25 Ways Open Source is Catching On Beyond Software

Monday Nov 28th 2011 by Cynthia Harvey
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The open source movement is spreading far beyond software to space travel, cars, spying, textbooks, art -- even cupcakes.

At a conference earlier this month, WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg told attendees, "not just software, but everything should be open source."

Apparently, he's not the only person who thinks this, because open source philosophy is spreading far beyond the software industry.

This month, we're taking a look at 25 projects that are taking open source in new—and sometimes unexpected—directions. While not all of these projects involve open source licenses, they do all embrace the ideals of the open source movement. That is, the source materials are freely available for anyone who wants to re-use and/or modify them.

In addition, most of these projects involve some sort of crowdsourcing, inviting outsiders to review and contribute to the improvement of the overall project.

While we limited our list to 25, we know there are far more industries and projects that are embracing open source. If you'd like to note a project or two that you think should have been included, feel free to add them in the Comments section below.

Space Exploration

1. CSTART "Could we put a man on the moon (you and me)?" That simple question asked by Reddit user "stickman13" in October 2009 led to the development of Collaborative Space Travel and Research Team or CSTART. The group describes itself as a "non-government space agency" that builds open source plans for space travel and related research projects. Currently, the group is led by five acting directors: Luke Maurits (Australia), Rizwan Memon (India), Titan Miller (USA), Ben Miller-Jacobson (USA) and Ryan Pulkrabek (Finland).

CSTART has several projects underway, including CloudLab, which is focused on the design and construction of balloons that will travel into near space; Chimera, which is focused on the design and construction of rocket vehicles; COSMoS, which is focused on the design and construction of satellites; and Collaborative Lunar Landing and Research Expedition (CLLARE), a plan for a manned mission to the moon.

What makes it open source? CSTART releases all of its documents and plans under a Creative Commons license, so they can be freely shared and modified. Also, whenever they fly a mission, they release the data related to the mission under the same license. They never patent any hardware designs, and they release the software developed for the project under an open source license as well.

2. OpenLuna

The folks at CSTART aren't the only amateurs who want to get into the space business. The OpenLuna Foundation hopes to set up an outpost on the moon that could house six to ten volunteer astronauts within five to seven years. In order to get there, the group has planned a series of robotic missions of increasing complexity. Scheduled for launch in 2012, Mission One will carry a small satellite into orbit. Launching from Yasny, Russia, the satellite will carry a small electronic chip bearing messages from those who have donated to the OpenLuna project.

If you've always wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist or just someone vaguely associated with astronauts and rocket scientists, the group is actively seeking new members. Of course, they'll gladly accept donations (the manned moon outpost is estimated to cost $300-$500 million), and if you'd like to be more actively involved, they promise to find a way to use your talents if you contact them. You can also include a message on the Mission One chip for as little as $50.

What makes it open source? All hardware and software created for the OpenLuna project are released under open source licenses. In addition, the group shares all data collected, and it invites research proposals from anyone who would like to be involved. If the group succeeds in their goal of placing an outpost on the moon, the facility will be open for anyone who wants to use it, as long as they abide by OpenLuna's policies.

Art Galleries

3. Open Source Gallery

Inspired by the open source movement, Monika Wuhrer and Gary Baldwin opened Open Source Gallery in Brooklyn, NY, in 2008. Unlike most art galleries where viewers simply view the art, Open Source invites participation by community members who visit. In their own words, they "offer creatives, their families and our neighbors access to a project space, a creative community, and regular opportunities to make art part of their daily lives. We welcome input and contributions focused on offering challenging commentary via the process of artmaking."

Exhibits and events at the gallery vary widely. Paintings, sculpture, photography and performance art have all found a place at the facility. Next month, the gallery will host an open source soup kitchen where anyone can sign up to make dinner for 15-20 people from the neighborhood. It's also sponsored soap box derby races and hosts workshops for kids every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

What makes it open source? The focus on collaboration and participation is what aligns this art gallery with the open source movement. In addition, the founders emphasize openness and transparency in the gallery's agenda.

