The Institutional Design of Open Source Programming: Implications for Addressing Complex Public Policy and Management Problems

Charles Schweik


Recently, an exciting approach to solving complex problems has evolved out of computer science, called Open Source programming. In open source software development settings, programmers freely share their intellectual property ? their readable programming source code ? over the Internet. Some open source endeavors have resulted in very complex, high-quality software products, of which the best-known are the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server. A great advantage of an Internet-based open source approach is its potential to achieve global collective action toward developing robust solutions to complex programming problems. This paper argues that open source has potential application beyond computer programming. Open source principles could potentially be applied to almost any intellectual endeavor, and may be a very important innovation toward harnessing global collaboration toward solving complex public policy and management problems.

Little research has been published outlining the details of how successful open source programming endeavors are achieved, such as how projects are initiated and organized over time, what rules for participation have been established, and how the methods for maintaining versions of new submissions have been managed. The institutional designs and management of open source projects could be critical for ensuring participants' willingness to collaborate and for recruiting new team members. This paper and the research program it describes, attempts to address this gap. It provides a summary of the "life cycle" of open source programming projects based on existing literature that is largely focused on high-profile open source projects like Linux and Apache Web Server. It then provides interim results from an on-going study of the institutional designs of open source programming projects. It concludes by presenting some examples of non-programming projects that are beginning to apply open source or licensing principles in areas outside of programming and by presenting an example of how these principles might be applied to complex problems beyond programming in the realm of environmental policy and management.

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