The LDS Church’s Chief Information Officer, Joel Dehlin, called for help Wednesday in a post titled Mormon Open Source Open for Business. The project seeks help with a number of LDS Church projects, including, first on the list, a rewrite of the software that runs the Stake and Ward Websites.
When Dehlin admitted in the comments to his post that the program wasn’t quite a true Open Source program, I began to wonder why it isn’t, and what a true Open Source program might mean for the Church and for the LDS community.
I’m no experts in Open Source, nor am I even a programmer (I have taken a couple of classes, and mucked around in php code quite a bit, bu I’m not qualified to do much of anything). But I have read about Open Source and followed some of its developments. Code produced by Open Source projects is used by virtually everyone these days to one degree or another. Open Source code is the basic code behind the current Macintosh operating system, is frequently used even in Windows, and is the main driving force behind the most frequently used software on the Internet.
Open Source is like the cooperative road construction efforts made in pioneer communities. In many cases, no one go paid for constructing the common roads and much of the community pitched in to get the job done. When the job was complete, everyone got to use the results for free, even if they didn’t help in the construction.
This practice I think fits well with our Mormon communitarian heritage. You see something that needs to be done, you interest those in the community in the project, most of the community helps work on the project, depending on their availability, and everyone benefits.
The Open Source Initiative has basic definition of the term, and it is those rules that the Church’s project don’t quite follow, simply because unlike in a true Open Source project, the Church maintains ownership and control of the software (as I understand the project). No one outside will be able to obtain the software or its source code. Its a one-way street. The contributions are made to the Church, but the Church doesn’t make those contributions available to anyone else.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that the Church has to develop these projects using an Open Source model. I’m not conversant in all the factors that might go into such a decision. I certainly recognize that sometimes “too many cooks spoils the soup.” But I do see a need both in the Church and in the LDS community for Open Source projects.
Already the Church takes advantage of Open Source software in some cases. The wiki at tech.lds.org uses mediawiki, the same software that runs wikipedia, without any modification that I can see. The same site also includes a forum that also appears to be open source software. I’ll bet that many other Church technology projects also use open source software as part of the code developed.
The LDS community on the Internet also uses many pieces of free software, often software that is developed using Open Source. I myself use mediawiki for several of my projects (Mormon Translation, Mormon Terms), and use other Open Source software (such as WordPress, the software also used for Times and Seasons) for other sites. I’m hardly unusual — the majority of LDS websites I see these days use some Open Source software of some kind or another.
In developing the new software for wards and stakes, its even possible that some open source software might be useful. After all, in some respects these sites are similar to social networking sites or group management sites. Like social networking sites, they work off of a list of members, people who share something in common, share information with each other and who regularly meet for common goals. I don’t want to make too much of this comparison, but it seems likely that the stake and ward websites could incorporate some social networking features–and if the code for those features has already been developed by an open source project, why not use it?
This kind of attitude is critical, IMO, for many sites in the LDS community, especially as we discover ways to customize and modify the code we use to fit needs specific to being Mormon. Already sites in the community have developed code for things like home and visiting teaching and mission alumni groups.
This latter category is fascinating. It requires not only lists of who served in a mission and typical ways for alumni to communicate with each other, but also information about what mission president the alumnus served under, who were the alumnus’ companions and what areas the alumnus served in. The dominant force in this area is the Mission.net website, which seems to host the majority of alumni websites, and has code that was specifically written for such sites.
Unfortunately, Mission.net is looking a little dated, IMO. Its software appears to have last been updated in 2004, and where either social networking features or integration with existing social networks would seem like an obvious improvement, the site hasn’t included any features inspired by facebook, myspace and the like, nor can alumni integrate their mission.net experience with these sites. As a result, I’m already seeing some mission alumni effectively moving to the social networking sites.
Clearly Mission.net is an example of a part of the community that could benefit from ongoing Open Source development, even though it doesn’t appear to have used that development in the past (from what I can see on the site). I’m sure other sites in the bloggernacle and the LDS community will continue to use Open Source software. The interesting development will come as members of the online LDS community use Open Source to develop software specific to Mormon needs.