Empowering Change Through Open Source Software
Our species, and indeed our planet, is entering into a new and uncertain era as a result of intersecting issues like the global internet, climate change, and a growing number of oppressive political movements. One of the greatest challenges of this time, from the perspective of a civic technologist, is trying to predict what tools need to be built in order to protect our freedoms and civil societies. My own response was to facilitate the launch of the Houdini Project, so that people throughout the world can at least be assured access to fundraising and organizing tools — cornerstones of any healthy nation. This project started with a simple question: “what technologies would human rights organizers need, if they live within an oppressive regime, in order to safely raise international funds and securely mobilize their supporters?”
It turns out the first, and most important thing, is that they need access to software that they can fully control. They need to be able to run their software and databases on servers that they manage — because they cannot store that data on platforms that can be either compromised, or where a private company can be bullied into handing over the data. For people living under tyranny, these common weaknesses can be a matter of life and death, and before we launched the Houdini Project I saw no solutions to their problem.
Let’s back up for those who aren’t familiar with open source software
What is open source? All software is built using computer code, and the vast majority of online services hide their code because it’s generally their most valuable asset. This means that you have no idea how their software works and nobody else can run their software. When software is “open source” it means, in part, that the codebase is publicly available. Depending on the specific open source license, that technology can then be used, copied, and modified by anyone else in the world; it can also be audited to ensure that it does what it says.
Example: LGBTQ Rights Organization in Russia
Without naming specific organizations let’s assume there is an LGBTQ group in Russia, where that kind of activism is strictly illegal and where human rights organizers have faced serious threats. That group needs to be able to raise funds for their activities, and they also need to be able to maintain secure databases of their supporters for communications and events. Russia is a large and influential country that is capable of forcing most companies to handover data, and they are capable of sophisticated hacking. If they were able to get their hands on the LGBTQ organization’s database they would be able to compile a list of people for persecution, and the fear of that happening is often enough to prevent large scale organizing.
The first step in solving that problem is providing the LGBTQ group with software that they can host and run themselves, on servers that are run by trusted sources outside of Russia. Now the Houdini Project allows those organizers to fundraise and organize with a level of sophistication and security that had previously been impossible, precisely because it is open source software.
Example: Indigenous Environmental Group in the Amazon
The plight of indigenous environmental organizers in the Amazon highlights a separate, equally challenging, issue because they have great difficulty raising international funds — despite the fact that there is widespread support for them throughout the world. They have difficulty because banks in their country will not allow them to create accounts, international payment processors often won’t serve them, and their funds can be frozen by corrupt governments even if they solve the first two obstacles. What they need is a highly secure means of raising capital that cannot be easily shut down.
Their solution is to modify Houdini’s fundraising tools to accept bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which they then either convert into local currencies, or use to trade for goods and services when currency conversion isn’t available. This allows them to raise funds from anyone in the world, ensures either a high level of privacy or full anonymity, and guarantees they can access the funds so long as the internet is still available in their country. They often use bitcoin to purchase international advertising in order to build awareness of mass deforestation, and acts of violence perpetrated by multinational logging companies.
Example: CommitChange Helping Social Services in the USA
Finally, let’s pick a real example close to home, my own company. The codebase that originally made up the Houdini Project is called CommitChange and it specializes in fundraising software for US-based nonprofits, especially core social service organizations who have big impact but limited resources. We wanted to speed up the development of new features but we’re a relatively small company, and we weren’t willing to take additional investment because we believe it’s important to maintain independence.
By open sourcing, CommitChange was able to incorporate the best new features from other organizations who also use the Houdini Project, allowing us to provide more innovations to our users without having to significantly expand our engineering team. This ultimately leads to those social service organizations being able to raise more funding for their missions without increasing their software costs, resulting in more lives impacted and a stronger civil society here in the United States.
A Virtuous Circle
Open source software can lead to virtuous circles, especially when the open source software relates to fundraising and organizing. One organization’s innovation becomes instantly available to every other group using that infrastructure, solving many challenges at once and reducing the costs for everyone. By making the switch to being open source, we’re now seeing that work done for a YMCA in California is having impact on a completely separate investigative journalism organization in Europe, for example. It’s this kind of infrastructure level approach that has the capacity to change our world — it’s being willing to share, willing to be open, and collaborating across borders to solve shared challenges.