Alicia Gibb on the Status of the Open Source Hardware Movement in 2012

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Alicia Gibb is the president of OSHWA, the Open Source Hardware Association.

Interview

Conducted by Simone Cicero for OpenPicus:

"Alicia, what are the latest progresses on the OSHWA project?

[Alicia Gibb] We have just finished up writing our bylaws and are about to enter into the specifics of membership. We got a lot of advice from the community on our mailing list about membership levels so we intend to incorporate that feedback. But before we can open membership, we need a bank account, which we are halfway through the process of opening. After that we will be tackling the IRS documentation, which I’ve heard can take a couple years to get non-profit status.


[openpicus] Wow, it seems like a quite long and complex process, I’m sure it’s worth for such an important Mission. Indeed, many often appeal to open hardware as a form of social good: what does it mean in terms of a more equitable profiteering chain?

[Alicia Gibb] I think these two things are related, but I’m going to explain them one at a time. Open source hardware is a social good in its definition alone. By definition, open hardware is open to learn from, and teach from among other things. The social good of open hardware comes in another form of giving people the empowerment and the right to democratize their hardware - devices, gadgets, 3D prints, etc., which Dr. Eric von Hippel has written a great deal about.

Opening hardware helps society learn about the technology they use, helps innovation happen at a natural pace, and helps make creations better with crowd sourcing solutions. All of that makes civilization stronger. It’s also more or less a form of evolution for hardware. When hardware is opened to be derived from, anyone can make the innovation better, faster, cheaper, or stronger, among other things. In this sense, the best open hardware wins the market.

But it also lets more individuals share the profit chain by creating those same similar objects and diversifying the field of distributors that carry it. Many innovations derived from open hardware are a personalization - be it adding a new function or creating a new form factor - on the long tail of devices, meaning millions of people may not be interested in your particular personalization, but hundreds of thousands are - and that’s enough to make a living. And adding up 10 different styles of personalizations on the same original innovation may end up being interesting to millions of people - all stemming from one piece of open source hardware.


The other social good open source hardware can boast is helping people in need. One specific project that relied on open source hardware as its basis to be created was a Geiger counter created in the wake of the Japanese tsunami and power plant accident. This was created for people to measure the radiation in their areas, data that was without doubt a social good. Rather than keeping the information of how to build a simple Geiger counter to himself, the creator of this product, Shigeru Kobayashi, shared the information of how to build the device as well as a map of all communally collected data. Other people in turn built this device and helped collect and share data. Shigeru is a true hero in the open source hardware community.


[openpicus] People often think of Open Hardware such as boards and circuitry but: what's the real future? I mean, we know Open Source Ecology obviously, but is it possible to think, as it was for Open Source Software, that Open Source Hardware will largely power wealth production infrastructures - as OSS is now the very backbone of the Internet?

[Alicia Gibb] The Open Source Hardware community started out of the electronics industry, but we’ve already seen it move into mechanical engineering largely with 3D printing, and arguably it has its roots in mechanics as cars and machinery used to be reverse engineered by observing how they were put together - but this was because they were on the human readable scale of gears and parts rather than what we have today (the common computer being not on the human readable scale). I think the future lies within various fields including fashion, medicine, and once again cars. I think Open Source Hardware has already created production infrastructures with such sustainable companies as Adafruit, SparkFun, and Makerbot. At OSHWA, we’re hoping to educate the public about the benefits of open hardware so that it may broaden into new fields and be used in unexpected places.


...


[openPicus] What kind of support will OSHWA give to people dealing with open source hardware are you thinking of IPR or licensing, legal support? other forms?

[Alicia Gibb] In a recent survey we found that 60% of the open hardware community did not use a license, partly because they felt they didn’t have enough money to go to court anyway and partly for other reasons. People are however asking for a best practices set of standards, which will be communal but have no legal standing. Perhaps down the road there will be a need for licensing assistance and legal work, but for now we’re working on educating people and building structure rather than delve into legal conversations.


[openPicus] What are some inspiring examples of open hardware projects that are making a difference in real world with tangible projects?

[Alicia Gibb] The example I used of the Geiger counter used to aid people in Japan is inspiring for the case of open source hardware used for humanitarian purposes. But the other type of open hardware I find inspiring is the kind of hardware that is accessible to younger and younger children, like the MaKey MaKey board. The younger we can get kids interested in hardware hacking, the more innovative our future will be!" (http://openpicus.blogspot.it/2012/08/building-open-source-hardware.html)