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Season 1 · Episode 7

Open Source’s Impact in Academia with Open@RIT's Stephen Jacobs

From a 10-page white paper to creating one of the first University OSPOs - Stephen Jacobs will take us through the 12 years of work it took him to launch a program like Open@RIT. Join Stephen and Sam as they discuss the impact an OSPO has on students' futures, as well as a University's surrounding communities.

Published December 10th, 2020  |  24:14 Runtime

Episode Guest

Stephen Jacobs

Stephen Jacobs

Director at Open@RT

Episode Transcript

Stephen Jacobs:
People have to learn from each other's mistakes. And I guess my lucky position is to be one of the people that gets to make the mistakes first, that other people can learn from. Fail early, fail often, and learn from them and help other people learn from them is really important. And we all get better by being able to see what works and what doesn't work.

Sam Ramji:
I'm Sam Ramji. And this is Open Source Data. I'm here with Stephen Jacobs, a professor in the school of interactive games and media at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he's a professor in the School of Interactive Games and Media. 12 years ago, Stephen ran a course for students to develop educational games for the One Laptop per Child program also called OLPC. This was the tiny acorn that grew into the first minor in free and open source software and free-culture and FOSS @ MAGIC. Together, they're one of the largest and most comprehensive free and open source software university programs in the world. Recently, Stephen became the director of the new open programs office called Open@RIT, which is an initiative dedicated to supporting all kinds of open work. This new office aims to determine and grow the footprint of RIT's impact on all things open. Stephen, welcome and thank you for taking the time with us today.

Stephen Jacobs:
Thanks for the invite. I look forward to it.

Sam Ramji:
We've heard from a bunch of folks that we know love and respect about your work. And a couple of the folks that I've talked with most recently are Nithya Ruff, who is also the executive director of the Lynx Foundation. And Chris Aniszczyk, who's both the CTO for the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, and also one of the co-founders of the TODO Group which I think you have a link to as well. I'd love to hear a sense of who you're in relationship with and talk a little bit about the work that you're doing today.

Stephen Jacobs:
So probably about five years ago, I started going to OSCON with my students. We got a community table to talk about the work that RIT was doing. And that's where I met Nithya and got an invite from Chris a couple of years later, to present to the to do group to talk about what we're doing. So actually Nithya got her first set of degrees at the University of Rochester and I was able to bring her back to Rochester where she hadn't been in a bunch of years, to present to my students. So that was a lot of fun.

Sam Ramji:
That's really cool. That's really cool. So one of the things that we see in companies more and more often, and last time I spoke with Nithya at length was with her and with Stormy Peters and Chris DiBona, who are all OSPO leaders. Nithya at Comcast, Stormy at Microsoft, and Chris at Google. So it's increasingly common with companies, especially software companies, but RIT is one of the first universities to create an OSPO. So I'm very curious in how you'd summarize the 12 years of work that it took to get here.

Stephen Jacobs:
So the 12 years of work was all academic and started with the, Give One, Get One Program for One Laptop per Child, where I wanted my students to begin to make educational games for that community. For those who don't remember it, OLPC was an effort spearheaded by MIT to create a small, durable, open hardware, open software platform for the developing world. Not necessarily to teach computing, but if you have a one room school house, you don't have a science lab and a music room and a library and all those kinds of things that the computer could bring in addition to bringing programming. And that was my first engagement in the open source world.

Stephen Jacobs:
And my students really latched on to the ability to do open source work, the ability to do humanitarian work. And so we went from one course to two courses, and then we started doing hackathons and we started finding ways for them to get a full-time paid internships, either on their games or working with other NGOs. And then they asked for a miner, so we built a miner. And then we created this Libris core entity to formalize the practice of working with NGOs, to find students to work within their open source communities full-time for a semester. And that work we provided began as programming, technical support, and then evolved to being essentially open source community mentorship.

Sam Ramji:
That is really neat. The OLPC was almost like a space program. It was Nicholas Negroponte kind of saying, "What if we could get a laptop that was under a $100? We should be able to manufacture these and put them all over the world." Did some pretty groundbreaking hardware technology. Obviously to get the bill of materials down to be so cheap was hard, but they also were engineering this for a low power environment where you might not have consistent access to electricity. And certainly networking was a challenge. So one of the things I remember is that they had a system on chip, mesh wifi design, where only one computer in a fleet would need to actually have a firm connection to the internet and everything else could share it. So just amazingly cool technology.

