Boy Scouts and Open Source?

I was never a member of the Boy Scouts myself, so my understanding of what they’re about is limited to what’s seeped in from popular culture, but this looks like a winning idea:

Friday May 9, 2008

The Boy Scouts have joined the Open Source Community.

The Boy Scouts of America National Council in Irving, TX has announced the release of their Open Source Initiative. The OSI Project represents a significant commitment by the Boy Scouts of America to the Open Source Community.

This project represents a “complete embrace of Open Source by the Boy Scouts”, says Greg Edwards, OSI Project Manager. Through the OSS Website ( the Boy Scouts are not only committed to becoming users of Open Source Software, but teachers, producers, and advocates as well.

(See Greg Edwards’ open letter for more.)

If this means actual scouts are going to be encouraged to get involved in open source projects — say, it will be considered an official scouting activity that you can (I guess) earn merit badges for — then it seems like a great chance for a lot of kids to experience the open source process.

(Er, I guess that should say “boys”, not “kids”. Why aren’t the Girl Scouts doing the same thing? Why weren’t they doing it first, actually?)

Of course, only a small percentage of scouts will flourish in open source, in the sense of having the temperament and discipline to make useful contributions to the projects they participate in. But that’s okay: that ratio is the norm in open source projects. There’s no reason to expect more or less from Boy Scouts. What’s more important is that all the scouts who participate will be exposed to the cultural norms of the open source community: sharing, respectful technical discussions, taking the time to express oneself clearly in writing, fixing things instead of complaining that they’re broken, etc. For every Boy Scout who gets involved in open source, or who hears his friends talking about their projects, that’s one more person who understands what open source is all about. (I’m using “open source” synonymously with “free software” here.)

I’ll close with this beautiful story from Jim Blandy:

Back in 1993, I was working for the Free Software Foundation, and we were beta-testing version 19 of GNU Emacs. We’d make a beta release every week or so, and people would try it out and send us bug reports. There was this one guy whom none of us had met in person but who did great work: his bug reports were always clear and led us straight to the problem, and when he provided a fix himself, it was almost always right. He was top-notch.

Now, before the FSF can use code written by someone else, we have them do some legal paperwork to assign their copyright interest to that code to the FSF. Just taking code from complete strangers and dropping it in is a recipe for legal disaster.

So I emailed the guy the forms, saying, “Here’s some paperwork we need, here’s what it means, you sign this one, have your employer sign that one, and then we can start putting in your fixes. Thanks very much.”

He sent me back a message saying, “I don’t have an employer.”

So I said, “Okay, that’s fine, just have your university sign it and send it back.”

After a bit, he wrote me back again, and said, “Well, actually… I’m thirteen years old and I live with my parents.”

That is: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a Boy Scout.


  1. When the Boy Scouts approached me about this project I was very excited. As a long time (I used the early versions of emacs) advocate of Open Source I envisioned a real win-win opportunity for both the Boy Scouts and the Open Source Community.

    The OSI project is not a merit badge program. This is a full fledged strategic plan to apply the Open Source process to the organization as a whole. As far as I know this is the first project of its kind. We all know about Open Source efforts by companies from the technology sector. Most of those projects are self serving and are methods to enhance their market share.

    For the most part non profit organizations have a difficult time finding software that can help them run their operations. The Boy Scouts and other non profit groups like little leagues, community theatres, art centers, Girl Scouts, churches, and even the Red Cross face the same issues. Generally these groups don’t have any options when it comes to software.

    I like to use the analogy of running a fund raiser. We all get the knocks on the door from a kid asking for money to support the team. It doesn’t matter if you’re the Boy Scouts or a church youth group, it costs money to plan and go on a camping trip. Most of the time whoever is running the fund raising campaign is living a nightmare, simply because there isn’t any good software to help them. There are allot of people that have knowledge about doing fund raisers. Put them together with people that can build the software based on their input, and everyone wins.

    I have been disappointed about the lack of progress that we’ve made in getting the general user community to embrace and use OSS solutions. Beyond a couple exceptions such as OpenOffice and Mozilla we have not been able to get the message across. In the server arena and among technology professionals we have made headway.

    To me this seemed like a true Golden opportunity to reach a very large number of every day computer users. The number of volunteers that the Boy Scouts have supporting their kids is huge. Add to that the number of volunteers from other non profit groups that could get involved in the projects hosted by the Boy Scouts. And as we all know parent volunteers can be a very powerful force. Even if only a small percentage of these volunteers get directly involved, everyone in their organization will hear about how Open Source helped the cause.

  2. Thanks for correcting my take on this, Greg. But, I do hope that part of it involves getting the Scouts themselves involved, as it sounds like it does… Of course, I don’t really care whether merit badges are involved (heck, I admit I don’t really know what a merit badge is), the main thing is that the members of the organization are free to become participants in the maintenance and development of its infrastructure. And, of course, all the volunteers associated with the organization will be exposed to open source software…

    Good luck!

  3. Yes too all of your hopes. One of the stated opportunities that the project was intended to meet was to expand on the Boy Scouts “Learning for Life” mission. The E-Learning section of the website is targeted at teaching all users about Open Source. My plan for this area is to have the Open Source Community build a comprehensive reference to answer the question “What is Open Source?”. I think the interesting challenge for many of us technical types will be to build out a path that is written for non technical readers. The plan is to have 3 parallel paths, a technical path, a non technical path, and a humorous path, like the dummies books.

    My hope is that this approach will reach all audiences, scouts, their parents, and maybe even their grandparents. The technical side my be a repetition of what is already available, but I think the other areas will be unique.

