Open source community should embrace the spirit of ubuntu

Open source is about harnessing the power of community so we can collaborate and work together towards a collective goal.
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Nhlanhla Lucky Nkosi, software engineer at BBD
Nhlanhla Lucky Nkosi, software engineer at BBD

The open source philosophy, which closely resembles the African concept of ubuntu, could play a key role in shaping sustainable solutions to many of SA’s, and Africa’s, most pressing problems.

That’s what Nhlanhla Lucky Nkosi (26), a software engineer at BBD, a South African grown international custom software development house, told delegates at LinuxConf [ZA] 2019. The Linux and open source conference was hosted in SA as part of Open Source Week last week.

In an interview with ITWeb at the conference, Nkosi pointed out that although open source was about community, “we are not using it as community”.

“There is increasing uncertainty in almost every sphere of life, from climate change, overpopulation, migration and politics to health and food security. Technology can provide solutions to these problems, but our technological advances should focus on beyond just doing new things to also doing things more efficiently. This includes using less electricity, connecting things that were previously inconceivable to connect, and most importantly, looking at new ways to approach and solve problems,” he said.

The word 'ubuntu' loosely translates to “I am because we are”. This, Nkosi asserted, was essentially the premise of open source software, which was about harnessing the collective power of the community.

One of the problems in SA's IT communities was that problems were still approached with a Western mindset which had the individual at its core. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but when faced with the types of overwhelming problems we face in Africa, we need to shift our mindset,” he said.

He pointed out that the concept of community was not alien to local software development circles. There were many micro-communities which got together to discuss and engage on issues, as well as share information about job opportunities and so on. However, there was a disconnect between these micro-communities, as well as between them and the rest of society.

“We need to break down these barriers and start collaborating with people outside our own space. The tech industry operates across many different spheres, but it operates in silos. If we can collaborate and work together towards a collective goal, we could achieve a great deal,” Nkosi said.

Acknowledging that many sceptics would dismiss this as youthful, idealistic pie-in-the-sky, Nkosi insisted that there were already structures in place that would allow for meaningful and purposeful community collaboration.

“We often have hackathons where developers get together for 48 or 72 hours and build something based on a predetermined theme. And then we throw away what we’ve created.

“However, there are many smaller organisations that need very basic software to drive their own development. Why can’t we use these hackathon-type spaces, which developers use to sharpen their skills and participate in competitions, for a sustainable purpose? Why can’t we use them to help struggling organisations that are doing great work but are highly underfunded?” he asked.

“This could be a starting point from which we, as the open source community, could embrace the spirit of ubuntu, of open source itself, and allow it to influence the software solutions we build. This is how we could start to shape every aspect of society for the better.”

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