Our Thinking

The more we share the thinking, working and practices of ourselves and our fellows, the better

Telecoms: Our story so far

Having spent many years working in ICT for Development in Africa, Steve Song joined the Foundation in 2008 as one of the first Fellows. He articulated the missed opportunities for users and regulators alike resulting from overpriced data access in emerging economies and made a number of regulatory policy recommendations based on his experience and research, along with mapping the progress in undersea cables around Africa. In the absence of a telecommunications industry with a development agenda, Steve worked with the open source software and open hardware communities to find a solution that could be implemented and operated independently, at low cost. They decided on using mesh networking, establishing Village Telco. The idea was built upon the finding the majority of mobile phone calls in South Africa at the time were between phones within the same cell tower range, i.e. very local. This means people could establish their own, independent networks to speak to those closest to them - family, friends, their local school or clinic. They no longer had to walk to speak to someone, especially after dark or in an emergency.

Steve with a Mesh Potato

Village Telco succeeded in proving that local communication was valuable and important, and that cost was a significant inhibitor of communications. Village Telco was only possible because they could use wifi, an unlicensed band of spectrum, which was open for anyone to use and experiment in. This was in part also why this solution did not scale. Users had to purchase specific equipment to be able to join, and relied on a network of their neighbours to keep them connected.

Paul Gardner-Stephen recognised the opportunity mesh networking offered, but also knew that people wanted to be mobile. By 2011, when he joined the fellowship, many more people owned mobile phone handsets. He applied the Village Telco approach to mobile instead of fixed line telephones and so established The Serval Project. Where Village Telco focused on urban areas where cost was a significant driver, Serval was most interested in providing a solution to communities where there was no mobile phone coverage at all, either because of their remote location or as result of a natural disaster. He was inspired by his own experiences in rural Australia and the total collapse of communication infrastructure during the Haiti earthquake of 2010.

Paul Gardner-Stephen
Supplied by Flinders University

A clear benefit of the Serval approach would be that people could use the mobile phones they already owned. They could be on the move and would not be reliant on or limited by a pre-installed base station. Unfortunately the mobile nature also meant that it was difficult to maintain a stable connection. Users also had to root their Android device and install Serval firmware to participate effectively. This undermined the benefit of using a device you already owned.

Both Village Telco and Serval offered solutions that were independent and free to use, operating completely outside of the regulated telecommunications space. While there were many potential benefits around this, the inability to scale or interface with mainstream communication networks at the time, meant that they failed to become viable solutions. What they did do, was make a valuable contribution to the future of ubiquitous, affordable telecommunications by setting that vision so clearly and deliberately making building blocks available freely and openly.

While supporting his wife’s work in community radio, Peter Bloom drove up and down mountain passes visiting remote villages in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was stunned by the complete lack of mobile network access there. It was simply not worth their while for established mobile phone operators to invest in infrastructure in these areas. With only 2-3 phone landlines reaching each village, it meant that contact with the outside world was limited to what this small bottleneck would let through, with no privacy and high likelihood that connections would be missed altogether. Peter found this not only inconvenient, but fundamentally unjust, and he set out to find a solution.

As he explored possible localised telecoms solutions, Peter connected with both Steve and Paul. He built his first installation of a community owned and operated network on the work they had done and shared, and the lessons they learned from testing and failing. In 2014 he joined the Shuttleworth Fellowship, through which he adapted and expanded the Rhizomatica model, focusing on making integration seamless for users and ensuring that they could legally and sustainably use mobile phone spectrum.

Peter Bloom - Rhizomatica

As with Steve Song’s Village Telco and Paul Gardner-Stephen’s Serval Project before, Peter Bloom made sure that Rhizomatica’s vision, methodology and necessary tools were shared back into the open source software and open hardware communities. Not all of the equipment Rhizomatica uses is open, but all of it is readily accessible at reasonable prices and can be acquired by anyone without restriction. Rhizomatica is also very clear about what they use, and how, to allow anyone else to replicate their approach, as is being done in 4 countries.

But the technology implementation is not the most world changing part of what Peter did. The Rhizomatica team put ubiquitous telecoms access on the agenda of the Mexican government and as a result negotiated the first ever community mobile phone network operator licence. This not only changed the telecoms landscape in Mexico, but is being considered for adoption at the ITU and in selected other countries in Latin America and Africa.

