A Center for Internet Volunteerism,

Instruction and Collaboration


Humanity continues to be faced with myriad problems of a global nature. Old problem-solving methods are either not working at all or not working quickly enough. We need to make profound changes in human practices to prevent further escalation of wars and environmental destruction. Fortunately, new problem-solving methods are emerging.

Our current global economic system is predicated on competition and endless growth, virtually ignoring cooperation and steady-state as possible survival strategies. When the prevailing "game" dictates there have to be winners and losers, conflict in inevitable. Where there is conflict, there is desperation and destruction. When people have no other ways to live, they "eat the seed grain"-destroying all possible futures for present survival. A new "game" is needed.

We should seek to "play well with others" in a new "game" that reduces desperation and destruction, as a matter of survival as a species, even of survival as a living planet.

Therefore, we must begin cooperating on a global scale to achieve a steady-state sustainable society, but how? Many traditional cultures are called "gift cultures" because most of their exchanges of goods and services occur as gifts instead of trade. Some have compared the open source software movement to traditional gift cultures.

Consider this: If thousands of volunteer programmers world-wide can cooperate to produce a free operating system like Linux that rivals its best commercial equivalents, then maybe, just maybe, anything is still possible. Consider the magnitude of that achievement for a moment. On the one hand you have Microsoft with billions of dollars of resources and thousands of employees. On the other hand you have a chaotic, self-organizing, globally distributed team of engineers working without pay simply because they want to enjoy the fruit of their collective labor. Think of it.

Eric S. Raymond wrote a book about open source development methodology entitled, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar". Raymond outlined 19 points that contribute to the success of the open source methodology. I have studied all his points in detail and I see no reason why the Bazaar methodology can't be applied to real-world problems in addition to software development.

It's a question of different tools for different communities of interest. The global community of software developers only needed the internet, a text editor (vi or emacs, take your pick) and a C compiler to really get things rolling. Communities of marine biologists, botanists, organic farmers, school teachers, environmental lawyers, activists, politicians, doctors, green architects, students, retired people and artists will all require different tools to support different patterns of communication and different information storage and retrieval requirements. But once they have the tools they need to collaborate on a global scale- just imagine the creative forces that could be unleashed!

We are already seeing some encouraging results when online citizens contact their representatives in Washington to demonstrate public support for campaign finance reform and for keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge safe from oil drilling. We've already seen results from groups like E-LAW using the internet to facilitate global collaboration to protect endangered species from destruction of habitat. Much, much more is possible. What's still largely missing are internet-based global collaboration "environments" tailored to the various communities that need to cooperate to save our biosphere.

Linux, Apache, PHP and MySQL have already been written and are already free for non-commercial uses. These foundations are solid enough to build just about any collaborative environment on top of.

A new software package is currently being tested that will greatly facilitate the creation of on-line database-transacting forms. Essentially, the software takes any MySQL database table and produces HTML forms for entering, editing, querying and deleting rows in the given database table. The appearance of the forms can be easily modified using web forms also created using the new form creation tool.

Given these tools and some training in relational database analysis and design, a web designer of average skill can interview stakeholders in the various collaborative communities and easily produce diverse web sites. These web sites could be used, for example, to track air and water pollution data, timber sales, pesticide applications, toxicology data, social learning survey instruments, public opinion polls, legislative bills, initiative petitions, epidemiological studies, volunteer skill sets or any number of other types of information useful for solving real-world problems.

I envision a center that specializes in training and coaching webmaster volunteers to use both open source and commercial software tools to create collaborative web sites, each dedicated to a large-scale problem facing the world today. The web sites would be designed to help organize communication within each specific community of users to enhance "bazaar" methodology applied to specific real-world problems. I call the proposed center the Center for Internet Volunteerism, Instruction and Collaboration-CIVIC. The center could be an office within OPN, because it would use OPN classroom space, server rooms, and possibly other resources. It is my hope that the web sites created through CIVIC would help unleash the "bazaar"-style collaborative potential of hundreds or thousands of specialists worldwide for each web site developed.

Eric Raymond wrote "Given a large enough … co-developer [community], almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone." There are six billion people with a vested interest in solving the world's problems. All that's needed are new ways of coordinating their efforts.

-- Marc Baber (marc@opn.org)
Boardmember, Oregon Public Networking
President, The Bot Works, Inc.
Eugene, Oregon, USA
May 2, 2002