Posts from SIGCSE: Humanitarian FOSS project

Posted on March 14, 2008


Ralph Morelli from Trinity College is leading a workshop at SIGCSE called “Teaching and Building Humanitarian Open Source Software” (with others including Heidi Elias and Janardham Iyengar).   This is an exciting move towards computing for sustainability.

Humanitarian-FOSS is software that benefits humanity in some way. They use the word humanitarian in the broadest sense, so that a humanitarian organization is any non-profit organization engaged in work that benefits society or humanity on a local, regional, national, or international scale.

They describe the project as

inspired by a software-development version of the Habitat for Humanity model. Instead of building houses, computing students and faculty build software systems that benefit humanity.

They argue that

by engaging students and faculty from participating schools in summer institutes, credit courses, spring-break community-help projects, and an academic curriculum workshop, the project will develop a portable and sustainable educational model that attracts socially engaged students to the computing discipline, bridges the divide between town and gown, and builds truly useful humanitarian software.

They are stressing the importance of real world projects – as always, frustrating when CS people think they’ve invented the wheel.

Eventually they give the example of Sahana. This is an open source disaster management system. This is in actual use, recently deployed in Peru earthquake, the real use of the projects is indeed compelling for students. Their students have developed several modules for Sahana.

Someone has asked about how the system is supported. Not a good answer I’m afraid: it appears the faculty will jump up and fix it. Eventually Norman saves by recognising that other students will have to fix it – this has learning benefits of documentation etc.

They suggest that other institutions take on building Sahana modules. Here’s an introduction to the codebase.

I’m not sure the group has really teased out the three aspects of this: real world capstone project, humanitarian project, and open source project. Too much of what they talked about was the benefits of a real world capstone project. I’d like to see them unpack this a lot more. The question of maintainance kept coming up, and I don’t think they have a coherent answer.

In all though, very good work indeed.

Workshop notes, Wiki.