An open-source force for good

Image Credit: Emma Garcia-Melchor

The dissemination of knowledge has always been a marker for human progress. The Isaac Newton quote “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”, is itself a reference to a 12th century saying attributed to Bernard of Chartres, and is an ever-relevant sentiment found in all fields of human thinking.

It is no coincidence that when the ability to print large amounts of information en masse arrived with the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1439, the European scientific enlightenment soon followed on its heels; nor is it unrelated that due to having invented printing 700 years prior in China, that scientific, philosophical and engineering understanding was so much more advanced in Asia for the better part of a millennia.

Historically when the population at large has been given the tools and skills to shape their own quality of life, society has seen huge leaps in technology, comfort and individual autonomy. What’s not to like?

What does this mean for us in the present? We have so much freedom to learn that the very period of history we live in has been decreed ‘The Information Age’! Despite this, many new discoveries are hidden behind paywalls, many countries still require huge amounts of financial investment from an individual to specialise in a field, and technology corporations are keeping refinements under the strictest of confidence allowing them to corner whichever market they happen to be in.

Equally, we have the completely free Wikipedia, plus the Wikimedia charities that help maintain and editorialise it. StackExchange, along with various other specialised forums where you can ask about almost any topic you could conceptualise; and many more places to learn to your heart’s content. This freedom of information has come to be known as ‘Open-Source’ 1, etymologically derived from the concept of a piece of software’s ‘source’ code being ‘open’ to the public.

In recent years, open-source practices have become heavily utilised in all fields of science and levels of society, helping career scientists and members of the public to improve their research and lives dramatically.

In certain countries, the standard and price of healthcare continue to fail those that are lucky enough to be born without disability, or with enough wealth to afford medical care. Type-1 diabetes is a common lifelong disease. Without the societal infrastructure to allow patients to manage their condition, it can easily kill them. However, contributors at The Open Artificial Pancreas System project (OpenAPS)2, an initiative started by Dana Lewis and Scott Leibrand, have developed, and are continuing to refine an automatic insulin injection system. This is not only more convenient and comfortable for the patients (a benefit and huge credit to the fact that many of the contributors to open-source projects such as this have experience with the problems that are being solved) that use it; but can be built by the patients themselves for a fraction of the cost they’d otherwise be forced to pay to survive. This has allowed many people to drastically improve their day-to-day lives and, with a functionality that sends real-time blood chemical analysis data to a mobile phone app, this has made life easier for those who care for diabetics who lack the means to administer their own treatment3. According to reports received by OpenAPS, over 1300 of these units have been built with the already proven design continuing to improve over time4.

OpenAPS isn’t doing this only to alleviate monetary burdens of those let down by the healthcare system. They also structure their website and information in a way that speeds up development of improved medical techniques and practice by allowing qualified medical researchers to make full use of any new knowledge garnered5. Combining this system with efforts from The Open Insulin Project6, an initiative using community engagement to develop a cheaper method of insulin production, it’s looking like there is hope for a publicly accessible and cheap alternative for sufferers of diabetes in the near future.

Diabetes treatment isn’t the only example of open-source medical research and equipment development. The concept is becoming increasingly commonplace; a sad necessity in a world where 90% of investment into medical research benefits only the top 10% of the population[5note] [/note]. This statistic exists due to the prevalence of preventable deaths in lower- and middle-income countries which wouldn’t happen if resources and information were more widespread.

Ashwin K Whitchurch, is a former commercial engineer that discovered his compassion for using his expertise to help those in impoverished areas. He is a huge advocate for open-source contributions to society and argues for reduction of cost, ease of repair, not having to rely solely on a manufacturer to calibrate or maintain a device; and the constant input of an invested community. This ensures equipment functionality is always improving at no extra cost to the user7. Ashwin himself takes part in yearly ‘hackathons’ – competitions which catalyse tinkerers of all ilks to come up with new ideas. He has contributed various ECG monitoring devices that cost £176.78, as opposed to near £8000 that would be spent on acquiring an industry-made equivalent8. Ashwin is hoping that use of his technology can make a difference in places seriously lacking this lifesaving device.

The Arduino based sonogram kit, a modified ultrasound kit, was designed by Stoppi79 and comes to about £31.55 to construct, plus the cost of an Arduino microcontroller, which itself was built upon the work of the open-source Murgen Project10. The open-source community is so prolific, that if there’s a piece of medical equipment that you can think of, there’s probably a publicly attainable version of it in development by hobbyists and hackers!

Of course, it’s not just medical knowledge that people love to share. Almost every branch of science and technology has thriving open-source communities: computer-science11, aeronautics12, energy storage13, chemistry14 and many more. Arguably the most important open-source resources are those that allow communities that have been let down by their governing bodies to build their own much needed infrastructure, like human waste disposal15, energy production16 and water management17,to improve self-sustainability and greatly improve their quality of life.

The open-source philosophy has the potential to bring useful technology to so many people who live in vulnerable contexts. accelerates research without requiring extra funding, precipitates change on a grassroots level and ultimately changes the world for the better. It achieves this by reintroducing autonomy to entire communities that are otherwise dependent on systems which aren’t set up to properly care for them.

Give a person a fish and they’ll eat for a day, introduce a person to the open-source community and they’ll have invented a cruelty-free fish alternative within the next decade. No, really, they will18.

This article was specialist edited by Kirstin Leslie and copy-edited by Emily May Armstrong.




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