corporate thinking cares about the bottom line. One would think open source integration would be a mandate, but corporate thinkers often don't want to hear anything about open source. Who would they point the finger at?  My only advice there would be to keep doing excellent work, keep mentoring people, and continue to try to educate those with funding as to the efficacy and efficiency of the approach.

4) What attributes from the open source way stand out as pillars for community building, both online and in real life?

In a word: collaboration.  Health Centres are all about taking responsibility for your own health, education, collaboration, mentoring, meritocracy, and building community, just like open source. By the people, for the people.

5) How do you apply the open source way in your everyday life?

I'm usually working with open source software, showing someone how it works. I do not generally charge for it, though I'm compensated for my role in I.T. at the health centre. That could be happening with proprietary software too.  But open source software allows me to share it out to others so they too can learn and contribute back in their own way.
As part of my personal code of ethics, if I see someone using proprietary software I'll be the first to present to them an open source solution--even applications that can be used with the products they have purchased. I educate them on open source as a concept.  It's not hacked software that will wreck your computer.  

I focus on training and promotion, although I invest a lot of time studying and testing various code. Open source is part of who I am today.

Bonus: Finally, do you know of others who are working in an open source way (as described above) who might also have experiences to share?

I have a friend who used to tell me that proprietary software had the potential to be leading-edge while open source was bleeding-edge. He said this because he believed that the open source approach demanded more of its developers and end users, which to him at the time seemed more painful.

By his account, leading-edge proprietary software comes with a price tag attached, which includes support and documentation. He cautioned me about working with technology on the bleeding edge.  I have on countless occasions emphasized the value of open source in both its development and support communities and now he and I collaborate on open source-based hosting projects. I know he respects the value of both approaches today.

With open source technology, a small organization may be fully dependent on one individual, but light years ahead of others in their class. That one individual is connected to a network of developers he may never personally meet, whose creative endeavours are adapted to the specific needs of the organization. In some ways, it's less predictable and in others it’s more dynamic--but that's why it's so exciting.

About the author

Beverly Pearl - Beverly Pearl is an artist, educator and writer with a passion for social equity, science and technology.