Village Telco, The Serval Project and Rhizomatica focused on underserved communities, but there are also gaps in overserved communities. Urban areas are becoming more congested with wifi signals almost daily and urban density makes installing cables bothersome, slow and expensive. Internet users within close range of backhaul connections miss out on its maximum capacity.

Luka Mustafa saw an opportunity to apply his academic research to this real world challenge. He joined the fellowship in 2015 to work on Koruza, which delivers wireless communication through free-space optical network systems. Koruza makes building-to-building high speed data transfer possible using an infra red light beam. This technology existed before, but was closed within a proprietary application, primarily serving the military, unaffordable and generally unavailable to civilian users.

Luka Mustafa
Supplied by Inštitut IRNAS Rače

Like the approaches of telecoms fellows before him, Luka’s work enables organic growth of networks, putting users in control of their own connectivity where systems have failed to deliver. The designs of his system are available freely and openly to anyone to build, adapt, manufacture or sell. He has also taken this approach to designing and delivering engineering solutions to other fields, working with clients and partners to scratch their own itch while sharing value with the larger open hardware community.

What does this journey say about how we fund? We support progress, not just innovation. No single idea will solve the biggest social challenges we face. But no effort will be wasted, no project a failure, as long as the outputs and outcomes are openly shared. Almost a decade after first starting to work in this area, the original vision of ubiquitous, affordable access still holds, and we are getting closer to realising it. That would not be possible without having worked with each of the Fellows we have had, testing the ideas and implementations, and incorporating the experiences of others in the free and open community.

Progress is not linear. We could not have mapped out this exact trajectory when we started 10 years ago. We started with a big vision and found someone we thought could add to it. Apart from investing in their ideas, we also invested in Steve, Paul, Peter and Luka. Having the time and space to experiment helped them expand their own knowledge, shift thinking and develop some of the components they are still using today. As the landscape evolves, they adapt to continue serve our shared vision. This means that our funding has a sustained impact well beyond the scope of what we directly support.

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Created by Steve Song (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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Progress is more than just innovation - The Copenhagen Letter

by SF Team, 19 September 2017

It is time to take responsibility for the world we are creating. This is the call to action at the Copenhagen letter, published in September 2017, in which a group of tech practitioners start a conversation on the interface between humanity and technology. This letter really resonates with us. It is made up of 5 simple statements that encourage us as designers, users, humans to shift perspective, perhaps regain perspective, on the role of technology...

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Thinking of applying? Do it

by SF Team, 14 September 2017

This is not an easy Fellowship to get, the process may be simple, but the competition is stiff. Approximately 1% of applicants are offered a fellowship. The personal investment you have to make in contemplating this fellowship is substantial - you have to really, honestly and purposefully think through what your contribution to positive social change will be and that is tough. However, it could be the first step towards realising your big vision. We...

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Thinking of applying? It could be you

by SF Team, 13 September 2017

When thinking about applying for this fellowship, one of the first questions you might ask yourself is will I get in? Do I fit their profile? Am I who they are looking for? Someone might suggest you apply for a Shuttleworth Fellowship. Even if they are a Fellow, Alum or member of staff, there is no guarantee that your application will be successful. But you have to be in it to win it. Anyone can...

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Thinking of applying? Be different

by SF Team, 12 September 2017

We do not have a list of topics we are interested in funding or a call for proposals around a specific theme. Of course we have a sense of what critical problems could be addressed in the world. But an important part of the openness we practice is being open to ideas. Below are areas in which we have already made substantial investments. If we were to invest in these further, we would look for...

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Sean Bonner - fellowship review

by SF Team, 1 September 2017

Sean Bonner leads Safecast, an initiative focused on enabling anyone to measure and share environmental data. Born out of the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March 2011, they started by monitoring radiation levels in the affected areas, but the specific domain is not the point. Nor do they have any political agenda. Their priority has always been the data - gathering it first-hand and sharing it openly. The Safecast data...

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Seamus Kraft - fellowship review

by SF Team, 1 September 2017

Seamus Kraft is the co-founder of The OpenGov Foundation, a Washington, DC, organisation that boosts collaboration and openness in governments and communities. When Seamus first joined our fellowship, had a big vision for bringing citizens and government together using 21st century digital technology. Having worked for the US House Oversight Committee, he was familiar with the challenges, opportunities and obstacles that exist within federal government decision-making processes. He believed he could help, along with The...

