The unexpected empathy of open source

Open source software is more human than you think.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Originally published on Hacker Noon

The benefits of free and open source software are often recited. Auditability, community, quality, interoperability, cost, and many others. These benefits sound great for businesses, governments, and engineers. The “value proposition,” if you will, is clear.

But why should the majority of the world care?

It wasn’t until recently that I found the answer: empathy.

Map of SMS Backup Reader downloads

First: a bit of personal history

I released my first bit of open source software in 2011 called SMS Backup Reader. I had free time during the summer and a simple problem I needed to solve: I wanted to be able read my Android text message backups on the computer.

After doing a bit of searching, I realized that, not only didn’t a good solution exist, but that other people might be interested in an easy way of opening these pesky XML backup files. So I put my newly minted Java skills to work, and a few days later, published version 0.1 of SMS Backup Reader.

It wasn’t much, but I was proud of it. There’s a difference between doing class assignments, where you’re told what the problem is, and discovering an unsolved problem in the world. And the numbers proved it. Hundreds of people downloaded the software. As of today, there are over 150,000 downloads. The image at the top of this story shows the 180+ countries people have downloaded from.

So who uses an open source backup reader?

Over the years, I’ve seen all sorts of uses for this handy utility. Many folks have just wanted an easier way to look back on older conversations.

Some people have needed to print out a backup for a legal proceeding.

Most recently, I was grateful to hear from someone who successfully preserved the conversations with a loved one who has passed away.

These stories have stuck with me. These situations are human, and I never dreamed of solving them when I starting writing software years ago.

Open source has empathy at its core

Think about the tens of thousands of free and open source projects available around the world. Some are released by individuals, others by companies, and some even by governments. Many have direct or indirect benefits for those releasing them. Community support, increased awareness of your products, etc.

But by releasing those projects, something else is happening.

To better solve problems beyond your own, you have to truly understand the people you’re solving for. Who are your users? What are they trying to solve? How is your work helping?

Open sourcing your work helps to solve problems without asking for anything in return. No money, no press, and, in many cases, you won’t even know you’ve helped at all.

And it might not be within your lifetime. By open sourcing software, you’re giving others the chance to pick up where you left off. Old memories won’t be locked away in unavailable, proprietary software. Even the software itself can live beyond its creator.

So why should the world care about open source?

By donating your time, intellect, and creativity, you can impact real lives, and solve real problems. Consciously choose to bring yourself closer to your collaborators and users, and your project will grow even further.

In many ways, working on open source is the powerful combination of a passion for software with compassion for others.


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