4. Flat World Knowledge

According to OnlineSchools.org, open source textbooks could save the average university student about $900 per year. Plus, open source textbooks give students format options: a free digital copy, a self-printed copy or a paid printed copy.

The leading publisher of open source textbooks, Flat World Knowledge provides college textbooks used in more than 2,000 educational institutions in 44 countries. Currently, Flat World's catalog includes 73 textbooks. Most of those books cover business and economics topics, but they also offer books for humanities, science, math and professional and applied science courses.

Prices for a black and white, paperback version of a textbook start at $29.95—meaning that even a printed copy is generally much less expensive than a traditional textbook. And authors retain the copyright for their books and get paid royalties for all copies sold, making the open source model attractive to them as well.

What makes it open source? Students can always view Flat World textbooks online, or they can pay to have a copy printed or a copy that they can view on an e-Reader. Authors and professors can also customize any textbook offered with the "Make it your own" feature. When professors at other universities also adopt these customized versions, the person who did the customization also earns royalties.

Open Source Classes

5. OpenCourseware Consortium

Of course, the next logical step after open source textbooks is open sourcing an entire college course. More than 200 higher learning institutions around the world have decided to do just that.

As part of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, schools like MIT, Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, UC Berkeley and Notre Dame offer free online courses. In addition, several international universities have begun OpenCourseWare projects with funding from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

The OpenCourseWare Consortium's website currently has a catalog of more than 6,300 university-level classes that anyone can search, view and download. While students generally do not receive university credit for completing these courses, anyone can access the materials online. MIT, which has spearheaded the OpenCourseWare movement since 2002, reports more than 1 million user sessions per month for its free online classes.

What makes it open source? All OpenCourseWare is published under an open license, often the Creative Commons license. Users can freely access the materials and modify them to meet their needs.

Open Source Housing

6. Open Source House

Focused on providing sustainable housing for low-income people, Open Source House serves as a clearinghouse for ideas about how to build houses inexpensively. The group sponsors competitions to generate ideas about how to design and build affordable housing, and all ideas submitted become freely available to the public.

In addition, the group promotes the development of small businesses committed to building OS-Houses. They hope to facilitate more than 100,000 OS-Houses before 2020. In order to qualify as an OS-House, a building must meet eight criteria:

  1. The design must be embedded in the local culture.
  2. Future disassembly is part of the design, and all natural resources used are renewable.
  3. The design makes optimum use of local climate.
  4. The design meets local building standards.
  5. The load-bearing structure is separate from the skin.
  6. All connections are dry and demountable.
  7. All installations must guarantee a flexible organization of the household and provide a sustainable way of living.
  8. All designs must be publicly shared on the OS-House website.

So far, the group has held a competition and built a pilot house in Ghana.

What makes it open source? All of the ideas from OS-House competitions and pilot houses are freely shared. Anyone can use or modify the designs as they see fit.

7. WikiHouse

Have you ever wanted to design and build your own house? WikiHouse wants to make it possible for anyone to do so using its "open source construction set."

To create your own WikiHouse, you'll first need to download Google Sketchup and the WikiHouse plugin. You can then browse WikiHouse's library of open source construction pieces to design a structure. When the design is complete, simply click "Make This House" to generate a set of milling drawings.

You then take those drawings to a CNC cutter (the website can help you find one in your area), who cuts all the necessary pieces out of locally available plywood. The structure fits together like a jigsaw puzzle. Just about anyone should be able to put it together using common tools like a mallet and a screwdriver—no power tools required.

Sound too good to be true? Check out the WikiHouse blog to see pictures of small teams of people who aren't construction pros building their own WikiHouses.

What makes it open source? All WikiHouse designs are available under a Creative Commons license. You can download, use and modify them however you like. And the group invites utsidersto contribute designs that others can use to build their WikiHouses.