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Peter Bloom - fellowship review

by SF Team, 1 September 2017

Peter Bloom is addressing a social justice issue he has experienced first hand. Mountain villages in the province of Oaxaca, Mexico, were all but cut off from the world, having no mobile phone connections and relying on 2 or 3 fixed telephone lines servicing an entire village. For mainstream telecoms providers it is not worth their while to incur infrastructure costs to reach these isolated communities. Living and working in the area, Peter founded Rhizomatica...

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No fellowships awarded for September 2017

by SF Team, 4 July 2017

While it was a difficult conclusion to come to, we have always been prepared not to offer fellowships if we did not find any applications we felt truly met our criteria. In communicating the decision, we want to be honest, open and transparent in order to find future Fellows we do feel we can support and would benefit from our help. We would like to live in an open knowledge society with limitless possibilities for...

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Sunil Abraham: Honorary steward September 2017

by SF Team, 19 April 2017

At the Shuttleworth Foundation we support individuals to bring about positive change in the world. Individuals carry their learnings, experiences, passions and hopes for the future with them throughout their lives. Investing in and supporting them to work on what is broken in their world, equips them to continue to affect change far beyond the life of a specific project or organisation. Similarly we seek out individuals who are bold and brave in re-imagining the...

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Aaron, Jesse and Johnny - new alumni

by SF Team, 3 March 2017

Aaron Makaruk Something has got to give in how we produce, distribute and consume food. The current system requires too much natural resource while creating pockets of feast and famine, sometimes even within the same city. While large scale systemic change is needed, we believe targeted individual action can make a difference. This lead us to Aaron Makaruk and his work on easy to do, affordable urban farming. He had 2 objectives - eliminating urban...

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Welcome Alasdair, Anasuya, Madeleine & Tarek

by SF Team, 3 February 2017

We are delighted to welcome four new Fellows into the Shuttleworth Fellowship Programme: Alasdair Davies, Anasuya Sengupta, Madeleine Ball and Tarek Loubani. The wonderful Cory Doctorow acted as the Honorary Steward for this round of fellowship, making the final selection from the short-list. In the world, the new cohort brings openness to conversation technology, inclusivity on the web, genetic research and medical devices. We are excited to learn with them as they progress upon their...

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Cory Doctorow selects new Shuttleworth Fellows

by SF Team, 3 February 2017

“It was an honour and a conundrum to serve as steward: an honour, because (obviously), I was in a position to help some remarkable people do transformative work; a conundrum because we were so spoilt for choice with remarkable projects and people.” For our March 2017 fellowship round we have been working with the journalist, science fiction author, EFF Special Advisor and co-editor of Boing Boing, the wonderful Cory Doctorow. Cory took stewardship of our...

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Doctorow/Shuttleworth collaboration

by SF Team, 5 October 2016

The September 2016 Fellowship round was the first for which we invited an Honorary Steward to make the final decision on new Fellows. We had a brilliant experience with Joi Ito. He brought his individual experience and perspective. He also invested considerable time and energy in thoughtful review and reflection on the applications and their contextual environments. The result is three new Fellows working in wildly different fields, challenging our thinking as much as the...

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Open for business

by SF Team, 3 October 2016

Four years ago, we wouldn’t have thought we’d fund a music venture. Like most people, we tend to think musicians are doing fine because there’s so much music around. But that’s like thinking journalists are fine because there’s so much news on TV. When culture is centralised in big, closed silos, we lose diversity, and we lose touch with parts of ourselves that we once treasured. And soon we don’t even notice what’s gone missing....

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Welcome to new alumni - Daniel and Waldo

by SF Team, 1 September 2016

Daniel Lombraña González has had the maximum of 3 consecutive fellowship years and is ready to take on the world. Waldo Jaquith is moving on after 1 year, having achieved what he set out to do in this year, to take up an opportunity that will expand the reach of his work exponentially. Daniel Lombraña González Daniel has come a long way with the Shuttleworth Foundation. We first met him as a recent PhD graduate...

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Eating our own dogfood - individuals

by SF Team, 14 July 2016

Individuals carry their learnings, experiences, passions and hopes for the future with them throughout their lives. Supporting them to work on what is broken in their world and share their approach openly, equips them to continue to affect change far beyond the life of a specific grant. Mark Shuttleworth has given the Foundation a clear mandate: Continue to re-imagine the way we work, based on openness and innovation, using the money we have in a...

