Jul/Aug 2008

What is "Open" and Why is It So Important for Nonprofits?

by Michelle Murrain, MetaCentric Technology Advising, and Nonprofit Open Source Initiative

There is a lot of discussion these days about "openness" in the nonprofit software world. So much so that in some ways, it is now a buzzword. As such, it's becoming increasingly important to understand what's behind the buzz. What exactly does "open" mean?

There are two different ways that software can be open — Open Source, and open data access. Looking for software that is open in one or both of these ways can make a huge difference to system integration, and can also lower your costs, and increase the flexibility and expandability of the systems you implement.

In the world of Web 2.0, we are moving away from the "one-stop shop" approach to software, where one vendor handles everything, and moving toward a scenario where the many parts are loosely joined. The latter approach allows you to put together the best in breed for each function you have, and integrate them. But that's only possible if they are open.

Open Source

First, there is Open Source — software in which the source code is freely available, so you can understand how it works, and modify it. Generally, the software itself is available at no cost. For instance, Firefox, the very popular Web browser, is Open Source software. You can download it for free, and because it is Open Source, people can write plug-ins and accessories for it, which further enhances its functionality. Drupal is an Open Source CMS (Content Management System), which is freely available to download and install on your own Web server.

Most nonprofits can't take advantage of the fact that the source code is open — primarily because they don't have resident programmers to customize code. But the fact that software is Open Source means that there are no license fees, which reduces the up-front cost, and that as other people improve and add to the software, everyone benefits. Also, Open Source alternatives (like Firefox) are now known to be better than their proprietary alternatives. And the flexibility that Open Source software offers can be very useful during the implementation process.

Of course, Open Source software is still relatively new, and so, there are still situations in which it may not completely fit the bill for every nonprofit need. But every day, there are more and more options available.

Open Data Access

The second kind of "openness" is open access to data. Usually, this takes the form of what are called Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). APIs can be thought of as "doors" through which data can flow. This process is incredibly important when it comes to integrating software — how do you get one package to talk to another?

What makes a door open? An API is defined as open if:

  • it is free to access (no additional fees are required to access your data); and
  • it is well documented (so it is as easy as possible to implement).

However, the width of the door can vary. Some APIs allow almost all kinds of actions (get/put/change/delete) with almost any data (e.g., tables and fields), whereas other APIs are more limiting. Of course, the wider the door, the better, but access to an open door is most important.

Some software has a tiny, one-way door that, with a lot of work, will allow export or import via text files. Other software has locks on its doors, and requires hefty fees to unlock. Avoid the latter kind of software because it makes it difficult to integrate those systems with others, and hard to migrate data, if you want to make a change at a later date.

By definition, Open Source software has APIs that are free to access — but whether or not the APIs have been written or documented depends on the maturity of the software. However, because of the nature of the software, it is always possible to have these written (and documented). And, truth be told, most Open Source software that is relatively mature has a wide range of well documented APIs.

An Open World

The good news: "open" is becoming the standard, the doors of nonprofit software are being flung wide open at an unprecedented pace, and Open Source software is being rapidly developed. And the more that nonprofit decision makers insist on open software, the more prevalent it will become.

Michelle Murrain, Ph.D., has worked with nonprofit organizations on technology issues, particularly Internet technologies, since 1994, and is a nationally recognized leader in the nonprofit technology field. She is principal of MetaCentric Technology Advising, a technology consulting practice focused on helping nonprofits implement technology sustainably. She is also on the steering committee of the Non Profit Open Source Initiative, and on the board of NTEN. She blogs on nonprofit technology at Zen and the Art of Nonprofit Technology (www.zenofnptech.org).

What is "Open" and Why is It So Important for Nonprofits? | Convio