Open Source Solar Energy

8. Opensource-solar

Of course, if you're an extreme DIY-er, you can not only build your own house, you can also power your own house. Opensource-solar offers free designs and information for anyone who wants to build a small photovoltaic (solar power) system.

A system includes a solar panel and charge controller, and the site also includes information on LED lighting and building your own DC-DC converter to use solar energy to charge your cell phone. This site is still a work in progress, and some of the wikis have much more information than others.

What makes it open source? All the designs and ideas shared on Opensource-solar comply with the Open Source Hardware Statement of Principles—that is, anyone can freely study, modify, or make objects based on the designs shared. Users are invited to contribute to the wikis and share their own designs for building solar energy systems.

Open Source Machinery

9. Open Source Ecology's Global Village Construction Set

Like WikiHouse, Open Source Ecology also calls itself an open source construction set. But in this case, the project aims not to build houses, but the machines necessary to build (or re-build) an entire civilization.

In the site's own words, "The Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) is a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that allows for the easy fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts."

Led by Marcin Jakubowski, Open Source Ecology is a group of farmers, engineers and supporter who are working on a "life-size lego set" that could create a modern economy anywhere in the world.

Over the past four years, they have built prototypes for eight of the 50 machines on their list: the Ironworker Machine (punches holes in metal up to 1" thick), the drill press, the CNC Torch Table (a cutting table), the Soil Pulverizer (used for grinding up earth so it can be used with the compressed earth brick press), the compressed earth brick press, the Power Cube (a universal, self-contained power unit), the LifeTrac (a 4wd tractor) and the MicroTrac (a miniature, walk-behind tractor).

What makes it open source? 3D designs, instructional videos and much more information about the Global Village Construction Set are freely available online. Anyone can use or alter the designs to build their own machines.

Open Source Washing Machines

10. Open Source Washing Machine Project

A washing machine isn’t on Open Source Ecology's list of 50 machines necessary for modern life, but washing clothes is a big deal for people living in developing countries. Nearly 2 billion people in the world don't have access to running water, electricity, or the parts necessary to make a modern washing machine. As result, millions of people, mostly women, wash clothes by hand, often in very harsh conditions.

The Open Source Washing Machine Project aims to make life easier for these people by coming up with a design for a washing machine that nearly anyone could afford, build, use and maintain. In fact, they don't want to come up with just one design, but a hundred different designs that could be used in various settings.

So far, the site includes some preliminary ideas and designs. Others are invited to get involved by contributing to the project.

What makes it open source? The goal of the project is to make these designs and information freely available to anyone in the world. A key aspect of the project involves giving the people who will use the technology the tools to build, maintain and control the technology themselves.

Open Source Robot

11. HyQ

HyQ is a "hydraulically actuated quadruped robot." In other words, it's a robot dog.

Moving around on legs is one of the more challenging tasks in robotics, but HyQ can walk, run, kick, trot, jukmp, and even makes a sort of swimming motion. You can see it in action in this video clip.

It stands about 1 meter tall and weighs 70-90 kg, depending on whether it's using internal or external power. It's designed to be able to move over rough terrain, and it achieves speeds up to 4 meters per second.

What makes it open source? While many others working in the field of robotics choose to keep their research to themselves (including those on the better known BigDog project), the HyQ team at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) has made CAD drawings and design specifications available on the HyQ Website. Project member Claudio Semini notes, "We want to make our design as open as possible."

Open Science

12. CoLab

Robotics researchers aren't the only scientists interested in open source as a philosophy. Colab offers scientists from a wide variety of disciplines a framework for doing open source science.

Traditionally, most scientists have worked in secret, only sharing their results with colleagues and the larger scientific community during the publication stage. CoLab hopes to change that by making it easier for researchers to work together in "microcollaborations" all the time, not just during sporadic brainstorming sessions.

The CoLab site proclaims, "In the spirit of open source software, open science takes the stance that a large community of intelligent users is better able to spot flaws and come up with new ideas than is a small, private group. We believe in rapid, complete, and free publication of data, lab notebooks, and brainstorming."

