Year of Open Source: Interview with Sam Muirhead, Berlin, Germany

img_webSam Muirhead, filmmaker from New Zealand and based in Berlin, has realised a project we couldn’t miss as part of our research. He decided in August 2012 to make the following experiment for one year: living Open Source in every aspect of his life. From the clothes he wears to the equipment he uses for his work, even his daily transportation, the goal was to avoid traditionally copyrighted products, use products released under open licenses, or adapt and develop his own when he couldn’t find existing ones. All of this in order to investigate how free / libre / open source ideas have spread to areas outside software.

However, within the first month Sam changed the perspective of his project, quote: “I came to the conclusion that living without all-rights-reserved copyright and patents was a much less interesting approach than I expected – you could avoid most patents or copyright simply by not buying new products or media, but you wouldn’t have said anything interesting about open source hardware or free culture”. So, instead of looking for an open alternative in the most various areas thinkable, he focused on documenting on his website ingenious initiatives from creative people he met, as the mate based beer called Mier, and reporting his own attempts, successful or not, to invent new open source products as a 3d-printed programmable camera slider or his parametric underwear line.

The Year of Open Source is now finished and there are plenty of fascinating stories to discover on yearofopensource.net. We could not meet him before leaving Berlin, so he kindly accepted to answer some questions for us via E-Mail. You can find the interview here below and learn more about his project and its outcomes!

1) How did you come up with the idea of living open source for one year? Were you already using open source or was it a radical change?

For a long time I had been very interested in the concept of open source, and done plenty of reading up on the subject (Benkler, Lessig, etc). I was mostly interested in open source hardware like the RepRap project, and digital commons projects like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap.

But I had no experience working with these projects myself, and I had never used or developed any open hardware. I had no understanding of programming and little interest in software, but now having switched to free software I’ve had to learn (and enjoyed learning!) a lot more about how computers and software work.

Before starting this project basically the only free software programs I was (knowingly) using were OpenOffice and Firefox. I edited video with Final Cut on a Mac, and had a pirated copy of Adobe Creative Suite. I had never tried out open education, never remixed anything from the public domain, and never published anything under a libre license.

The decision to try a ‘Year of Open Source’ came about in a few different ways – for a long time I had felt that my own choices and actions did not fully reflect my ethics and interests. Also the whole theory of peer production and open source development models is usually: the more people contribute and participate, the better the system becomes. I wasn’t participating, I was only watching from the sidelines.

However, I was apprehensive about getting involved in open source, having no technical background, no knowledge of electrical or mechanical engineering or software development. It can seem somewhat daunting from the outside, and I felt there may be many other people in a similar situation to me. So I thought my lack of experience could make me a nice experimental guinea pig. People could follow my progress and see if, or to what extent, open hardware/design ‘democratises production’ – could a complete newbie also start designing and making things, or would it be too complicated? I thought by focusing more on the concepts and processes of open source and how they are applied in different areas, rather than focusing on linux distributions or copyright licenses, I could reach out to another audience than the usual open source crowd.

2) What was your favourite open project you have documented or discovered along this year? Could you choose one?

Maybe I’ll mention some that I haven’t been able to document yet: Premium is a German/Swiss/Austrian collective which started as a ‘fork’ of Afri-Cola – a group of customers who were disappointed with the new product started producing the old cola recipe, and used this product as a way to start hacking the economy around them. Rather than seeing themselves as a separate entity, exerting price pressure on suppliers and customers around them, Premium see those suppliers and customers as part of their ‘company’ and ensure that everyone gets a fair deal. They are a non-profit organisation and have never taken out a loan – yet their sales and market share have been steadily growing for over a decade. They don’t advertise because it’s annoying. They practice total transparency, publishing every transaction on the website, offering an ‘anti-bulk discount’ and publishing their business model and lessons learned as an ‘operating system’ for anyone to replicate. If you want to run your own company along their model, you can call your product ‘Premium’ too, it’s an open brand.

Open Structures is a grid system and a construction set for which parts and products can be designed to fit together in a modular way. By using a set ratio and developing modular parts, you can rearrange parts and pieces easily – it’s like a LEGO kit for EVERYTHING – if you no longer want your kettle, just dismantle the parts and reassemble them as part of your bicycle, garage door, and coffee plunger.