Stephen Jacobs:
Yeah. The thing that I loved, portability, durability. It basically created the netbook market, because before then we just had the giant laptops. And people were like, "Why can't my laptop be that small?"

Sam Ramji:
And why can't it work if I drop it in the mud? All these things. We ended up seeing it at the Linux and Open Source Lab at Microsoft, which I was running at the time. Because there was a lot of interest in saying, "Hey, this is this amazing device and it's got this amazing mission. Can you get Windows on it?" And a lot of people just laughed, because they said that's way too small for Windows. The definition of a small footprint, Linux environments. But we did figure out how to get a tiny version of Windows on it, and understood what was happening in the driver layer. It was a very, very fun, challenging project.

Sam Ramji:
But you turned, like many companies that are for-profit, you turned commitment to open source engineering, into doing all of these other things that ended up being part of the profession of open source. And you've evolved to being an open source programs office. There's so much more than just the code. How do you govern it? How do you relate to it? How do you contribute to it? How do you bring new members on board? How do you manage the projects? So that's a kind of a breakthrough that you've created in an environment where most people are just focusing on, let's teach the kids computer science. This is all the stuff that the industry actually needs around computer science.

Stephen Jacobs:
Well, I'm not a computer scientist. I'm somebody whose educational background and training was in media. And so the collaborative piece and the community piece are what really spoke to me about open source, versus the technology. And that's what spoke to the students to a large extent. And everything else has been by accident. And the great thing about working with the university administration over the last year to have us create an OSPO at the administrative layer, is it now provides me the opportunity, I hope, to be able to mentor my peer faculty and the staff the same way we've been mentoring the students in these practices.

Sam Ramji:
That's really cool. And it seems like there's more general interest in openness at the university, too. I noticed that you left out source from the name, Open@RIT. So I'm sure there was some thoughtful intent in making that a larger tent, so to speak.

Stephen Jacobs:
Unlike Google or Facebook, which is primarily a software company, they eventually evolved into hardware and other things as well. At university, I have people doing open software, open hardware, they're doing digital humanities with open data and open mapping. They're doing open science, they're using creative commons licenses. And I didn't want to have a name that might have people look at it and say, "Oh, open source is software. I don't do software. I'm a hardware guy. Or I'm a media person. I do science." And then walk away from what we could offer.

Sam Ramji:
Yeah. It makes perfect sense. What do you think in making that tent bigger, what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding folks have around open source programs offices? Because you've ended up training a lot of folks. And of course, you've got the FOSS miner. So there's a lot of intellectual capital that you and your students and fellow teachers have built out here.

Stephen Jacobs:
Well, I think in academia broadly, the whole idea of an open source programs office is a new thing. Traditionally, IP has been handled through the tech transfer office. And a lot of universities have guidelines for faculty on how to use open source licenses or how to do the discovery to make sure that they're not infringing on anything. So it's all been handled kind of as it's own little, "Am I going to get a patent or not" corner of the university. Versus the broader picture. And so Johns Hopkins gets kudos for being the first university in July of 2019 to start going around OSCON and saying, "Hey, we've convinced our university to let us open an open source programs office.

Stephen Jacobs:
And me having talked to them about that, then several months later was able to go to my administration and say, "Here's a 10 page white paper on why we should do this. What do you think?" And they were receptive. They wanted to make sure there was buy-in across the university, which we were able to prove. And they wanted me to write a charter, which is on our website that anybody can see is what my marching orders are for the next few years. And then they set us up and let us run.

Sam Ramji:
Which is amazingly cool, because effectively you have open-sourced the OSPO. I was really struck by in your work is how it mirrors the change happening in large enterprises. I have the privilege of sitting on a few councils that determine sort of technical merit in promoting great individual achievement. Like who becomes a technical fellow, who becomes a distinction engineer. And the industry is still stuck in many places in analyzing someone's contribution as an individual senior technologist based on their patents.

Stephen Jacobs:
Yeah.

Sam Ramji:
Yet, if you really want to change the industry, you have to push into open source, which is the opposite of patents. Academia, similarly, is all about measuring publication as a mechanism for advancement. So there's a big question for all of us around how does open source work as a metric for Academia instead of classic publications. You've done a bunch of work on this recently, and I think much more to come. How are you managing that cultural transformation from patents and publication to utilization of open source contributions?