What makes it open source? The CoLab website makes scientific research open and available to the larger scientific community so that they can contribute and advance the projects. Although users can choose to limit access to some posts to a smaller group of collaborators, they are encouraged to open their research to the public at large. In addition, the software that runs the CoLab site can be downloaded from GitHub.

Open Source Research: Cancer Drugs

13. Open Source Cancer Research

Dr. Jay Bradner is passionate about finding a cure for cancer—in part because his own father had incurable pancreatic cancer. In this Ted Talks video, Bradner explains how his lab at Harvard University went to work finding a molecule that could cure a rare form of cancer called midline carcinoma.

The team eventually developed a molecule that they call JQ1 that seemed to be effective. At that point, Bradner said that they asked themselves, "What would a drug company do with this information?" And then they did exactly the opposite of what they thought a drug company would do: "We just started mailing it to our friends."

Now several labs and drug companies are working on turning the molecule into a medication that can be used to treat cancer patients. And Dr. Bradner has become an advocate for this open model of drug research.

What makes it open source? Dr. Bradner and his team published all of their findings, including a model of the molecule, which drug companies and other labs usually keep secret. They even published their e-mail addresses and offered to send a free molecule to anyone who was interested. Seventy different labs then began researching the molecule on their own and reported back to Dr. Bradner's team with a lot more information about other ways the chemical could be used.

Open Source Biological Art

14. Hackteria

While Dr. Bradner's team is sharing research with their professional colleagues, the folks at Hackteria are opening up science for everyday people. The site offers how to articles and workshops on "open source biological art, DIY biology and generic lab equipment."

For example, Hacteria can help you turn your basic webcam into a microscope. They've helped kids make jewelry out of petri dishes filled with bacteria and fungi, and the site offers examples of a bioLED.

More importantly, the group hopes to help scientists in less developed countries see how they can create their own lab equipment without spending astronomical sums of money.

What makes it open source? Hackteria freely publishes all of its open source biological art and other projects on the website so that anyone can learn from, replicate and contribute to the work. Users are also invited to log in to comment or contribute to the site.

Open Source Prosthetics

15. Open Prosthetics Project

This pun-loving group believes "prosthetics shouldn't cost an arm and leg." In order to bring down the cost of artificial limbs, they freely publish designs and ideas about prosthetics. They're particularly interested in helping the estimated 650,000 upper limb extremity amputees in the world, especially those who live in developing countries and don't have access to or funds for advanced artificial limbs.

The site lists several projects the group is working on: a body-powered hook, a mechatronic arm, body-powered bands, suspension system, the Trautman hook, a pediatric trainer, and adaptive grasp technology. They invite interested people to get involved with the project as users, donors, grant writers, legal assistants, service providers or researchers.

They also have a Google Groups forum for those who would like to be involved in ongoing discussions about open source prosthetics. It includes a "pimp my arm" area for prosthetics users with suggestions for how to improve artificial limbs.

What makes it open source? The Open Prosthetics Project places a notice on its project pages that reads: "All content and designs on this site are in the public domain, and we place no restrictions on their use. We encourage any derivative works, but all designs are registered periodically so that our work cannot be kept from the public by patents." The site offers drawings, text, video, papers and other documentation that interested parties can download, and it invites others to become involved in the project.

Open Source Yoga

16. Open Source Yoga Unity

If any discipline seems like a perfect fit for the free and open source philosophy, yoga certainly fits the bill. However, some yoga practitioners have apparently been attempting to copyright certain poses and practices (who knew?). Open Source Yoga Unity (OSYU) is standing up against these attempts to enforce copyrights on yoga practices.

In 2005, OSYU reached a legal settlement with Bikram regarding copyright and legal issues. However, Bikram resumed a "cease and desist" letter writing campaign earlier this year, and OSYU provides a means for those who receive those letters to resist and "to ensure the continued unfettered development of yoga for all to enjoy.