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Welcome Achal, Isha and Ugo!

by SF Team, 13 July 2016

This round saw the addition of an Honorary Steward, Joi Ito, making the final selection from the short-list. We are very excited to now announce the three new Fellows who will be joining the Shuttleworth Foundation fellowship programme in September: Achal Prabhala, Isha Datar and Ugo Vallauri. Joi brought his unique perspective on openness and technology for social impact, along with his experience as Director of the MIT Media Lab. He has chosen Fellows that...

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Open Locks: Legal commitments that lock in trust

by Andrew Rens, Arthur Attwell and SF Team, 7 July 2016

Contributors to your open project invest their time and energy because they trust you with their gift to the world. So the challenge is this: How can you keep their trust? Can you seal it in for the long term? There are many successful projects that have managed this, notably in open-source software. Linux, Firefox and Wikipedia are good examples. The practice of sharing knowledge in open-source-software communities is now common among researchers, civil society...

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Ito/Shuttleworth collaboration

by SF Team, 17 March 2016

At the heart of the Shuttleworth Foundation Fellowship Programme are two key values - openness, and supporting individuals. Inspired by the programme itself, we are evolving how we award Fellowships. Not only will we be selecting individuals to support, we have selected an individual to help us make that decision for the coming round. We are excited to announce that Joi Ito will be the honorary steward of the September 2016 fellowship intake. Joi, who...

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Dan & Peter - new alumni

by SF Team, 1 March 2016

Dan Whaley Dan is the founder of Hypothes.is, developing an open, interoperable conversation layer over the web. During Dan’s 3 years of fellowship, Hypothesis has grown from an early stage idea to a fully fledged organisation. They develop essential annotation tools and support annotation efforts in journalism, education and science. Hypothesis is also the hub of a coalition to Annotate All Knowledge. Coalition members have agreed to begin the exploration and experimentation required to understand...

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Welcome Aaron, Peter and Tiffiniy!

by SF Team, 29 February 2016

Aaron Makaruk The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life” WHO, 2016, with both physical and economic access being considered. With increasing urbanisation comes greater distance between the consumers and producers of food. Along with growing demand, this has lead to trade-offs between volume, shelf life and nutritional value. Costs have gone...

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How we measure success

by SF Team, 22 September 2015

Applicants, and sometimes even Fellows, find it difficult to compute the broad question “what do YOU want to do?”. They keep looking for guidance to narrow down the scope of possibility and fit within prescribed parameters. Yes, we want open and innovative, we like technology and we get excited about access. Other than that, and even beyond that, we want applicants to tell us what they want to do, not the other way round. In...

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Welcome Adam, Astra and Waldo!

by SF Team, 3 August 2015

Adam Hyde has a particular talent for helping experts codify processes into manuals for the benefit of a wider audience. His started with technologists through Booksprints and has now turned his attention to academics. As someone familiar with, but not ingrained in, the way academic output is captured and shared, he is questioning the journal publishing process at both the conceptual and practical level. How can we increase the value of scientific output to benefit...

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Welcome Luka Mustafa

by SF Team, 5 March 2015

Luka’s fellowship is centred around the development of Koruza, a 3D printable wireless optical system for connecting buildings up to 100m apart with internet access. Internet connectivity in urban areas is reliant on fibre or wifi. Where neither of these are viable, there are few other options available. Luka’s work could offer a viable low-cost alternative in these environments. This would empower individuals to build last-mile connectivity with their own hands through the organic growth...

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Catharina, David, Jonas & Rory - new alumni

by SF Team, 5 March 2015

Catharina Maracke took on the issue of contributor agreements for free and open source software (FOSS) projects through the Harmony project in March 2012. Where Fellows typically bring their own project into the Fellowship, Catharina was in the unusual position of taking on an existing project with various and varying role players. Hers was a very nuanced role, having to be sensitive to industry and community dynamics. Catharina is a strong legal mind committed to...

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Our experiment in the world

by SF Team, 23 February 2015

This is not where we started and it is almost certainly not who we will be indefinitely. But our experience in philanthropic investment so far has resulted in a couple of key principles that govern how we behave in the world, and specifically how we structure our relationships with those we invest resources in. This is where we are today: We fund individuals in the first instance. Individuals carry their learnings, experiences, passions and hopes...

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Download our legal templates

by SF Team, 6 February 2015

Since 2007 we have required Fellows to apply open licences - first CC-BY-SA and then CC-BY - to all intellectual property created during the fellowship. The same principle applies to works produced within the Foundation. Openly licensed resources are only as useful as the number of people who can access to them, so now we are eating our own dogfood and making our Fellowship Agreement and Project Agreement available on GitHub. These agreement outlines are...

