Stepping Down From Software in the Public Interest, Inc.

Three years ago, I was elected to the board of directors of Software in the Public Interest, Inc. About halfway through my three year term, I was elected by the board to the (largely ceremonial?) role of Vice President of the organization. This month, my term is up and after a good deal of soul searching over the last weeks, I’ve decided to not run again.

With time, I’ve become busy with other projects including work and graduate school at the MIT Media Lab, Debian, Ubuntu, One Laptop per Child, several book projects and more. Recently, I’ve found that I’ve simply had less time to put toward SPI than I have had in the past.

Of course, I continue to care very much about SPI and its mission and feel that I done a good job of fulfilling my responsibilities throughout my term. The real reason I’d like to step aside to let some new blood and energy take a more active role and to let SPI take off in new directions.

Since I’ve served a full term, I thought I would take the opportunity to look back at my work with SPI over the last three years and to the future.

SPI’s Recent Past

Three years ago, I ran for the SPI board on a platform that I would like to see SPI work more like a real pro-active non-profit organization and less like Debian’s legal shell. SPI was at at transition point then and the board spent a lot of time thinking about it was that SPI should do and what role it should fill in the free software community. Many of these questions are still open but the following is my round up.

There are two types of non-profit organizations in the free/open source community. The first is the large-project foundation. Example are the GNOME Foundation, KDE Foundation, and Plone Foundation. These support and work closely with one large and otherwise institutionally independent project. The second type is concerned with advocacy or issues of concern to many or all free software projects. The FSG/LSB, Open Source Initiative, Software Freedom International, Linux International, and the Free Software Foundation are all examples of this type (although the FSF also supports the GNU Project so can be put into both camps).

Three years ago, SPI was basically the Debian Foundation under a different name. However, SPI also supported a handful of other medium-sized projects (at the time, this included Berlin and OFTC). In this way, SPI provided some of the benefits of a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to groups that were large and important enough to care about issues like the tax-deductability of donations, but small enough that starting their own foundation didn’t quite make sense. This, I am convinced, is SPI’s niche and its where the organization can make the greatest difference. While Debian continues to be the driving force behind SPI, this mirrors Debian close relationship with other free software projects as a downstream and a distribution. Debian may ultimately decide its has outgrown SPI and wants its own foundation but it’s role in providing an umbrella for other free software project also makes a lot of sense.

Over the last years, SPI has added several new member projects including GNUStep, Drupal and PostgreSQL and members of these projects have played an increasingly important role in SPI. OFTC members including SPI secretary David Graham have continued to drive the organization. I am thrilled to see that PostgreSQL’s Josh Berkus is running for a seat on the board and wish him the best of luck. He has put a huge amount of effort into SPI in the past several months and I believe he would make a great board member.

Of course, not everything has been rosy. While our organization is in slightly better shape than it has been in the past, SPI still suffers from a lack of interest and activity by participants in its member projects. SPI handles Debian’s money and every Debian developer should be interested and involved in SPI; yet only a relatively small percentage are. I’ve run SPI sessions, talks, and BOFs at three of the last four Debian conferences but haven’t been able to make a satisfactory dent in either the Debian community or SPI. The next board of directors will need to work actively and creatively to help do what the last board did not accomplish.

While things are currently much better than they have been in the past, SPI has continued to be mired in a number of bureaucratic issues. Simple issues like accurate, timely and transparent bookkeeping have proved more difficult than the board or those brave (or foolhardy) enough to take on the treasurer position seem to have thought. I worked with the treasurer and our lawyer to meet with a bookkeeping service in New York City.

The Future

In the future, I’d like see to more members projects and more active participants from all members projects. I’d like to see a more active organization in general but am beginning to conclude that a fully volunteer "staff" is only going to be able to do so much.

In terms of bureaucratic issues, several board members have lobbied hard to spend money to hire full or part time help either in an administrative capacity or as some sort of combination administrator/executive director. For a number of reasons, the board has been reticent to do this but I think it’s become increasingly clear that our growth and relevance as an organization is going to require this. I think hiring the bookkeeping service was a good first step. I think at the very least, SPI should "outsource" most of the non-fun administrative work to others so that the board can focus on the important work of advocating free software and helping our member projects. I’m famously concerned with introducing paid labor into voluntary free software projects but I think that, if done right, this could be a very good step.

In terms of my own involvement, I’m planning to stay involved as a contributing member or perhaps even as an adviser if the board will have me. I’d like to continue work on the SPI-Trademark committee and look forward to the day that we can create a general policy for helping folks use and license the Debian mark (and other trademark SPI may hold in the future) as permissively as possible.

I’d also like to see a better documented process for becoming an SPI member project. This should explain to projects what SPI expects from them (e.g., democratic decision making, an active representative to SPI, etc), what they will get from SPI, and what is necessary to make it all happen. I’d like to work with some of the recent member projects to help document their experience and make easier for the next batch.

I’m looking forward to taking some time off and look forward to the possibility of running for a seat on the SPI board again at some point in the future.

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