What makes it open source? OSYU asserts that "Yoga exists in the public domain." The group adds, "We encourage the free flow of information, including the wisdom of yoga, to all people."

Open Source Legal Reference

17. Law.gov

While U.S. law probably shouldn't be open source in terms of anyone being able to modify it freely, this group believes that all U.S. laws should be freely available to U.S. citizens at no charge.

Law.gov (which inexplicably is not located at law.gov, but instead at <law.resource.org) believes "that the primary legal materials of the United States should be readily available to all, and that governmental institutions should make these materials available in bulk as distributed, authenticated, well-formatted data."

In 2010, they held a series of 15 workshops held at various locations including Stanford and Harvard. The 600 attendees agreed to set of ten core principles, including the following:

  • "Direct fees for dissemination of primary legal materials should be avoided."
  • "Primary legal materials should be made available using bulk access mechanisms so they may be downloaded by anyone."
  • "The primary legal materials, and the methods used to access them, should be authenticated so people can trust in the integrity of these materials."
  • "Historical archives should be made available online and in a static location to the extent possible."

The group has since been in contact with appropriate regulatory groups to see about turning these ideas into reality.

What makes it open source? The purpose of the group is to make U.S. laws freely available to all citizens; in other words, to "open source America's operating system." The group is also being open about its own activities, posting videos, documents, and other materials on the website.

Open Source Government

18. Open Government Partnership

On September 20 of this year, eight countries launched an international effort to make government more transparent. As the founding members of the Open Government Partnership, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged themselves to improving public services, increasing public integrity, more effectively managing public resources, creating safer communities and increasing corporate accountability.

The group hopes to attract other countries to be a part of the Open Government Partnership. In order to join, countries must sign the Open Government Declaration, create an action plan for improving their government and commit to independent reporting on their progress towards their goals. They must also meet the minimum requirements: fiscal transparency, public access to information, disclosure of income and asset information for public officials, and engaging their citizens in policymaking and governance.

The group plans to meet again in December for a "peer exchange" and in April for a large conference.

What makes it open source? The Open Government Partnership is all about improving government by making it more open.

Open Source Sustainability

19. Earth Open Source

Earth Open Source aims to help "restore agriculture to its open source roots." In the beginning, all farming was open source, the group says. Farmers freely shared seeds and knowledge with each other and collaborated on tasks that required a larger labor force. People knew where their food came from—usually because they grew it themselves.

However, the group contends that in the 20th century, agriculture switched to a closed source model. Large corporations control the food chain. They use patented seeds and technology that they keep to themselves.

The Earth Open Source website serves as a clearinghouse for information about returning to a more sustainable food system. With a variety of videos, reports and other news, it hopes to engage a community of visitors in a collaborative effort to "open source" the food chain.

What makes it open source? Earth Open Source is all about openness and collaboration. The group aims to spread knowledge about our food system and encourage people to work together to find more sustainable methods of agriculture and food distribution.

Open Source Film

20. ClickMovement

In 2000, PBS aired a documentary called Code Rush, which chronicled the efforts of the developers working on Netscape's open source Web browser during the height of the dot-com era. It captures some of the foundations of the Mozilla Foundation, which has been hugely influential in the open source software movement.

The original producers have now "open sourced" their original footage, releasing all of the original video and searchable transcripts under a creative commons license.

Clickmovement.org is working on creating a new documentary based on this footage. The project invites artists, film-makers, researchers, designers and "people with ideas" to collaborate on creating the film. Eventually, those who get involved with the project will be able to post their own content to the project's website.

ClickMovement is just one of many groups of artists working on incorporating open source philosophies in the film-making process. Others include Stray Cinema and the Open Source Film Project.

What makes it open source? ClickMovement is making an open source documentary, using open source video footage about creating open source software. You can't get more open source than that.

Open Source Cupcakes

21. Open Source Cupcakes

The brainchild of Philadelphia-based techies Katie Regenye, Dana Vachon and Jessica Victor, Open Source Cupcakes offers tons of free recipes for—you guessed it—cupcakes.

