Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

How to Explain Open Source to Your Grandparents

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I imagine I’m not alone in having parents and grandparents who don’t really understand what I do for a living. “I work in computing and do stuff with maps” is the easy approach (in fact it’s easier now that I don’t have to tag on the bit about being an archaeologist but not actually digging, and no it’s not like Time Team or Indiana Jones). Sometimes people ask why we don’t just “do everything with google maps”, which is the cue for a sit down and a longer chat about how (deep breath) you can’t do everything with google. So far, so good…

This all changed a couple of weeks ago, when, to my surprise I got elected to the Board of Directors of OSGeo. Cue shock, and great rejoicing (and in my head at least, tearful Oscars-style acceptance speeches). Mr Archaeogeek thinks this is cool enough to tell parents, grandparents, family friends etc. I do too, don’t get me wrong, but…

How to explain what it means to people who don’t use computers all that much, let alone know about gis, or open source or OSGeo?

There have been a few good articles on how to explain why you work in open source (the “how do you make money?” argument), but I feel like I need to go further back and explain about software licensing. I don’t think that most people really understand the difference between the way software is sold/licensed, and most other products, so I’m working on a car analogy that explains why open source software needs to exist. It goes something like:

“Can you imagine, that if you brought a car, and something went wrong with it, you couldn’t lift up the bonnet and take a look? Or if you did need to take it to a garage you had to use the one the car salesman told you to use? Or after 2 years they told you that they wouldn’t support your old car any longer, and you had to buy a new one? Or you couldn’t insure more than one person to drive it, but had to buy a new car for each person? Well that’s sort of what closed-source software is like”

(Note this is an analogy-in-progress)

Once that’s out of the way, then I can get on to gis, and hence to OSGeo, and all is fine!

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