Open-source tools open democracy's doors
According to a Vancouver Web guru, "You can't build a free and open society using proprietary software."
For years, that guru, Scott Nelson, has made a living using and promoting "open source" technology. He has also paired the knowledge he has acquired with a strong desire to promote social change and the greater good. Earlier this month, Nelson helped relaunch the Web site of the Coalition of Progressive Electors ( www.cope.bc.ca/ ), built using Drupal, a free, Web-based content-management system.
For the benefit of the technologically timid, Nelson explained to the Georgia Straight that the open-source concept means freeing up the source code that is normally kept under lock and key by corporations.
"Drupal is a very democratizing tool, both in the way it is structured and organized as a project, and in the focus that has tended to go into the development of it," Nelson said.
Nelson said Drupal started when a Belgian named Dries Buytaert was looking at developing an on-line bulletin-board-style system for the co-op he was living in, one that would enable people to exchange messages. Buytaert, then a university student, still maintains a Web site at buytaert.net/ and, according to Nelson, released the Drupal codebase under a GNU licence, meaning it conforms to open source.
"Vancouver is one of the premier Drupal centres, in terms of development and in terms of support in the community for the content-management system," Nelson said. "There are whole companies that are built around Drupal and supporting Drupal, such as Bryght and Raincity [Studios]. Social Signal has pretty much all of its stuff in Drupal."
Geoff Burke, Web manager at the Straight , confirmed that Drupal is in use with Straight.com, the Straight 's Web site, and that it has many obvious pluses as well as some drawbacks.
"It's open source, free to use and download, and you can give back to the community," Burke said. "The community as a whole works out the bugs. It is a 'framework' that does some specific things, but the modules mean that you can add or subtract things you do or don't want, and anyone, us, can write a module that can be used by us, but if someone else wants it they could give that back to the community."
Nelson pointed out that Drupal was used extensively during Howard Dean's "Dean for America" Democratic presidential-nomination campaign in 2004, and that this is where Drupal came to the fore as a political-campaign tool. "A lot of modules and extensions were added to it then that are specifically related to creating community and mobilizing people and informing people and helping people make decisions and stuff like that."
According to Straight Web programmer Mike Cantelon, Drupal is "like Lego for building an inter active Web site".
"It encourages people with all kinds of skill sets to get involved, rather than just hard-core geeks," Cantelon said. "There is a big community here. Activists used it a lot at the beginning, and they still do, but it is now being used by the megalithic companies."
Back in 2000, Nelson was part of Indymedia, an on-line activist community that formed around the independently shot footage of police violence at the November 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. Indymedia technology allowed the uploading of text, images, and video with no filters and little control of input. Soon other cities and countries developed their own Indymedia sites.
Speaking to journalism students earlier this year at the annual Canadian University Press conference in the West End, Nelson was asked for his thoughts on future trends in on-line content management.
"Open source, open source, open source," he replied.