The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Open Source

Using Collective Knowledge for the Common Good
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Schweik has been recognized as one of the top 50 innovators in education for his cutting-edge use of open-source software in the classroom and as a research tool.

You’ve heard about wicked problems. That is, problems like climate change and new drug discovery that are too big for any one person, organization, or country to solve alone. Problems that only have a chance of being chipped away at when creative thinkers team up with tech-savvy doers.

Charlie Schweik, UMass Amherst associate professor of Environmental Conservation and Public Policy and associate director of the National Center for Digital Government, is helping to address some of these wicked problems, drawing on his expertise in public sector information technology, environmental management and policy, and the intersection of these domains.

These converging research interests coalesced when he arrived at UMass Amherst in 1999 and began working on a project as one of 50 researchers across the Northeast gathering social and ecological data on the Chesapeake Bay region for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There was a need for an effective means to share these large data sets among researchers and the public.

Around this time, Schweik started hearing murmurings of something called “open-source software” and it caught his attention. He had a hunch that the principles that guide successful management of the forest commons he had studied earlier would be at work in the creation of open-source software. He also suspected that the work of those developing open-source technology could have “much bigger implications for how humans can collaborate on anything.” As Schweik learned more, he realized that the concept of the commons was, in fact, at work in the development of open-source software: programmers collaborating over the Internet to build a common resource. 

Schweik sees examples of successful collaborative research and learning everywhere he looks. YouTube, he points out, is an international forum where people can easily and freely learn from one another. Schweik notes that the Web exploded into the major international platform for sharing information that it has become in the late 1990s when Netscape, the browser that most people used at that time, allowed users to view the source code. “It wasn’t licensed as open source, but it was de facto open source,” Schweik says. As a result, people around the world were able to teach themselves how to build websites. “We don’t recognize this period of Web growth as a distance-learning phenomenon, but I would argue it is the most successful distance learning the world has ever seen,” he says.

Since 2007 Schweik has led an effort to build an international network of faculty that collaborate on open-source geographic information systems education. Earlier this year they launched which now has more than 50 research and education nodes on every continent except Antarctica. Over the last few years he has also worked closely with the UMass provost’s office and staff at the W.E.B. Du Bois Library on the Open Education Initiative, a program that promotes the production and use of open-access educational materials to engage students and keep their textbook costs down. Last year the Center for Digital Education named Schweik one of the top 50 innovators in education for his cutting-edge use of open-source software in the classroom, as a research tool, and for his efforts promoting collective action in the development of open access educational materials.

On the research side, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Schweik has examined why some open-source software projects lead to ongoing collaboration while others are abandoned. In his book, Internet Success: A Study of Open Source Software Commons (MIT 2012), Schweik and his former graduate student Robert English analyze more than 170,000 Internet-based common property projects and test more than 40 theoretically based hypotheses. It was the “first study of open software as a socio-technological system of collaboration,” Schweik says. In other words, it was the first study to systematically examine on a large scale what makes collaborative projects like open-source software development succeed or fail. “People naturally want to work with others who have similiar interests, passions and problems. And armed with the Internet and search engines, they can more easily find each other and begin to communicate and build social capital. This has important implications for how we, globally, work collectively on problems.”  

This commitment to using collective knowledge to change the world helped Schweik earn a new international award honoring the late political economist Elinor Ostrom, the only woman to date to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Ostrom, who died in 2012, spent her career demonstrating that “collaboration is possible, frequent and occurs among individuals of different rationalities and in different contexts,” thereby challenging the previously accepted “conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized.” 

Schweik’s distinctive blend of research experience gives him a fighting chance when it comes to helping people around the world solve, collaboratively, wicked problems. “Open-source software teams provide an example of how humans can work together across the planet to make positive contributions to the world. Through applied and theorectical study, I'm trying to understand how we can apply these same collaborative principles in any situation where people need to work together to solve problems."

Michal Lumsden, Center for Public Policy and Administration