  4. Progress update.

    The OSS Website has been gaining. However, the site needs writers with Open Source expertize to expand the E-Learning section. This is being built as a teaching platform, and it needs teachers so it can grow.

    The About OSS section is built on MediaWiki. So if you can give a little time, come and help educate future Open Source advocates.

  5. As a scout myself, I’m also very glad to hear that the boy scouts are getting involved with open source and embracing technology.

    However, am I the only one that read the open letter and the purpose/plans on the website ( and feels like there is a serious disconnect and fundamental poor assumptions in their ideas?

    It really feels as though no one from the open source community was even talked to before putting this together. Something as simple as “OSI” already having prominent meaning within the community and other misunderstanding and lack of experience type of comments about open source projects only being founded by self-serving geeks and limited to system software or commercial offerings.

    I do not intend my comments to negative, but at the same time those type of preconceived notions could easily lead this project (and opportunity) to fail.

    @Greg – if you’re reading this and would like to discuss this further, I’d be interested in helping out with some of these issues.

  6. Ryan,

    Well, in Greg’s defense, he talked to me, and perhaps to others as well. I didn’t notice the “OSI” acronym problem, and it’s entirely my fault: I just went back and checked his original email to me, and the acronym was there. Greg, my apologies for not calling that one out.

    I’ve gone back and read the Open Letter too, but other than the “OSI” thing, I don’t see the other problems you’re referring to. Whether the effort itself is successful, I can’t say; but that’s really a matter of how the project is run, not of the wording of its announcement.

  7. Karl/Greg,

    Its good to hear that other members of the open source community were talked to. Perhaps I can try not to be so accusatory in my tone (sorry) and point out some of the specific examples I saw.

    1) Lack of specific goals or explanation of “unique nature of their software needs” being addressed:
    There are lots of projects available to help with organizing groups of people together, projects for educating people, and projects aimed at supporting the needs of non-profits. I’m not sure what the special needs of the boy scouts are that aren’t being addressed by any existing projects. Or, how this project plans to distinguish itself from other projects. For example, the OLPC project wanted/needed to put computers into the 3rd world and thus needed to design hardware that was both cheap and robust to less modern infrastructure. That was a unique need.

    The curiosity of this is actually why I read through this whole thing to begin with.

    2) Reference to the “Open Source Community” as if it were a single entity
    While there are obviously respected people (such as Karl) within the community that can be pointed to as reference, and organizations that attempt to represent the free software “cause”, there is not an organization of the community that can be “partnered with” like a company. I have seen other organizations misunderstand this and falter because of it. Its the idea that nobody speaks on behalf of the community and that we all speak for it.

    3) *Opportunities* section
    basically tries to suggest that software isn’t available for end-users or that commercial interests are misaligned. While some of those criticisms might have been true in the past, I think there are many projects today that are very user focused and commercial interests generally enhance the offerings available, and these projects go way beyond the technical or scientific realms.

    The idea that users will determine what software should be created (without any technical ability to contribute to its creation) seems optimistic at best and sounds familiar to assumptions made by users new to an open source project – ones that expect to suggest a feature and then have a developer generously generate it for them. If the BSA would like to improve an end-users experience, I would think this project might focus on user interfaces and documentation improvements – but these ideas do not seem to be expressed.

    It also seems to suggest a misunderstanding of how and why OS software is created. The reason why developers needs are addressed more often than a users need, is because most users don’t have the ability to address them and do not generally affect the developer. When a users needs become important to a developer (usually various derivatives of financial incentive) then the issue is addressed. The intersection of similar needs by multiple contributors is where the projects take shape and grow – the bigger the intersection (or bigger the need) then the more a project will grow. Of course this is a simplification and ignores some other factors, but this mechanism seems to have been misplaced.

    4) Project Management
    I also found the assertion that PM is not found in OS projects a bit odd or that they do not conform to modern methods. I would suggest that recent increases in popularity towards various “agile” methods for software development project management are very much inline with the evolutionary iterative improvements that are characteristic of open source projects. Being the leader of an OS project myself (and anyone who reads your book on producing OSS) I think it is a naive suggestion that we do not manage our projects.

    5) the OSI thing I mentioned before, but might be nice to see clarified.

    I know this post has been highly critical. I have tried to not be overly negative and just point out areas of contention. I just want to reiterate that I do want to see this project succeed and hopefully this might contribute to an improvement in the project.

  8. I also wanted to point out that the project seems to take the perspective that since they didn’t have something that worked for them they were going to try an reinvent the wheel a bit.

    For example, instead of using existing infrastructure like sourceforge or google code, they have decided to create their own instance of the forge software to host projects on.

    Towards the nature of open source, I would much rather see an effort to improve on what is currently out there in order to meet their needs and contribute back to the respective projects. Getting involved with existing open source projects/communities would seem to offer the best opportunity to expose scouts to this environment rather than creating their own community.

    There is even a section in your book that talks about trying to find something you can expand on before starting from scratch.

    Personally it sounds like much of what the BSA project is looking for could be served by a collaborative wiki with pages about best practices for using various technologies to achieve their goals/needs.

  9. Ryan,

    Wait, I think we might have crossed wires here — you’re reading a different document from the ones I’m reading. I have only seen:


    neither of which has an “opportunities” section, or discusses general OSS project management, etc. Looking back at your initial comment, I see you’re reading

    …which I hadn’t seen before. I’ve only skimmed it now; it does seem a bit odd to me too, and I wonder how many of those goals are really useful or necessary.

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