Open Source Hardware Communities

At Open Source Junction 4 I took the opportunity to hold a discussion on open source hardware (OSH) communities, the barriers to community engagement, and whether UK academia needs a service like OSS Watch to support OSH projects.  This post is a summary of those discussions.

Tools

When producing an OSH artefact, there’s going to be some physical work involved.  Depending on the kind of device being produced, there may be specialist tools and processes required.

While the internals of many electronic devices can be assembled with little more than a soldering kit and a readily available box of tools, other projects may require plastic moulding equipment, 3D printers, lathes, laser cutters, or any number of specialist machines.  To enthusiasts without these tools readily available, this creates a barrier to engagement with the project.

Hackspaces offer one solution to this, as they can provide a place for specialist equipment to be shared between members.  However, tools must be looked after and maintained for this to be a viable solution – access to a broken 3D printer is of little use.

To ensure that availability of tools doesn’t become a barrier, a project should try and keep the need for specialist processes to a minimum in the manufacture of their product.  Where such a process is required, a project could find someone to perform the process and supply the resulting component to potential contributors, removing the requirement for everyone to have access to the tools.

Geography

Again due to the physical nature of OSH artefacts, the geographic diversity of a community can be another barrier to engagement.  A group may have a hard time collaborating on a device if they aren’t in the same place to interact with it.

While OSS avoids some of this issue with the ability to copy and distribute code over the Internet, there’s still an advantage to real-time contact with other community members.

Video conferencing through a medium such as Skype or Google+ Hangouts can help provide the real-time interaction and allow discussions over a physical object.  OSH communities can take advantage of these tools to share their work with each other, even if they can’t meet in person.

Local interest groups also play a part in solving the problem of geography.  As we’ve seen with Linux User Groups providing a place for local OSS enthusiasts to meet up and interact, there’s now an OSH User Group (OSHUG) in the UK.  The formation of local user groups would give OSH enthusiasts a place to meet each other, share ideas, and collaborate on projects.

Knowledge

When developing a project in the OSH space, the knowledge barrier can be problematic.  Knowing where to source components of the desired quantity, quality, and at an affordable price can be challenging to newcomers or even to established members of the community working on a new project.

As you scale up your project and perhaps turn it in to a business, new knowledge may be needed which may be completely out of scope for the hardware hacker who started with a weekend hobby.

For example, finding the cheapest manufacturer in China may appear to be a cost-effective way of manufacturing a component, but this may come at the expense of quality, and low quality components can lead to wastage.  Having components produced locally may incur a higher unit cost, but tighter quality control could lead to reduced wastage and savings in the long run.  The knowledge of these facts and which suppliers provide best value is represents an important piece of information to the OSH community.

The key to avoiding lack of knowledge becoming a barrier to participation is as simple as sharing knowledge as its learned.  A wiki of suppliers, public archives of mailing lists or Q&A, a reading list of useful publications, could all go towards solving this problem.

The tricky part is finding a place for this knowledge base to live. Again, user groups could hold the solution to this problem.

Leadership

The Free and Open Source Software community has 2 figurehead organisations to champion its cause.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) promotes free software as a means of supporting and protecting computer user freedom. The Open Source Initiative (OSI) operates like a trade body to promote the use of benefits of open source software to developers and users.

There are currently a number of organisations (OHANDA, OSHWA, OHR) that attempt to provide a similar function in the hardware space, although they are not currently as mature in this regard as their software equivalents.  There are competing definitions of what OSH is or should be, as well as a question over whether we need an equivalent of copyleft licensing for hardware, and if this is even possible.

Without recognised people and organisations promoting a vision for OSH, the community lacks a common goal, which could be a barrier to attracting new participants.

OSH Watch?

OSS Watch was formed to provide funders with a service to support the use and production of OSS in UK education.  Part of the motivation for this was public opinion that publicly-funded software should benefit everyone, by being released under an open source license.

Lacking the focused leadership mentioned above and a clear definition of OSH, public pressure for hardware produced by publicly-funded projects to be open source is unlikely to be forthcoming.  This suggests that the requirement for an OSS Watch-like service for OSH is unlikely to emerge in the short term.

OSS watch would like to thank all attendees of Open Source Junction 4 for participating in these discussions.

3 thoughts on “Open Source Hardware Communities

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