Crowdsourcing in IT: A New FOSS Trend?


Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon that has been used successfully in the business world for several years already, but recently it was brought into the limelight here in the FOSS realm when Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth advocated it during his keynote speech last week at LinuxCon Europe.

Mark-Shuttleworth-LinuxCon-Europe“Instead of having a large number of recipes across institutions, let’s have crowdsourced nuggets of goodness—so that the best ideas bubble to the top,” Shuttleworth said while extolling the concept’s use at the operational level as a way to achieve greater agility as well as a better user experience.

Shuttleworth also pointed to what he called the “DevOps magic” that can arise when the community comes together. “You can have one group using Chef, and another group using Puppet, and with JuJu, they can easily connect and use each other’s knowledge, leveraging the unique skills that they both bring to table,” he explained. “It’s a complete buffet of all the goodness that open source offers.”

Crowdsourcing, Defined

Of course, in the world of free and open source software, one could argue that crowdsourcing is already a norm of sorts, dependent as that world is on collaborative contributions. In this context, however, it seems fair to say that crowdsourcing can be distinguished by the involvement of those who are not already part of the community via an open call or contest for the purpose of fulfilling a specific, immediate need.

Canonical itself is apparently still in the early stages of implementing crowdsourcing in this fashion, but there’s no doubt the concept is a compelling one, with the potential to deliver significant benefits to distros large and small. Aiming to learn more about this phenomenon within the world of Linux distributions, asked around at some of the bigger projects.

Linux Mint, it turns out, has already done some experimenting.

‘You Might Get Something Better’

“It’s not always easy to achieve, but we did use crowdsourcing techniques successfully at Linux Mint,” project leader Clement Lefebvre told “The main problem with crowdsourcing is to be able to define what you want, without necessarily knowing who might implement it and what their availability and motivations are.”

So, unlike more traditional processes in which the project has fuller control, “you need to be flexible when it comes to delays and specifications,” Lefebvre advised. “You might not get exactly what you want when you want, but sometimes that’s a good thing, and you might end up getting something better than what you came for. :)”

Although Lefebvre admitted it’s “a bit unfair to artists,” Linux Mint has used 99designs competitions in the past to crowdsource its artwork.

“We were able to purchase quality backgrounds and artwork items made for Linux Mint by artists outside our own community,” he explained. “Of course, this complemented the work done by people within our own community who contribute to the project via email, forums, IRC and the community website.”

More recently, “we work in collaboration with members of our own community, who step up and interact with us thanks to online tools we set up or hosted solutions such as Launchpad and GitHub,” Lefebvre said.

‘Likely to Grow’

Crowdsourcing may well be a growing phenomenon in IT.

“Generally, we haven’t seen the same level of innovation when it comes to combinations and integrations of different technology as we have from individual projects and applications,” Jay Lyman, a senior analyst with 451 Research, told 

“However, that is changing with virtualization, cloud and mobile computing, DevOps, and continued, heavy use of open source software and ideology,” Lyman added.

Another factor is that “these trends are aligning provider and user needs and requirements,” Lyman pointed out. “We continue to see more vendors perfecting or sharing internal practices or even products based on their own experiences and those of their customers.”

In short, “I would view this as a very relevant, significant form of crowdsourcing in today’s enterprise IT that is likely to grow along with these other trends,” he concluded.