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A Healthy Regard For FOSS

Fred Trotter writes about open source software and medicine, and recently blogged about a meeting he had with the CCHIT regarding their support for open source in their certification program. It's eye-opening stuff for anyone currently involved in the debate about how government and med

Fred Trotter writes about open source software and medicine, and recently blogged about a meeting he had with the CCHIT regarding their support for open source in their certification program. It's eye-opening stuff for anyone currently involved in the debate about how government and medicine should use open source (mandatory, optional, etc.)

Apart from the main subject, this bit caught me right away:


... [they] were willing to consider the profound practical and cultural implications of the 'rules' of the FOSS. These implications are difficult enough for FOSS insiders like me to fully grasp that I realized during the meeting that there is still work for me to do make these problems accessible. [emphasis mine]

Several things become immediately clear from reading, especially in light of the above quote. First, not everyone automatically assumes that the automatically decentralized nature of open source is a good thing. From the outside it may simply look like a recipe for disaster, especially if you don't spend your days and nights deeply involved in the ins and outs of code.

The second is how even people on the "inside", so to speak, are often themselves not all that clear about how to go about explaining open source to the non-initiated. Frankly, I think programmers and developers are some of the worst-equipped people to do this -- at least until they've had some guided experience in the process of explaining things to people outside of the FOSS camp.

(Side note: Harping on "freedom" as a value unto itself, without context, can backfire badly. I once was privy to a conversation between two friends: one was a self-proclaimed FOSS advocate and the other a casual user whose biggest ambition was to unlock every single XBOX Live achievement for Halo 3. Friend #1 stumped hard for Linux because "you can do anything you want with your PC". Friend #2 looked nonplussed: "I can already do anything I want with my PC. It's not like it's in the living room anymore.")

What's best about what Fred did is that he had the nerve (for lack of a better word) to go and beard the lions in their own den -- to take the trouble to explain why the open provenance of open source is a boon and not a hazard. Or, at the very least, why the hazards are overrated, or can be ameliorated through mechanisms that already exist.

The problem is when people sit back and expect open source to win because it's ... well, open source, and not because its merits are clear to everyone. Sometimes they are simply not, and until the day comes when the differences between open source and proprietary software do not have to be re-explained to every prospective new audience, this kind of work is vital.


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