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Arthur & Jaisen - new alumni

by SF Team, 1 September 2014

During his three years as a Shuttleworth Fellow, Arthur Attwell worked on Paperight, a rights clearance house for literary and educational works to allow distributed, local, on-demand book printing. Access to reading materials is critical to learning in its broadest sense. Arthur’s passion is to ensure universal access, with access including at least legal and physical dimensions. Digital is showing promise, but has not yet resulted in the scale needed, and never will if legal...

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Welcome Sean Bonner

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

We are excited about Sean’s work as he is literally putting the tools in the hands of the people who need them, localising the measure-report-decide cycle around environmental risk factors such as radiation and noise pollution. There are may questions around the quality, reliability and cost-effectiveness of open hardware in general, and specifically open sensing tools. Sean has shown that he can address these questions critically and engage relevant stakeholders and experts. We look forward...

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Welcome Seamus Kraft

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

Seamus applied to the Foundation to expand his work on the Madison Project which aims to open up government by increasing transparency and citizen participation in policy-making. We have seen a lot of open government applications in the past, and Seamus’ is the most practical one by far. He is starting off by focusing on a small scope in a very specific context and is uniquely positioned to implement these first steps thanks to his...

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Welcome Peter Bloom

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

Through Rhizomatica, Peter is setting up affordable local mobile phone networks in under-served areas in Mexico. We have invested in telecommunication initiatives before, as communication is absolutely key to be part of society as we know it. As long as you are not connected to the global communication network, you are excluded from participating in human development beyond the limitations of time and distance. Access to telecommunication is a matter of cost, infrastructure, hardware and...

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September 2014 fellowship intake

by SF Team, 26 August 2014

We had submissions from all over the world, exploring areas of science, education, culture, health, privacy and many many more. We spoke to people working on issues from personal safety to universal access to knowledge, from designing open hardware to alleviating poverty. All of the applications showed passion and personal commitment. We continue to be impressed. We were drawn to initiatives that are at the early stages of development and not yet widely funded, to...

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The How of Open

by SF Team, 15 May 2014

This success has also made the term fashionable and sometimes leads to overenthusiastic uses of the open label or, more worryingly, open-washing . It can result in uncertainty and confusion for those who plan to open up knowledge resources for strategic purposes. The detail of how open is open, matters. Although governments and inter-governmental organisations are adopting the creation and use of open knowledge resources, there is a surprising lag by the majority of non-profit...

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by SF Team, 21 April 2014

We do this because who we are and how we behave has impact on others. We want to present the best, most relevant parts of ourselves in a given context. We choose to ignore the warts and wobbly bits in favour of the identity we’ve claimed as our own in that space. It’s part of being human, being in control of our own lives and choosing what we reveal about ourselves, under what circumstances and...

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Open as a Strategy for Philanthropy and Social Change

by SF Team, 3 March 2014

The more we expose the thinking, working and practices of our organisation, our ideas and our projects, the better. Exposing this information allows other organisations, project implementers, funders, policy makers, change agents, advocates and academics to learn from what we have done. We have found that being intentional about making knowledge resources, funded and/or produced by us, freely and openly available creates a number of strategic opportunities: You can buy one copy, give 1000′s free....

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Application pointers

by SF Team, 20 February 2014

Prospective applicants often ask us to narrow down the parameters for applications and be more specific about what we’re looking for. We are not planning on doing that, as we want to be surprised and intrigued by applicants, no matter how unconventional the idea may be. However, we can provide some thoughts on what to keep in mind while developing your application for our fellowship. We hope these are useful, for applying for the Fellowship,...

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From Traditional Funder to Today

by SF Team, 16 February 2014

Our main goal was to improve the quality of education in South Africa. We invested in projects that offered unique and innovative solutions to educational challenges in a developing society, focused on the areas of science, technology, entrepreneurship and maths in education, as well as propagating the use of open source software. The Foundation operated as a traditional funding agency – we accepted proposals and funded them. Grantees implemented their projects and came back with...

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by SF Team, 15 January 2014

The open source software movement has not only created widely used software but million dollar businesses. Although the model is well established for software development, distribution and use, it is not the case for education, philanthropy, hardware or social development, to name but a few important endeavours. The default imposed on knowledge resources by copyright law is automatic lock down. This default makes little sense if your agenda is social change. We wanted to understand...