The Knight Foundation News Challenge, Open Source, and the Future of Hyperlocal
(Quick Update 10/11/09 – see Zachary Seeward’s post about how the Knight Foundation is considering changing the terms of grants in the future, as well as Patrick Thornton’s piece on how the Foundation is assembling a team to continue working on the code base produced by the Everyblock team).
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, among many other philanthropic initiatives in culture, community, and journalism generally, has been running the Knight News Challenge since 2007. Its basically a grant competition, in which various digital journalism initiatives compete for a pool of grants amounting to $25 million total over five years.
One aspect which makes the Knight News Challenge unique – other than the size of the grant pool – is that the winning grantees are required to:
1. Use digital, open-source technology.
2. Distribute news in the public interest.
3. Test your project in a local community.
It looks like a fantastic strategy: encourage innovation, provide funding without forcing the grantees into short-term, must-build-immediate-ROI type thinking, and share the results with the broader community through open source.
Two recent successful projects from Knight Foundation grantees – EveryBlock and Village Soup (which I’ve written about before in this blog), however, suggest there might be some gaps in the Foundation’s overall plan.
The core of the issue is this question: once the Knight Foundation funding is expended, what happens to the open source project the grant process mandates?
Do the creators truly create, engage with, and sustain an open source community around the code they release, contributing to and supporting the open source version, or do they “take it private”, leaving the open source seed to either take root and grow (or wither) on its own?
First, Village Soup. When I wrote about them back in May, it was unclear what exactly would be released and in fact whether or not they were compliant with the terms of the grant:
As one of the commentators on [founder Richard M.] Anderson’s recent blog entry on making hyperlocal pay pointed out, however, that doesn’t seem likely to be what the Knight Foundation expected when it funded creation of an open source project. Perhaps we’ll hear more as the end of the grant period (June 2009) approaches?
Anderson himself later commented on that same post, clarifying:
In accordance with the terms of our Knight Foundation News Challenge Grant, we are using the funds to create an open source version of VillageSoup’s software, which combines blogs, citizen journalism, online advertising and reverse publishing from online to print. The Knight Foundation will sublicense the open source publishing system software to third parties under the GPL and Creative Commons License.
In fact, that code is now available from this google code project: vsce (Village Soup Community Edition). It’s GPL (v2) licensed, with content (the user manual?) available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.
There’s a 1.0.0 release, dated July 15, 2009, as well as a 63-page user manual which covers installation, configuration, and operation of sites based on the platform. The platform components are pretty standard in the open source world: Java (specifically Java Server Faces), JBoss Application Server, JBoss Seam, Hibernate, MySQL, Maven, and JQuery.
What’s missing, though, is any real sense of an open source community around the platform. Issues? none. Wiki pages? none. There’s only one check-in to the subversion code repository, with no changes since then. The only “person” attached to the project at Google Code, and also the project owner, is identified as “helpd…@villagesoup.com” (no great imagination necessary to suggest that this parses to firstname.lastname@example.org).
In other words, an open source project has been released, to comply with the terms of the Knight Foundation grant, but is it an open source project likely to succeed?
There’s nothing in GPL v2 nor in the Knight grant itself, so far as I can tell, that would prevent (or even, for that matter, strongly discourage) VillageSoup® from continuing to iterate on, improve, develop, and maintain the Enterprise (hosted) version, Village Soup Common, without contributing those fixes to the open source community edition, and simply let the VSCE project wither on the vine.
EveryBlock, another Knight Foundation News Challenge grant recipient, has received considerably more press coverage (the acquisition of EveryBlock by MSNBC this week was covered by the AP and the NYT) but is potentially in a similar situation: there is an open source project release, in accordance with the terms of the grant, but will it be sustained long term?
A few pointers to other blog posts laying out some of the issues:
- EveryBlock.com Sale Shows Impact of Knight-Funded Media Innovation
- The Trouble with Taking Charity
- Is this legal? Is it ethical?
- The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNBC
- In Detail: The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNBC
- Interview: MSNBC.com Likely Will Add EveryBlock Feeds To Its Local Section in ‘Next Few Months’
The emerging consensus seems to be that EveryBlock has fulfilled its obligation to the Knight Foundation, releasing the project under the GPL (v3 in their case) at the end of the grant period. It also seems clear that neither the GPL itself nor the Knight Foundation grant will require that MSNBC continue to make its changes to the project available as open source.
So MSNBC could continue to improve the code, starting from the GPL code base, without releasing those improvements to the open source project. Since whatever platform they offer will almost certainly be a web service, they will not be distributing the modifications and can keep them private.
But here’s the rub: so can anyone else. I could also take the GPL’d EveryBlock platform, improve upon it by adding additional features, and run a hyperlocal site for Salem MA, without being obligated to redistribute my version. That’s how the GPL works.
What, precisely, did MSBC buy, then? Presumably, the people involved in the project, the name and domain, and perhaps the existing data (it isn’t clear to me what license the data itself is under).
Will MSNBC take EveryBlock private, or will they learn to value the benefit of working with an open source project, and sustain a real community around the codebase?
I was initially more optimistic about EveryBlock, since the ebcode site has some activity: code updates, individuals named as owners, a mailing list). ebcode is also built on top of Django and Python, which will connect them more clearly to other communities of open source developers working on journalism. But in the paidContent interview EveryBlock founder Adrian Holovaty reportedly said:
others will only have access to the code as it existed on June 30—when it was initially released—meaning MSNBC.com will likely have an edge over any competitors. “What happens after that we’re not obligated to make that open source,” Holovaty says, adding that so far only a handful of sites have actually adopted the code.
He goes on to say, in the same interview:
The Knight Foundation funded EveryBlock via its Knight News Challenge program but the foundation did not have equity in the startup. “Basically the grant was paying for development of the open source code and we fulfilled the obligation,” Holovaty says. Asked whether he was now considering returning some money to the group, Holovaty says he is “planning on pointing everyone I know to the News Challenge. That’s what they’ve asked me to do.”
This doesn’t bode well for the long term future of an open source project derived from that code.
What does this trend (if two can be called a trend) begin to suggest a flaw in the News Challenge approach?
If the grantees are required to release an open source version of the code written during the grant period (and maybe only the subset of the code specifically funded by the grant money), but have no real investment in the community model, and no real open source community of contributors around that core, is there any real benefit?
One could argue that if these platforms prove valuable enough, the GPL’d core that comes out of the grant period could be taken by a community and “forked” to create a real vibrant open source project around them – but generally code dumps (significant sets of code that were created by others and then thrown over the wall into an open source community) lead to less successful open source projects than those which actually develop organically from the beginning. It’s difficult to find a group of developers interested in making a community around existing source code – you’re more likely to find a community of developers willing to contribute to creating a code base.
Put differently, communities are great at creating (and maintaining, supporting, extending) code: code is not great at creating communities.
Should the Knight Foundation, and the News Challenge in particular, be doing something else to encourage or require real communities to form around the open source projects? It’s difficult, even with the purest intentions, to ensure that a real community will evolve around any open source project – though getting the community involved throughout might go a long way in that direction. How would open source developers contributing to the effort but not partaking in the grant funding feel?
On the other hand, is this a case where everything is actually working as it should be? If communities evolve around the open source projects that’s great, and if they don’t then perhaps there was no need to release the open source version, but there was no harm in doing so either.