Building Bridges

For several years now, I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback about the Open Source Bridge conference, held annually each June in Portland — perhaps the open source software capital of the world if there is such a thing. Having regularly attended OSCON in the same place every July, it seemed a bit redundant at first. But the more I thought about it, I started wondering how the event could be so successful in the light of another major event’s competition. It didn’t take long after arriving to see why.

First of all, Bridge is a volunteer-run event, compared to OSCON’s (very) corporate feel. During the week someone called the event “the college radio of open source conferences”, which is pretty much true. My take was that everyone who was there, was there because they loved open source and what it stood for … they weren’t just there for networking or business opportunities.

I also wanted to get a feel for how a successful small-ish open source conference ran successfully, to bring back what I could for the OpenMRS Implementers Meetings that I help coordinate every year. I got lots of small practical tips that I’ll try to work in to future events. One thing Bridge did well was combine scheduled tracks with attendee demand — attendees voted on proposed sessions and then the organizers scheduled the most-voted sessions based on demand. Not quite a unconference, but pretty close. However, the pure unconference still made an appearance on the final day, with folks proposing and scheduling sessions that same day.

One of the main themes of the event for the past several years has been focused around the notion of “open source citizenship”. Although I’ve spoken with colleagues often about how contributions to open source projects are a give-and-take relationship, I hadn’t before considered the metaphor of citizenship. I like it. Just like in any “real world” community, people participating are expected to both give and receive with their neighbors, an open source project is a similar collaborative effort to build a place that people want to spend their time. Collectively as a community, we all create space where people feel free to explore their ideas and share those ideas with each other, and a place where people help their neighbors live up to their potential.

In the OpenMRS community, there are many ways for us to tear down fences and build more bridges to connect the different areas where we work. Much of that will be my focus over the next year. Some of those improvements will come through better, more transparent communication channels. Some will happen by reaching out and helping newcomers find their way and get connected to people and opportunities. And finally, some improvements in our community will happen by doing better about recognizing all the ways in which people contribute to OpenMRS — whether that’s by programming, writing documentation, or sharing stories and getting other people excited about our passions. Open Source Bridge left me with some concrete ideas of things we can put into practice to do better.

It won’t be long until I’m back in Portland for OSCON, and I’ll certainly be faced with some different reflections when gathering with that crowd. But for now, I’m excited to double my focus on building bridges in the OpenMRS community.


Michael Downey

Director of Community, DIAL Open Source Center at United Nations Foundation. LibreHealth steering committee, OSUOSL advisory board, Open Source Initiative advocate circle. He/him.

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