WikiHouse is also an amazing open source architecture initiative – but Alastair explains it much better than I can.

Two of my most-visited sites: I get the music for my videos from the Free Music Archive (CC-BY or CC-BY-SA tracks) and I also love the Public Domain Review!

3) What was the less „predictable“ area of life you found an open source alternative for?

I was surprised that there was not more of a culture of sharing in clothing and fashion – there’s basically no copyright involved in clothing at all (trademarks are a separate issue) and everybody copies everyone else. But it’s not done with intent. You don’t see Prada selling their clothing with digital files for you to make your own copies, but you can very easily – and legally – copy the design simply by tracing the seams of the garment.

Digital manufacturing has yet to make much of an impact in this field. 3D printing and laser cutting in fashion tends to be more gimmicky than practical, and I wanted to find another way to use digital technology to make it easier for people to make their own clothing. So with the help of a talented tailor called Swantje Wendt, who runs a co-sewing space, I learned about how patterns work, how they are graded between sizes, and I used a parametric design tool called Magic Box to create an adjustable boxer short pattern (another friend helped me out with some algebra here). And at OpenTechSchool I got some help in transferring the template to a more suitable format and language. Then I had a very basic software program, a parametric pattern where you type in your waist measurement, and the pattern adjusts to fit. Then you can print out the pattern and sew away. Or, if you’re like me, you need a helpful, patient person like Swantje to teach you how to sew first.

The idea behind this project was to let computers do the not-very-fun job of calculating how to grade a pattern to your own size, which leaves the human free to do what they do best, to think creatively about their clothing, and the material or techniques they want to use to create or personalise it. Unfortunately I haven’t finished documenting this project so it isn’t published yet, but the boxers themselves are very comfortable indeed.

4) Through applications based on Open Data, the interaction between citizens and the city, public administrations, transportation has also changed. Did Open Data play a role in your evolution to an open source life?

Well I had to ride my bike through the winter! I chose not to use public transport for the year (except for 4 unavoidable trips) because the Berlin public transport organisation has been very opposed to releasing open data. In other cities the use of real-time info for transportation has made it much easier and more convenient to use public transport, but in Berlin they’re a bit slow to catch on. With the help of some digital activists, gently herding them towards progress, things seem to be slowly changing, but it will take some time.

However, I enjoyed using and contributing to user-generated open datasets such as OpenStreetMap and also Mundraub.org, which has a city map showing where you can find fruit trees in public spaces. Not only is is a Mundraub a great way to publicise this wonderful common resource, but it’s a wonderful way to explore the nature within your city, and discover streets and parks you might not otherwise encounter.

5) We have read that you taught workshops and participated in conferences. Is it easy, in your experience, to convince people to „switch“ to open source? Open source is like the daily soup for computer scientists. What is your experience on divulging the topic to people without IT background?

I think there are a lot of people who haven’t spent much time trying to understand open source because the moment you mention it, all they hear is COMPUTERSCOMPUTERSCOMPUTERS… So I tend to start with the examples of Wikipedia or Open Source Ecology, or Open Education, to emphasise the sharing of knowledge and information, the logic of re-using other people’s work, and the collaborative process which is often used in the development of these projects. Then I might explain that ‘oh yes, all of this started in the free software community many years ago…’

With software, there are differing levels of completeness. Everyone can, and everyone should use LibreOffice – there’s just no need to shell out for Microsoft Office anymore. But with video editing, it’s a little tricky to win over Adobe and Final Cut users with my personal choice of free software NLE, Kdenlive. It is objectively not as complete or professional as the proprietary options, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do professional work with it.

