March 16, 2007

Nominations open for second annual Mellon Foundation technology awards

Author: Nathan Willis

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Research in Information Technology (RIT) program has opened nominations for the 2007 Mellon Awards for Technology Collaboration (MATC). Prizes of $50,000 to $100,000 will be awarded to the winners in December. Any open source software project that assists educational or not-for-profit ventures is eligible to be nominated, and self-nominations are allowed. Last year's inaugural MATC awards awarded more than half a million dollars to winning projects.

Specific criteria for eligibility are outlined at the Mellon Foundation's Web site. Nominees must be publicly released open source projects, providing a "demonstrably significant benefit" to the Foundation's not-for-profit constituents, and demonstrate a track record of responsible effort. Rules also stipulate that the award money be used for further development of the project.

Although the Mellon Foundation possesses a relatively low profile in the wider open source software world, its RIT program promotes open source usage in the non-profit sector through management training, education, and financial investment in software development. "To my knowledge, we are the largest private-philanthropic funder of open source software development in the world," says RIT's Christopher J. Mackie. "Some governments give more, and some venture capitalists put huge sums into commercial OSS ventures, but in terms of both private philanthropy and in terms of not-for-profits as target beneficiaries, I'm fairly sure we're the largest by a wide margin."

In RIT's six years as a Mellon Foundation program, Mackie says, it has focused primarily on working with educational institutions because of their institutional expertise in software development. "We've had enough success in that area, addressed enough of the most critical needs, and learned enough about how to make collaborative OSS projects work, that we feel ready to start doing a better job of serving Mellon's other key constituencies: libraries, museums, arts organizations, and nature conservation.

"To ensure that we have an impact, our Board requires us to concentrate our efforts in ways that produce the greatest possible social return. Consequently, we look for what I call 'tectonic' projects: projects that, if successful, will change the ground under the feet of [not-for-profit organizations] in the target domain.

"The 'canonical' RIT project involves several diverse institutions (usually about five -- much above that and the coordination costs start to explode) who come together around a point of shared pain; maybe they need a new course management system, maybe they're tired of paying a fortune for a financial system designed for Wall Street that they then have to pay another fortune to customize to fit their needs. Those 'core' institutions contribute the majority of the resources to the project, and are its management and governance team. Mellon/RIT provides additional funding to cover two sets of costs: the costs of collaboration, and the costs of generalizing the resulting software so that it can be used by institutions other than the core developers."

RIT funds software projects through a grant program, though in an unexpected wrinkle to last year's MATC awards, several open source projects tried to apply for ongoing funding through the award nomination process.

Mackie hopes to clarify the distinction between the two processes this year. "We do not accept proposals via the MATC site, and we do not 'transfer' such things to the right people. On the other hand, it's our job to talk to people about interesting ideas in IT and OSS, so it's not as though we don't want to hear from someone who thinks she or he has a good idea for a project. If someone has an idea for a new project, she or he should go to and follow the instructions for getting in touch with us about it.... Similarly, if someone wants a MATC prize, go to the MATC site -- don't try to contact us directly."

The awards process for 2007

By Mackie's account, the 2006 MATC award process was a tremendous success. The nominations brought RIT into contact with many projects that had not previously crossed its field of view, some of which the program pursued supporting independently of the awards. "Perhaps even more importantly, we were able to put projects in touch with others who are now engaged with them. As I told a few nominees, our Award Committee members, in addition to being some of the most successful and influential people in IT, are also among the chattiest people on the planet. They all spend a lot of time talking to others about interesting projects and ideas, and I've heard a number of stories of connections being made -- for winners and for projects that didn't win but that impressed the Committee nonetheless."

The 2007 award committee will maintain the same roster as last year, but there will be some small changes to the process. The list of nominated projects will be posted for the public to see, and the window for nominations will be longer: from now until April 16.

The MATC site will also allow public comments and testimonials to be posted for each nominee to facilitate community input -- although selection of the winners remains at the sole discretion of the awards committee. "What we really hope people will do this year is give us the benefit of their knowledge of the projects. Add comments and testimonies to the nominations for projects you know about. If you see a nomination about which you think there's a concern (maybe it doesn't meet one of the MATC criteria), use a comment to alert us, so we don't make a mistake. The collective wisdom of the OSS community can play a significant role in who wins these awards next year, but only if the people who have the knowledge share it with us, so that we can share it with the Committee. And of course, it all starts with a nomination: the best project in history won't win if nobody bothers to nominate it."

Nomination forms and instructions are available now at The winners will be selected by the award committee and notified over the summer, and the final presentation will take place in December.

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