The Unsung Heroes of Open Source

January 3, 2011

For many of us, the holiday season is a time to look back and savor meaningful experiences, and to look forward to the coming year. I also find it important to recognize the many people and organizations who enrich our lives. One group in particular stands out for me this year, those quiet participants who often go unrecognized, and yet make significant contributions to the open source world. The people and organizations that I have in mind include government program managers and their associated institutions, research laboratories, technology advocates, academics, universities, scientists/engineers, and business leaders and their associated firms who make major bets on open source by putting their money on the line, staking personal reputations, and making the extra effort that benefit our communities. In the following I touch on just a few of the many contributors (I apologize for omissions); I have purposely left out people’s names because I don’t want to hurt feelings and this blog is not long enough to include everybody.

Here’s a perfect example of our heroes in action: I am speaking of the many invisible firms who are *not* openly advocating the Way of the Source as an adopted business model, in fact they may be as entrenched in traditional capitalistic models as you can imagine. They are invisible for a variety of business reasons and typically ask that their name not be disclosed publicly. These include medical/dental device manufacturers, oil and gas companies, security firms, and engineering concerns. What is amazing and gratifying to me is that these companies fund much open source work without asking for any direct recognition (BTW these projects have run into the millions of dollars so they are Big Deals). Yes, often they hold back proprietary code, and especially data, but a fair amount of good stuff ends up in VTK, ITK, ParaView, CMake or other open source systems. And this of course is done with the full support of these commercial entities because they understand the costs of long-term software maintenance, and know that the open source community can help mitigate these costs. But nonetheless, their contributions benefit many of us.

Other outstanding examples can be found in a variety of research organizations such as the US National Labs, NIH, DOE, Army Corps of Engineers Research and Development Center, Defense DoD research labs and agencies, non-profit and even international research labs. To cite just a few concrete examples, ITK is due in large part to the funding by the National Library of Medicine at NIH; ParaView (and VTK many supercomputing extensions) to LANL, ARL, Sandia; VTK Informatics/TITAN is due to Sandia; CMake/CTest/CDash/CPack to NLM/NIH; IGSTK, CTK and Slicer are supported by NIH; and the list goes on and on. In particular many people are surprised to hear that the NIH has been a significant supporter of CMake, a software productivity tool! But the bottom line is that if you are going to build sophisticated medical image analysis systems, you have to have the right software build chain to get the job done. Beyond direct support of tools like these, many of these agencies and their program managers are actively pushing open source tools, open data, and open science initiatives, even to the extent that their formal request for proposals mandate open access in a variety of ways. This goes a long way to promote open source, and behind the scenes energizes many valuable software tools.

While we often think of academics (faculty, staff and students) as direct technical contributors to the open source code base, many academics also play a strong, generally unappreciated leadership role in obtaining funding and guiding the development of many projects. For example the NIH NA-MIC (National Alliance of Medical Image Computing National Center of Biomedical Computing is a consortium of academic and commercial entities. This large, ten-year effort not only benefits from the guidance of individuals at various institutions including the Surgical Planning Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the University of North Carolina, the University of Utah, MIT, Georgia Tech, UCLA, UCSD, and WUSTL, it also is channeling millions of dollars of support (with the NIH the ultimate sponsor) into a variety of OS systems. As a result, tools like Slicer, VTK, ITK, CMake, MIDAS, and many more all benefit from the NA-MIC leadership. Similarly, many of our research partners, say with the FARSIGHT microscopy project or the Harvard Connectome project (SSECRETT), are also directing significant funding to get work done with open source tools. Meaning of course improving, maintaining, and integrating them and benefiting the broader community.

And let’s not forget the educators who make a significant impact on future OSers. While Kitware co-teaches an Open Source Software Practice Course at RPI, cynics might say that it’s just a way to recruit (yes that’s partly true :-)). However other academic groups, and even high-school teachers, devote considerable effort to open source education because enlightened researchers and educators understand the need to practice Open Science, meaning complete transparency in methods, data and education, including the essential need to encourage student tinkering to learn and grow in their understanding of technology. We have seen the results of these efforts manifested in outstanding graduates, some of whom we have hired.

As you can tell, the lists above are abbreviated due to space and I wish I could go on for the ten pages required to give everyone reasonable credit. The point I am trying to make is that it is not just the heroic programmers, technologists, and companies we all recognize as the movers and shakers in the open source world. What is often forgotten are the unsung heroes who help fund, support, advocate, educate and promote the Way of the Source. These individuals have made a significant difference to me, Kitware, our respective countries, and the world, and for them in this holiday season I say “Thank You.”

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