I completely understand why a video editor might prefer to stick with a proprietary workflow, so rather than push people to change their workflow, I just try to change their perspective of free software NLEs. I usually just lay out the reasons I use Kdenlive: I’m able to contribute to the development of the program, even as a user, by submitting bug reports, posting in the forums etc. The way the program works is much more transparent, I now understand more about how software works I am part of a great community of Kdenlive users on the forums, helping each other out, discussing the program, posting links to our work. Each one of us that uses this software professionally, and does good work with it, does their bit to legitimize the software, and show that it isn’t just a toy. This can in time bring in more users and encourage developers. Through having a presence in the Kdenlive forums I’ve been able to get paid work teaching workshops – with more governments and organisations switching to free software (City of Munich, French Police, etc) there’s a growing market for experienced users of the software to help with training. I have the choice to use proprietary options, but many people simply can’t afford it. By helping to publicise, legitimize and improve software that is available to everybody for free, and helping new users learn it, it gives more people the possibility to use video to tell their own stories, or make a living.

Oh, and Kdenlive respects my freedom and it doesn’t cost me anything.

It’s hard to convince someone to ‘switch’ to Open Hardware because it isn’t anywhere near as widespread or mature as its software equivalent. You can definitely get people excited about it and show them how they can get involved in projects it they like. And if anyone’s in the market for a beehive, an automated greenhouse, or some designer furniture, I’ll definitely provide them with the right links and a few encouraging words.

6) The year is now over. How does it go on now?

Right now, I just have to do paid video jobs for a month or two to get back on my feet financially, I was entirely focused on this project without much income for almost a year – the €5000 crowdfunding support at the start of the year was vital and I’m very grateful for it, the project would have been impossible without it, but it’s not really enough to survive on and pay for materials etc for a whole year, even in Berlin. But I’m also slowly tying up the loose ends of my year – finishing up projects, documenting, and editing together a video which will try to tell the whole story. It won’t be a feature-length epic, more of a highlights reel, with an accompanying written piece. There are a few differences in my life now – I sometimes catch the U-Bahn, and I go see All Rights Reserved films at the movies. But the project is basically continuing in a more relaxed fashion. There was so much more that I wanted to cover over the initial year which I wasn’t able to go into. Developing these little projects takes a very long time, and often depends upon the schedules of friendly helpers and collaborators, and there’s no budget, so the pace is slow.

7) Berlin is for sure one of the cities where open cultures are being supported the most. Which would be other cities or countries also following this trend?

Having just come back from the MakerFaire in Rome I was surprised at the depth and variety of Italian open hardware projects, many of which I had never heard of before. And I think my ignorance is perhaps to do with the tyranny of the English language! In the sites I visit and the media I come across there’s this unfortunate situation where there’s much more emphasis on projects and communities in English-speaking places or projects which document and communicate extensively in English. Luckily through visiting a few conferences and events in different parts of Europe I’ve had the chance to hear from some amazing initiatives in France, Spain, and Finland as well. I know the Netherlands is very big on digital manufacturing and makerspaces, and Barcelona has the Fab City and Smart Citizen projects amongst many others, and there’s support from the civic and Catalonian governments, so they’re on to a good thing. I can keep track of what’s happening in ‘open everything’ in the States pretty well, just from online sources, but I would love to travel to a few more places in Africa and Asia sometime soon – information on what’s happening there is harder to come by. It’s difficult to keep track of this kind of development.

8) We are going to travel along India, South-East Asia, Japan and South America. Could you point out some individuals/organisations promoting open cultures in those countries? We might visit them!

Flavio Soares in Brazil has made a movie with the open source Elphel camera and using/developing free software for post production (website: http://florestavermelha.org/).

Christopher Wang / Akiba is doing wonderful work on open source hardware in Japan (he was part of the team who developed and distributed DIY radiation sensors to villagers after Fukushima, enabling them to collect their own data and contrast it with the official story). I don’t know him, I just like his work! Here an article about him: http://www.examiner.com/article/freaklabs-christopher-wang-a-new-model-of-underground-indie-engineer-part-1

If I think of any more I’ll let you know!

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Open Steps

Open Steps

Open Steps is an independent blog aggregating worldwide information around Open Cultures in form of articles, videos and other resources. Its aim is to document Open Knowledge (OK) related projects and organisations either using Open Data, promoting Open Source technologies, launching Open Government initiatives, following the principles behind Open Science, supporting the release of information or practising Data Journalism. In this way, this site seeks to continue, this time virtually, the globetrotter project realised between July 2013 to July 2014 and discover further OK projects all around the world. Subscribe to our newsletter to be part of this amazing journey!

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