The site explains, "Being involved in the Philadelphia tech community, I heard the open source concept tossed around daily. Sharing with others, communication, making things better. That certainly can be applied to cupcakes." In the spirit of open source, the site offers "baking support, new ideas and [a] place where cupcake lovers and bakers alike can communicate."

What makes it open source? This site was inspired by the open source software movement, and all recipes are available for free. You can also freely modify them, and you're invited to contribute your own comments and cupcake recipes as well. "It's time to open source the cupcake!"

Open Source Data Center

22. Open Compute Project

In 2009, Facebook began tackling a huge project: building a new data center from the ground up that would scale along with the social network's phenomenal growth and be as energy efficient as possible. The resulting data center in Prineville, Oregon, used 38 percent less energy than their existing facilities to do the same work, and it cost about 24 percent less as well.

Long a champion and user of open source software, Facebook decided to "open source" this new data center. In 2011, the company released the specs for the facility and invited others to make suggestions for improvement.

What makes it open source? At the Open Compute Project website, you can find specs and designs for the center's servers, racks, cabinets, and electrical and mechanical systems. The details are also available on GitHub. In order to get feedback from outsiders, Facebook has also conducted Open Computer Project summits and set up several working groups that will continue looking for ways to improve data center efficiency.

Open Source Cars

23. c,mm,n

In 2007, this group showed off the word's first open source car at the AutoRAI show in Amsterdam. Developed by three Dutch universities, c,mm,n (pronounced "common") is a community-built electric vehicle with an emphasis on sustainability.

The c,mm,n community has aims far beyond simply creating an open source car, however. The group is actively involved in crafting a strategy that will enable 1 million electric cars to be on the road in The Netherlands by 2020. They also regularly reach out to others for input with "garage" events.

Several other groups have also undertaken to produce an open source car, notably OScar and Local Motors.

What makes it open source? C,mm,n has released all of the blueprints and other documentation for their electric car online. They also invite contributions through their online forums and various events. Anyone who wishes can use c,mm,n ideas and technology to create their own sustainable vehicles, provided that they also release their hardware under an open source license.

Open Source Bartender

24. iZac the Android Bartender

The highly creative Nick Johnson built his own barbot and named it iZac in homage to Futurama. Through an Android-based interface, users can order up a drink and iZac will mix it up. It can dispense six different liquids at a time, and it also includes a Google-inspired "I'm feeling lucky" button for those who want iZac to create an original drink just for them.

The iZac has handled bartending duties on a couple of occasions at events in Sydney and was generally a hit with a crowd, whether it was making sodas or alcoholic drinks. The blog post offers details of how iZac was constructed, with plenty of pictures and resources.

What makes it open source? Johnson has released all the code for the iZac interface at GitHub, and he posted the hardware specifications at Thingverse. You can also find plenty of other information on the main blog post, or you can leave comments and read the suggestions for improvements that others have made.

Open Source Spies

25. CIA Open Source Center

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency isn't exactly known for its transparency, but it does have an "Open Source Center." There, analysts who call themselves "ninja librarians" pore over Tweets, newspapers, radio and television broadcasts and other open media to find hints about public opinion in other countries.

Like most CIA operations, the Open Source Center is somewhat secretive, but the Associated Press did recently get a tour of the primary facility in Virginia. The center analyzes up to 5 million Twitter messages a day. That work allowed them to successfully predict the uprising in Egypt, although they didn't know exactly when it would begin, said the center's director, Doug Naquin.

Naquin said the ideal candidate for a job at the OSC is a lot like the main character in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a techie who "knows how to find stuff other people don't know exists." They particularly look for people with master's degrees in library science who can speak multiple languages.

What makes it open source? In this case, "open source" mostly describes the information the group is looking at, not the information they're sharing. However, the CIA has been more open about the operations at the OSC than other methods of intelligence gathering, and U.S. federal, state and local government employees and contractors can register at the OSC site to get access to their findings.

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