17 June 2009

The Doctor Who Model of Open Source

I often write of the way in which other domains are learning from open source and its successes. But that's not to say the traffic is all one way: increasingly, the other opens have much to *teach* open source, too.

For example, Peter Murray-Rust is one of the leading exponents of open data and open chemistry, notably through the Blue Obelisk group:

The Internet has brought together a group of chemists/programmers/informaticians who are driven by wanting to do things better, but are frustrated with the Closed systems that chemists currently have to work with. They share a belief in the concepts of Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source (ODOSOS) (but not necessarily Open Access). And they express this in code, data, algorithms, specifications, tutorials, demonstrations, articles and anything that helps get the message across.

Here's an interesting point he raised recently:

How do we sustain Open Source in a distributed world? We are facing this challenge with several of our chemical software creations/packages. People move, institutions change. Open Source does not, of itself, grow and flourish – it needs nurturing. Many packages require a lot of work before they are in a state to be usefully enhanced by the community - “throw it over the wall and it will flourish” does not work.

Many OS projects have clear governance and (at least implicitly) funded management. Examples are Apache, Eclipse, etc. Many others have the “BDFL” - Benevolent Dictator For Life with characters such as R[M]S, Linus, Guido Python, Larry Perl, etc. These command worldwide respect and they have income models which are similar to literary giants. These models don’t (yet?) work for chemistry.

Instead the Blue Obelisk community seems to have evolved a “Doctor Who” model. You’ll recall that every few years something fatal happens to the Doctor and you think he is going to die and there will never be another series. Then he regenerates. The new Doctor has a different personality, a different philosophy (though always on the side of good). It is never clear how long any Doctor will remain unregenerated or who will come after him. And this is a common theme in the Blue Obelisk.

The rest of the post fleshes out this analogy - well worth reading.

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Anonymous said...

Obviously they've not heard of the Valeyard (as introduced), the Doctor's penultimate reincarnation and thoroughly evil.

I think you could say that the only reason this isn't so obvious in the open source BDFL model is because the BDFL is still living or hasn't decided to retire and that model doesn't relate to the job the BDFL has as any point in time necessarily. I imagine Perl will continue beyond Larry Wall - it may even reach the 6.0 release.

Whether though open source can suffer other things happening to the lead developer is another interesting question (I'm thinking file system developers who are also murderers and the like).

Glyn Moody said...

We're certainly lacking data points, but that's what makes the discussion interesting. (Facts? Who needs them?)

Egon Willighagen said...

What Peter's blog does not describe in detail, which is, obviously reality, is that the Doctor's death is just virtual... Let me explain.

As one of the Doctors mentioned in Peter's article, I would like to point out that I deliberately stepped down as Doctor, feeling that my follow up, first lieutenant at the time, Miguel/Michael, was quite capable of leading the development, where my attention was better spent on another Blue Obelisk project, the Chemistry Development Kit.

In that sense, I plotted my own murder, but it should be considered as one of those TV scenes where it stays unclear the person is really death (the body might be a poor homeless, though not sure this kind of scenarios is used in the Dr Who series too): if the need arises, I will step up back as project leader of Jmol, but the current leader, Bob, is enjoying him too much at this moment to expect this in the near future.

Reality is, of course, a bit more complex then the model, but I think the Dr. Who model is an interesting suggestion. Not that novel, BTW, because it merely is a kind of forking, where the original just got abandoned.

BTW, I think our perception of long-lived Doctor's biased: icons like Linus immediately pop up as project leaders... there is, however, maybe the so-called, long-tail of smaller projects that do not hit our radar. If we indeed would do the statistics right (tm), we would likely have enough data points to see that the Dr. Who model extends beyond chemistry.

Glyn Moody said...

@Egon: many thanks for fleshing out (in more sense than one) some details. It's a fascinating subject - well, fascinating two subjects (a Dr Who fan writes....)