Many of us understand the joy and necessity of commonly-held services, tools, and beautiful places. Unfortunately, not everyone understands what it means to hold a communally built thing with open hands, free for anyone to make use of. Or that we have built the legal infrastructure to ensure those things we built together remain held in the open. Thus we have to fight for them at points.
Many Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) communities exist. My favorite review of these is in Professor Coleman’s Coding Freedom. I cannot possibly go into the depths with the same eloquence she does in this short blog entry. But, suffice it to say that in F/OSS communities, you find awesome people through working on a shared project, which forms some pretty powerful ties. There is also the joy of seeing something you helped build be used in new and undreamed of (by you) ways.
But it’s not always so beautiful. Sometimes people don’t get it, and they want to act out what used to be called the “Tragedy of the Commons,” as in they want to make use of the hard work and good will of a community, but without giving back to that community. And that sucks, because you have to decide how to respond in a way that uplifts and empowers your community, preferably while maintaining open arms to those who might not yet understand. We had such a learning opportunity recently, and we’d like your help in figuring out where to go from here.
In 2012, one of our contributors had overlap with a contractor from the World Bank. They were looking for a tool to do basically what Taarifa does, and was recommended. Deployed to Uganda to fair success, we didn’t hear anything back after that. Unbeknownst to us, group called the TigerParty started using the Taarifa code base as hired by that contractor with the World Bank, and have deployed to multiple places with versions of a retired code base. We reached out to them in October 2013, a bit trepedatious as they hadn’t contacted us, but interested in what they were up to. It’s a celebrated part of the things you love growing beyond your original intentions for them to be used in new places by new people. But TigerParty didn’t talk to us, even when we reached out. So we waited to understand what they were going for in our shared language – the code base – when they folded their changes and ideas back into the repo or placed up their own code. Because that’s the practice of open source projects.
But then they didn’t. And now it’s just awkward. We reached out to them in May 2014, to ask them what they were up to, and how things were going. We pointed out they were using an abandoned and deprecated code base which we didn’t see fit for further deployments. Nevertheless we were curious to see what they had done with it and requested they open source the code they were using. Their response was a pull request with a dump of their code – a diff with 500,000 lines, no comments, littered with .svn directories (apparently they had abandoned the Git history and were using SVN). After review, the Taarifa community decided not to take the pull – the overhead of parsing through uncommented code was not worth it, given the defunct nature of the code (and that taking such an update would confuse others as to the status of retirement by appearing to have maintainence being done on it).
The branch of the code they’re using is the LGPL carried forward from Ushahidi, from which the first version of Taarifa was built from in October 2011, at the London Water Hackathon! Subsequent iterations of Taarifa, after the discontinuation of that code for security and usability issues, have been on the Apache license. So we’re worried about the safety of the users (many of their instances use the default admin credentials, which we’ve pointed out to the repeatedly to no change, as well as other general security flaws of that instance). We’re worried about their dedication to the users – each of these deployments have single or double-digit reports and have no recent activity. This shows people can report, but no one is listening nor responding (which is how it feels when trying to talk to TigerParty). It’s irresponsible and unethical to not tend to the full feedback and response mechanism, and something our deployments have spent a vast amount of time setting up and tending to.
We haven’t been perfect, but we document and continue learning and trying. As a community from the commons we commit to to doing this in future and ask for your help in making us create a better world.
We’ve asked TigerParty to stop using the code for usability, for safety, for ethics, and for legal reasons. They haven’t, and don’t show any signs of stopping. And that sucks, because if someone use the resources of the commons, whatever is made goes back to the commons. Someone benefitted, so everyone should benefit from what you did. You can get paid for your work, you can sell your expertise, but the object itself is communally held. But we are the shoulders others will stand on in the future, so let’s act accordingly.
–The Taarifa Community