Book Chapter 1: What is open source?

If you’re curious about open source, here is an excerpt describing what open source is in plain English from The Foundation for an Open Source City, a book that explores the five elements of an open source city. If you missed the introduction, be sure to check that out too. There is also a great resource on that answers What is open source software?

Chapter 1: Defining an open source city

Before we define the elements of an open source city, it’s important to establish a baseline of knowledge. The concepts of open source, open government, and open data are new to many citizens. In order to make our government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative, we’ll need to start by exploring these definitions.

What is open source?

Most people are familiar with open source in the software context. The Open Source Initiative (OSI), a non-profit that maintains one definition of open source and a list of approved licenses, says that “open source doesn’t just mean access to the source code.” It then lists the criteria that open source software must adhere to.

Computer programs are generally written in a human-readable format called “source code.” But a computer can’t use the source code directly; instead, these instructions have to be converted to a form that the computer understands, typically a sequence of 0s and 1s or binary code. When you purchase a software program like Microsoft Office, Adobe Reader, or Photoshop, what you get on the disk or electronic download is the code in the format a computer understands.

Source code is “open source” when the source code must be made available to anyone who wants to look at it and modify it. This allows programmers and developers the opportunity to review how the program is written and make any desired modifications, repairs, or enhancements.

Alternatively, a computer program where the source code is not made available is called “proprietary” or “closed” source. Programmers and developers are unable to see how the program is written and unable to freely make modifications, repairs, or enhancements. The owner or company who provided the program controls who has access and permission to modify the source.

A development model has formed around how open source software is created. Programmers from all over the world started to develop software by publicly providing their source code and collaborating with others who wanted to participate. The Internet made this type of collaboration easier and the open source development model became widely adopted.

For me, open source is more that just software development. It’s a philosophy, a culture, and a framework for how to work collaboratively. The elements that have helped to define a successful development model—transparency, collaboration, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and participation—are being applied to our everyday lives. Throughout the book, I’ll refer to this concept as “the open source way.”

One analogy that resonates with people unfamiliar with open source is to compare it to a recipe. When you think about it, a recipe is just a list of ingredients and a set of instructions—in the software world, we call this source code. A recipe becomes open source when it’s shared, modified, and improved.

Let’s say your friend gives you a chocolate chip cookie recipe (sharing). You try out the recipe and like the cookies. But you really like chocolate chips and decide to double the amount of morsels when you make the next batch of cookies (modification). After cooking the new batch, you like the cookies so much that you share your updated recipe with other friends. Now, we have a recipe for double chocolate chip cookies (improvement).

Because the recipe is essentially open source, we are free to modify the source code (ingredients and instructions) to fit our needs and desires. This is why open source software has become so popular. It’s the freedom to modify and improve software and give it back so that others can continue to improve it. And this constant improvement is what has lead to so many innovations in the software industry and beyond.

Adapted from The foundation for an open source city, © 2013 Jason Hibbets, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license, available at

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