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Can Open Source Deliver the Dream of Digital Development?


4 mins read

Today, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)’s Platform and Services team is introducing a new strategy to turbocharge open source innovations that help solve digital development challenges across the globe.

Next year will mark 20 years since the term “open source software” was officially coined, and the “free software” movement has been around even longer. But in the international development field, open source has only been a key consideration for the last decade or so. Today, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL)’s Platform and Services team is introducing a new strategy to turbocharge open source innovations that help solve digital development challenges across the globe.

The international development field is increasingly incorporating digital innovation into its programmatic work. While leveraging open source technology should be a prioritized strategy, many open source projects come with their own set of challenges. In fact, few endure and mature. When successful, open source projects enable improved and sustained access to information and services previously out of reach for marginalized populations. Open source is the key to bring the “dream” of digital development to life for millions of people around the globe.

The most common project outcome is the word nobody wants to talk about — failure. Often, open source digital development projects fail because they neglect common-sense strategies: user- and ecosystem-centered design, planning for scale and sustainability, as well as collaboration with other projects and standards. Or what we like to call – the Principles for Digital Development.

And importantly, project funding in the development sector isn’t typically structured to deliver quality open source products. Rather than co-funding a single robust product solving the needs of many implementation projects around the world, we instead find a large number of smaller products with overlapping features which frequently don’t fully address their funders’ needs.

To address these challenges, DIAL has assembled a team of experts with a breadth of experience in open source digital development and that also have a deep understanding of these challenges and how to best help organizations maximize the benefit of open source. We’ve learned a lot about the challenges projects have faced, and we’re ready to help. Adapting knowledge from the professional practice of community management and product development, we now understand key areas in which organizations must invest time and energy to become a more mature, inclusive, participatory community. Strategy, leadership, culture, community management, product management, policies and governance, tools, as well as metrics and measurement all play a role as an idea starts from a small project moving toward an emergent collaborative community, then builds to a fully-functional community effort, and finally grows to a large-scale networked initiative.

With these factors in mind, and with the Principles for Digital Development guiding the design of the software projects to be built, DIAL’s Platforms and Services team is planning specific ways to improve the open source experience in digital development. The below graphic from The Community Roundtable offers a model for this work:

  • Sharing foundational services: It can be difficult to establish and maintain core services as projects grow. The DevOps support, community coordination and event organizing to help further scale and energize projects require expertise, energy and funding that is often not available. Because these activities seldom require full-time investment, we believe sharing resources between similar projects increases effectiveness of overall investments in these areas.
  • Establishing and leveraging best practices: While many projects are often started by one or two people, the number of contributors grows as people discover and use the service or product. Decision-making and work processes must also mature with the project. We’ve seen consistent demand for establishing best practices on how to operate open source digital development projects in reliable, effective ways, through efforts like the Principles for Digital Development. Along with other strategies, first-hand knowledge in implementing these principles can be shared throughout the digital development community.
  • Coordinating sustainable funding opportunities: A recurring theme is frustration from constantly chasing funding opportunities to develop and enhance specific features, which detracts from project maintainers’ time and energy. Most of these projects are continually looking for new partnerships with implementing organizations, working to match their product roadmaps with implementers’ demand. DIAL’s vision for this ecosystem is an evolved marketplace where funding opportunities are centrally curated, where different programmatic sectors can collaborate and share innovation and where peers work together to help each other succeed.

Over the next few months, you’ll be hearing more about DIAL’s plans to bring together open source projects in the humanitarian and international development fields. We’re already studying many successful case studies, and many more less-than-successful failures. And we want to learn from more of them. If you’ve got ideas about challenges to overcome that can lead to more sustainable, impactful open source digital development, get in touch with us.

David McCann serves as Director of Technology for the T4D Open Source Software Incubator & Accelerator at the Digital Impact Alliance. He brings 10 years of experience building and managing small teams to achieve greenfield goals in both the non-profit and private sectors.

Michael Downey is the Director of Community for the Digital Impact Alliance’s Open Source Software Incubator & Accelerator. Michael’s career in IT and open source spans nearly two decades both in the healthcare and financial services industries, as well as the nonprofit world. As a long-time participant in the T4D community, he is excited about DIAL’s unique opportunity to help build a digital society that serves everyone.


An earlier version of this blog post incorrectly included a diagram based on the Community Maturity Model by The Community Roundtable and was not correctly attributed. DIAL regrets the error.

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