Open Source at the UN

I grew up in war and saw the United Nations help my country to recover and rebuild. That experience was a big part of what led me to pursue a career in public service. As Secretary-General, I am determined to see this organization deliver tangible, meaningful results that advance peace, development and human rights. –Ban Ki-moon

I went last weekend and it’s continuing now- the United Nations in New York City is hosting one of the largest open source conferences in in the world. “Open Camps @ UN 2016” is July 8-17 this year. The conference is actually a collection of topic/platform specific camps, including MapsCamp, PyGotham, Drupal NYC Camp and Word Camp NYC. To get a visual sense of how many camps over how many days this conference entails, check out Open Camps main page.

First, some org titles and goals. Titles- Open Camps is organized by this amazing team of volunteers, in collaboration with the United Nations Open Source Innovation Initiative (which can be shortened to Unite Open Source) which is a part of the Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT), which reports to the Secretariat and is within the Department of Management at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The goals for Unite Open Source are below:

Unite Open Source aims to be

  1. a centre of excellence in OS knowledge,
  2. a hub for open source communities to meet (at conferences, in different regions, as well as virtually, on online platforms) to strengthen existing OS projects and start new ones, and
  3. a broker in partnerships between Open Source communities and Member States.

Organizations or individuals that wish to open source proprietary tools can rely on Unite Open Source to handle the legal and logistical challenges of doing so. The UN, as an impartial and international institution, will allow volunteer communities to embrace these new tools now owned by the public. Source

All right, so that’s a start at the who, what, and why. It was interesting to be at the UN- I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some people told me to expect an aging building filled with disillusioned bureaucrats, other people (cough, me) were a bit more excited about the trip and the UN’s engagement with open source. This seems par for the course with a lot of nonprofits- after a while, some people only see the corruption and inefficiency- on the other hand, there’s power in this- power in coming together for the good of humanity.

I found myself somewhere in the middle. The building is getting old, sure, but it’s still a stunning architectural work. Maybe there are some people there who are mired in office politics, but every room I saw was filled with people who are engaged and passionate about leveraging the technologies and skills that we have, as best we can, to improve communities and strengthen people all over the word. It’s also full of actual treasure.

Laura Renae Webb with Myanmar tapestry
Laura Renae Webb with Myanmar tapestry at the United Nations in New York
Panamanian mola at the United Nations in New York, easily 30 ft by 30 ft
Panamanian mola at the United Nations in New York, easily 30 ft by 30 ft. I put this mola through Google’s Deep Dream Generator. Click the image to see the result.

And Star Trek-level communication devices at every seat.

United Nations microphone and voting tool
I have to assume the map only fills half the screen so that non-Earth dignitaries can add their own planets as needed.

I was most interested in MapsCamp, Daniel Doubrovkine’s talk at CommunityCamp, and Professor Edward Tufte’s keynote for DataVizCamp.

MapsCamp was fantastic. I learned a lot about GPS and was deeply inspired by the work MapBox is doing with citizens of Lesotho. “Open Source Time and Space” (Bert Spaan, NYPL Labs) was a great showcase of what can be done with a large map/photography collection, along with a lot of ways for people to get involved. The slides are worth going through– again both for inspiration and actionable resources. Daniel Doubrovkine’s talk was interesting because it focused on the financial incentives for a company to have open source be the default policy in place. Prof. Edward Tufte wrote the book on data visualization. I was thrilled to hear him speak in person. It felt very much like an old-school college lecture- the lights dimmed, and the professor spoke, working through his ideas logically, then took questions at the end, which he answered thoughtfully.


Jacob Redding: Next Wave of Open Source

Jenny Wong: Jenny Wong did an excellent on-the-spot job of melding CivicCamp and CommunityCamp into one schedule. Conference organization is challenging and takes a good amount of flexibility and leadership. Her talk was on building an accessible community and I’m sorry I missed it- looks great. Slides 

Natalia Rodriguez: Visualizing Science for Museum Visitors at the American Museum of Natural History

Lyzi Diamond: Panel: What’s next for Open Source and Mapping?

In the quote at the beginning of this post, Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon speaks about wanting the UN to “deliver tangible, meaningful results that advance peace, development and human rights.” Open source projects are appealing to sustainable development initiatives, especially in terms of cost, accessibility, community engagement, and level of impact.

Follow Open Camps here

Follow UN’s CITO here