Surviving initial project funding

We’ve often claimed that opening up development of a project can help in its long term sustainability. By allowing new funders and participants to take an active role, even leadership, in a project it is possible to survive the natural coming and going of project participants.

Today I added the following update to the OSS Watch sustainability case study on Apache Cocoon:

Activity on the project has slowed considerably since its heyday. However, development continues despite the departure of a significant number of community leaders. It can therefore be argued that Cocoon validates the community model of software development as described in this document.
Whilst Apache Cocoon is considered to have changed computing it is not necessary to have such a profile in order to take advantage of sustainability through openness. Even niche projects from the academic sector can be valuable case studies. For example, lets consider the JISC TechDis Toolbar.

Steve Lee, our accessibility expert, has been working with a team at the University of Southampton to open up a cross browser ToolBar designed to help make the web more accessible. It’s a great project that allows users to control the way a page is displayed, invoke a text to speech reader, spell check editable content, look up dictionary definitions and extract reference information (amongst other things). Although the tool is an accessibility tool many of its features are of much more general use, Lifehacker said the work brought “something long overdue for web users.”

Steve helped the team open source the project and tried to work with TechDis to explain the benefits of collaborative development, in particular the ability to spread the cost (and risk) of development across multiple partners. Steve spoke about this with the H Online at our TransferSummit back in June:

Lee told The H that the tool, developed as an open collaboration between JISC TechDis and University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science, was created to replace a previous toolbar … Lee said the open development process … has allowed the project to be more sustainable.

With the support of both TechDis and Southampton the ToolBar has been getting plenty of attention and use. Nobody can call it perfect but it is certainly useful. Furthermore, since it is open source others can help improve it.

Despite the success of the ToolBar in terms of raw use figures Sal Cooke, Director of Techdis, recently announced the demise of the ToolBar. She said that TechDis were “delighted by the response and the positive feedback we’ve had from users” and that the “number of downloads has surpassed all expectations.” So why kill the project?

Sal goes on to say “many of you will be aware that we [TechDis] have undertaken a major overhaul of our own website, with a commitment to embedding within it, a set of new accessibility tools.” Here Sal appears to be saying that TechDis no longer has a need for the ToolBar in addressing the accessibility needs of their own site users. Sal goes on to say, “in view of the above and the current economic climate, we have taken the decision to discontinue further development of the JISC TechDis Toolbar in favour of channelling resources into areas where we can make the most impact.”

On the surface this looks just fine, Techdis have not invested beyond the initial pilot funding and if TechDis have an alternative solution available to them then why should they pay again to support the ToolBar?

However, for me this misses one of the most important advantages of this work. As an open source project it is not just useful for TechDis, it is useful for every web user and every website developer.

So what about the rest of us? How can we address the accessibility needs that the toolbar tackled?

Fortunately, for us, the ToolBar has never been an in-house TechDis development, despite what TechDis may think. It is an open source development managed by the University of Southampton, Dr. Mike Wald followed Sal’s mail saying:

Although the toolbar was initially funded by Techdis and we provided a ‘Techdis badged version’ for them, the toolbar is an Open Source Project and my team at Southampton University are continuing to develop it …

The point here is that whilst TechDis (rightly) considered the TechDis branded version of the software as their own, the project is an open source one and can therefore be modified and distributed by anyone. To date all of the “quarter of a million uses of the toolbar” have carried the TechDis logo in recognition of their support of the project, but the future of the project is not dependent on TechDis.

OSS Watch are working with the Southampton team on a number of initiatives and we are pleased to report that we have been asked to help ensure the ToolBar continues to survive. I’m certain that it will and can only repeat Steve’s words from June:

they [Southampton ECS] are undoubtedly a group to watch as they steadily increase their portfolio of widely applicable open accessibility projects

Take a look at this great accessibility project and help the Southampton team by reporting any bugs you find, suggesting new features or even contributing code. The ToolBar will live on under a different name (to be decided ).