Stephen Jacobs:
Well, it's early days. It's currently in the thinking stages. A university is weird in that it's kind of like, if you saw the old Dr. Dolittle movies, it's kind of a push me, pull yo. It's this two headed beast. On the one hand it's supposed to disseminate its research and build the greater pool and do all those kinds of things. On the other hand, just like any other enterprise, it needs revenue through patents and licensing and that kind of stuff to be part of its portfolio of how it stays alive. And so it's a very fine line. And in fact, I was just listening to UCLA's, their technology group. They had this whole set of in-between licenses that they've just created, that aren't copyright patent and trademark aren't fully open, but are these kind of academic use only, or try it commercially for 60 days with these other sets of licenses to try to navigate that.

Stephen Jacobs:
I would like academia, and I would like RIT hopefully to be able to lead in this, to start looking at the data that we generate from our open work in much the same light that we look at journal article publication. The gold standard for a faculty member or a researcher to get a promotion or to get a salary raise or base their career is not necessarily on how many patents, like it was in industry, as you mentioned, but at least on how many journal articles and how much their peers are using their work. And the journal article process can be two to three years out from when you did the work to when other people finally read the article and quote it, or use your research. But you can look at an open project any given day and see who's a contributor, who's a maintainer, who's forked it, who's downloaded it, how else is it being used? You've got all that right in front of you.

Stephen Jacobs:
And so that data can really drive things, I would hope, for at least part of academia in the same way, or even a better way than that hundreds years old journal article concept does.

Sam Ramji:
Yeah. Open data about open source could be helpful. What are you hearing from your students about what's the attraction to studying open source? It's a pretty substantial commitment to say, "I've got a major in whatever, and I'm going to devote my time to get an open source miner.

Stephen Jacobs:
It's a range of interests. Some of them, like the political statement and the moral and ethical philosophy involved in open source of share and share alike and all boats rise and those types of things. Some of them are excited to be sitting at home, but working with people all around the world on the same thing. And some of them have realized much more than it was 12 years ago when I started this, that being a contributor is a way to have an employment record before you start looking for a job. It's the whole spectrum of why I've chosen to do this.

Sam Ramji:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That makes sense. Do you see people looking for work in open source programs offices as their first job out of school. Or kind of what guidance do you have for people who are either graduating, recently graduated and really excited to make open source program management, more part of their day-to-day life?

Stephen Jacobs:
I've had a little bit of a spread. I've had most of them still go in as is like junior software engineers. Some of them in their first year within the enterprise have won awards for convincing enterprise to open some of their tech. Some of them have gone more into social media and comms aspects or in business engineering, business consulting. I've had a couple go to Red Hat Consulting, for example. And so they've used their open source knowledge, their experience in the open source way there. I don't think I've had anybody yet go straight into an OSPO. But who knows?

Sam Ramji:
It's fascinating. It's a really interesting time when we're starting to get beyond the belief that the only thing that is valuable in open source is the code.

Stephen Jacobs:
Yeah.

Sam Ramji:
You're going to see a lot more view of the full set of skills that are required to make projects popular, successful, onboard new developers, make sure the documentation is good. So what contribution is defined as is starting to change. And I think OSPOs are doing a good job of that. And I think that's something that you're providing leadership in. And so hopefully we'll end up in a more modern view of what it means to be part of an open source community and to be a contributor as a result of the work that you're doing.

Stephen Jacobs:
I hope so. I think some of the research that Chaos does, that the Ford and Alfred P Sloan Foundation Critical Digital Infrastructure Project has been doing, Nadia Eghbal's writings in roads and bridges and working in public. I think those are all really helping.

Sam Ramji:
So I usually start each conversation with this question, but this might lead into a future conversation that we can have together. What does open source data mean to you?

Stephen Jacobs:
So for me, it means a couple of things. With the Libra Core program, those co-ops of students providing the community consulting now being funded by the Alfred P Sloan Foundation to do that for my own faculty and staff. There are those data projects. We've worked with the Seneca Park Zoo, which is, though a small zoo in Rochester, New York, very involved with a One Cubic Foot Biodiversity Project, and is doing all kinds of work in conservation, animal management, and eco-structure management, via open data and trying to make that open data more accessible to the public. So those projects are really cool. And then there's the aspect of open data and the data on open data and open science and open source, helping further and broaden Academia's vision of what the impact of your work or the translation of your work is and how it gets measured or demonstrated.

