25 Ways Open Source is Catching On Beyond Software

The open source movement is spreading far beyond software to space travel, cars, spying, textbooks, art -- even cupcakes.


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Posted November 28, 2011

Cynthia Harvey

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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.

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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.

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