An Open Source Grant with a Difference

I’m pleased to announce that the first Engine Yard community grant for 2014 will be a $10,000 investment paid directly to open source developers. I am also pleased to announce that to achieve this, we have decided to use Gittip.

Philanthropy for the 21st Century

Engine Yard has given over $5.5 million to the open source community in the past six years. This has mostly taken the form of employing people to work on critical open source projects full time, or via grants, and we continue to engage in this form of support. But this year, we set a further goal for ourselves: to investigate, and use, exciting new methods to help the community.

Gittip is a relatively young, open company that uses a range of experimental ideas to give financial support to individuals. We examined these ideas, and found several reasons why Gittip was a great match for Engine Yard’s community goals for the year:

  1. We want to give the members of our team individual choice and power over who gets what funding. Instead of going through a complex approvals process for large grants, the Gittip model allows our team to distribute smaller grants with greater flexibility. We put the trust and power in the hands of our team, and they directly reward the people who inspire them.

  2. Open source contributors already produce professional quality software. We want to help these individuals become recognised professionals for their work, under their workflow, and under their rules. We are putting our money where the talent is, and honouring high quality work with a reward that will help people to continue to produce such work in a sustainable way.

  3. We believe the Gittip model is beneficial in ways that other crowdsourcing platforms are not. It is designed, for example, to pool a large number of micro-contributions into a single, sustainable revenue stream, effectively hedging a person’s income. This reduces uncertainty in future funding levels. Contributions are also anonymous, which helps to reduce the pressure on beneficiaries of being expected to "perform" for a traditional overt patron.

Reaching the Overlooked

The open source community, and open source software, is the rootstock of many of the world’s leading technology companies. And if you don’t take care of your rootstock, your business will suffer. So what’s the best way to go about taking care?

Well, time and talent are valuable resources, but money can never be overlooked as an ingredient to sustained success. The Apollo program that put man on the moon required not just many years, leading technical excellence, and political will, but also an unprecedented $24 billion of taxpayer money.

We feel, and are hearing that many open source contributors also feel, that money is still a missing ingredient in their work. It’s a missing ingredient partly because the importance of the open source community has been, and continues to be, overlooked by big business. We know that our $10k grant will reward specific, deserving developers. But we also aim, in the method that we chose, to change the mindset towards open source developers.

In the long term, we would especially like to focus on those people who are overlooked or marginalised. In addition to arguing that the community as a whole is overlooked, there are obviously many reasons why people within the community may be especially overlooked. Some people work very quietly, with little fanfare or advertisement of their work. Some people are working under difficult conditions, or are discriminated against, fighting disability or local social or environmental conditions that make it hard for them to receive recognition. In some cases, they may even lack the spare time or resources to contribute in the first place!

For every developer, there is a story. We recognise that there are no easy answers to these problems. But we also recognise that we should do our best to help those who need help the most.

The Science Bit

One of the attractions of Gittip is that it is built by well known open source contributor Chad Whitacre. It has been designed well, and as such, we found it easy to automate. However, at the moment Gittip does not have a way to manage teams of benefactors. The issue has been reported, and hopefully the functionality will arrive soon.

Despite this, and in the meantime, we built a tool for internal use called gittip-collab. We’re open sourcing and releasing this tool today, as part of this announcement. Our code was inspired by the gittip-gdoc tool that John Resig wrote for The Khan Academy.

The main difference between gittip-gdoc and gittip-collab is that the latter keeps its configuration in a local file called config.yaml which can be maintained under version control in Git. In this file, you specify a maximum weekly tip. This max weekly tip is then divided equally between every team member that you add to the file. Each team member can then allocate their tip to whomever they like.

The $10,000 budget we allocated at the start of the year has been spread across the number of weeks remaining in the year. The result was set as our maximum weekly tip, which should be close to whatever is displayed on our Gittip account right now.

Because we’re publishing the tool so that you can use it, we’ve decided to keep our configuration repository private. We’re doing this because we want to honour the Gittip model of anonymity, which we have found many Gittip users consider a benefit.

Be Inspired, and Go Inspire

Gittip is not only about companies donating to the community. The Drupal community, for example, managed to raise enough funds for Drupal Core developer Alex Pott to work full time on the project. Of course we strongly hope that if you are able to influence the spending at your company, you will make the case to management. But the open source community is in dire need of the support of you, individually, and all of the people in your network.

We believe that Gittip is presently a great way to achieve this support. So if you don’t have an account, you should sign up! Pick one or two people whose work matters to you, or who inspire you, and send them a tip.

Your contribution could be as little as a $0.01. The entire platform is built around the idea that lots and lots of very small contributions can build up into something huge.

From humble ideas can grow great movements. Gittip is a world of crowdsourcing, micro-transactions, distributed action, and new ideas about generosity for the digital generation. We don’t know how these ideas will develop, but we are excited by the prospects. Engine Yard is happy to be a part of it, and so should you! Get involved today.

About Noah Slater

Noah Slater is a Briton in Berlin who’s been involved with open source since 1999. They’ve contributed to Debian, GNU, and the Free Software Foundation. They currently serve as a member of the Apache Software Foundation. Their principal project is Apache CouchDB, the document database that kicked off the NoSQL movement. They also help out in the Apache Incubator, where they mentor new projects in the ways of community and open source.