Sam Ramji:
That was really cool. Now, one of the things that you focused on too is having community impact. So in terms of Rochester, neighboring cities, what effects have you seen of having the OSPO And the FOSS miner, Open and RIT at Rochester and surrounding areas?

Stephen Jacobs:
There's a lot of enthusiasm, both within walking distance and throughout the open source community. I've had alumni that aren't my alumni, that I didn't teach, reach out after some of the announcements and say, "Hey, I actually work in the open source office in this enterprise now. How can I help?" I see lots of people who were the core of the Rochester student community, who are now coming back to us physically or virtually and saying, "We really want to help support this effort." So that's really cool.

Sam Ramji:
One of the really cool things that you're doing with your program is that you're providing a how to, for OSPOs, how to actually do an open source programs office. Many people are struggling with "why to". There's a sense, "Oh, we need to get some other people on board from across the company. How do we allocate the time? Why should we do this?" Is that something that you end up being part of?

Stephen Jacobs:
Yes. I'm part of a group that's trying to do that for academia in general, called OSPO++ where there's an international group of academics and civic managers trying to make those arguments. The EU just published a big policy on an OSPO within their governmental oversight organization. And then at the individual level, within my own faculty and staff communities and their bosses. Why do this? Well, we want to be able to measure our impact so we can talk about it to foundations, donors and all those folks about what a great job we're doing.

Stephen Jacobs:
We want to be able to network our academic researchers better with industry entities or governmental entities that are trying to do the same type of open work in the same place, so we can learn from each other and support each other. One that surprised me. There are several academic certifications, including a lot of universities like to be able to talk about how sustainable they are. And there's a sustainability certification for universities called STARS. And we can actually improve our rating in sustainability by a couple of points by being a good open source citizen within academia, which I never would have guessed.

Sam Ramji:
Fantastic.

Stephen Jacobs:
So these are the kinds of sell points. And then, should I get to the point where I can look at people who are pre-tenure and say, "Hey, we're going to take your metrics and use them as part of your portfolio to get your tenure." That'll be a really big thing.

Sam Ramji:
Yeah. I think you were in a magical position to be a lever for many people who are trying to change their organizations and their cultures. So the work that you've done on the 10-page paper to establish Open and RIT, your ability to publish and share all of those are going to help lots of people move forward. Because what I often find is people have good ideas, but they're also working super hard just doing their day jobs. And a little bit of help from someone who's taken the time to do the research, to condense it down to a white paper or a few slides, and especially one that's got the imprimatur of a university like yours, it makes everything easier for the people who are already trying to do the right thing. So I think you're going to have a really big impact.

Stephen Jacobs:
Well, I hope so. I have a lot of help. I have a lot of people working with me to try to do this. I'm a release early, release often kind of guy. And we're going to fall on our face a couple of times, and that's going to be just as easy to find on our websites, as, "Hey, we got a grant." If people have to learn from each other's mistakes. And I guess my lucky position is to be one of the people that gets to make the mistakes first that other people can learn from.

Sam Ramji:
That's awesome. Open source is all about making our mistakes in public. So Stephen, we usually end each episode on this podcast with one resource you'd recommend to our audience. So I'm sure you have an abundance of resources for your students. So it may be hard to pick one, in which case is there a piece of advice that you're constantly trying to hit home with?

Stephen Jacobs:
Really, I think the stuff you and I just talked about, Sam. Fail early, fail often and learn from them, and help other people learn from them, is really important. And we all get better by being able to see what works and what doesn't work.

Sam Ramji:
That's the heart of this orientation of our community, share what you learned, share your failures, and share the things that worked as well. And we all move forward together a little bit faster. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your leadership at RIT. And thank you for your generosity of sharing the sharing the limelight with so many of the folks who are engaged in FOSS Magic and Open at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Stephen Jacobs:
Thanks for the invite. Great talking to you. And yeah, I'll come back in two years when my trial period is over, and we'll see if I succeeded or not.

Sam Ramji:
Absolutely. I hope you'll publish that 10-page white paper soon so that we can all learn from that.

Stephen Jacobs:
Sure.

Sam Ramji:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Narrator:
Thank you so much for tuning in to today's episode of the Open||Source||Data podcast, hosted by DataStax Chief Strategy Officer, Sam Ramji. We're privileged and excited to feature many more guests who will share their perspectives on the future of software. So please stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released. And feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at opensourcedata@datastax.com.