Author Glyn Moody, a keynote speaker at the recent LCA2010 open-source conference in Wellington last month, puts the freedom of open source in a broader context of general freedom of information.
The subject of his most recent book is the struggle to characterise the human genome — the basic DNA blueprint of human life — and its consequences for scientific, technological and commercial development.
The title, Digital Code of Life: How Bioinformatics is Revolutionizing Science, Medicine and Business, brings out the similarity between open source computer code and the sequence of four chemical bases in DNA — a sequence which has now, by international agreement, been released to public scientific databases.
Moody jokingly told the LCA2010 audience that the genome book is essentially the same text as Rebel Code, his 2002 book on Linux and the open source movement, with just a few terms changed.
There is, he suggests, a more direct connection between the two endeavours. A public programme to piece together into a complete genome the fragmentary sequences of genetic materiel that came out of analysis in the early years of the decade was competing with a parallel programme run by private company Celera Genomics, which could have patented crucial parts of the discovery.
Researcher Jim Kent, Moody says, provided the key tool enabling the public programme to win the race – a cluster of 100 PCs, using open-source software. “GNU and Linux saved most of the human genome from gene patents,” he says.
“Now genomic data is routinely open and the rest of science is moving in that direction.”
Moody summarised the major moves to openness, from Project Gutenberg, to share public-domain books to Arxiv, a database for preprints of scientific papers, which coincidentally was founded in August, 1991 — the same month as Linus Torvalds’ announcement of his work on the Linux kernel and the public launch of the Worldwide Web.
The Blue Obelisk is another noteworthy movement for sharing data, algorithms and tools in chemistry, mostly written in or accessed through open-source code.
Science, he believes, is moving in the direction of openness; it’s increasingly about publishing workings as well as the results – the source-code as well as the executable code.
Greater openness has gone through the whole of culture from the liberal copyright terms of creative commons licensing to various freedom-of-information legislation in various countries.
Latterly in computing, of course, we have seen the huge rise of social media and Web 2.0 media of various kinds; blogs, picture and video-sharing sites; it’s all about sharing, says Moody: everyone is learning to share but hackers go one stage further. “You share recursively; you share the concept of sharing.”