Start-up panelists from SXSW

Is open source B.A.D? Reflections inspired by SXSW…

Luminary Technical Director Emmanuel Tissera shares some lessons learned from SXSW Sydney about open source and open innovation. 

Emmanuel Tissera

By Emmanuel Tissera, 20 November 20234 minute read

Before we jump into talking about whether open source is B.A.D, let’s get clear on what I’m talking about here. B.A.D is an acronym – it stands for ‘Bold, Accessible and Disruptive’. As an advocate of open source, it’s what I believe open source should be. 

I went to SXSW Sydney hoping to learn more about open source. I attended a number of sessions on the topic but there was one in particular that really got me thinking about whether open source is achieving its vision. The session was The Pursuit of Radical JOI – How UNICEF Invests in Just and Open Innovation, for Every Child

Start-ups on the pros and cons of open source

Luminary CEO Marty Drill wrote about how UNICEF is investing in start-ups that are using technology to support children in developing countries. You can read more about what the start-ups – Rahat, Tilli and Bookbot – are doing and how Luminary is supporting Bookbot in Marty’s article.

The most interesting aspect of this session was the question posed to the founders of these three start-ups: “How has open source software contributed to the growth of your start-up? What are the pros and cons of using open source software?”

I’m paraphrasing the answers along with some of my knowledge of the systems used in these three applications.

Rahat

For Rahat, an open source, blockchain-powered financial access platform, the backbone of its platform is open source. 

The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value – land records, intellectual property, tracking information, identity, etc, to reduce fraud and remove bottlenecks.

Ethereum is a global, open source platform for decentralised applications (Dapps) and Rahat runs on the public Ethereum network. 

Thus, as Rahat’s female founder Rumee Singh put it, open source has been invaluable in creating Rahat and supporting the distribution of humanitarian aid with transparency and accountability.

Rahat technology stack - SXSW

Tilli

Tilli is a game-based, AI-powered Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) tool designed for 5 to 10-year-olds. The team behind Tilli is led by two female founders and brings together award-winning experts in learning and game design, cognitive sciences, and machine learning. 

As seen in the video below, the Tilli app uses a lot of animation.

Tilli Co-founder Kavindya Thennakoon spoke about some of the pitfalls of using open source 3D game engines to produce these animations. While commercial products such as Unity bring productivity and efficiency, some of the open source game engines have bugs that make them slower to work with. This is primarily due to those open source game engines not getting enough funding. There are, however, more successful open source initiatives – such as Red Hat Linux – that have a commercial profit-making entity behind them.

Despite these shortcomings, Tilli still believes in open source and intends to keep both technology and design systems open source so that it can collaborate with other educators and learning designers in building a global learning ecosystem together. 

Bookbot

Bookbot is a gamified app with real-time, on-device speech recognition technology to improve literacy and reading proficiency in children. 

Bookbot

Bookbot CTO Adrian Dewitts spoke about his experience with open source books licensed with the Creative Commons licence. He spoke about having multiple conversations with book authors and publishers who were not too keen on their content being used on the Bookbot app, even though every licence condition was followed to the letter.

Adrian also alluded to the fact that when it comes to open source software, the creators or developers always look forward to others building on top of their work and creating new things. But with Creative Commons books, it was not as pleasant an experience as in the OSS world. The Creative Commons licence also comes in six different flavours which makes it a little bit harder for content reuse. 

My takeaway from SXSW

Listening to these three start-up founders and their experience with open source left me a bit unsettled, to be honest. I always champion the use of open source and give back to open source projects and the community.

My favourite open source platform is Umbraco. I may be a bit biased as I have been working with it since 2009 and contributing to the Umbraco community for almost a decade. As an Umbraco Platinum Partner, Luminary supports the commercial for-profit organisation Umbraco HQ. This enables Umbraco HQ to work on securing and releasing an open source product that can compete with other commercial vendors.

Hearing the founders of Rahat, Tilli and Bookbot speak about open source, I realise that there’s still a fair way to go in making open source Bold, Accessible and Disruptive. But it’s a journey that I’m excited about.

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