Recently, I had the rare privilege of attending the annual implementers conference of OpenMRS, my Google Summer of Code (GSoC) mentoring organization.
Thanks largely to the conference sponsorship by Google, OpenMRS was able to fund my week-long visit to Kigali, Rwanda. I travelled over 4,500 miles to Rwanda, and spent a week meeting with core OpenMRS developers, other volunteers, implementers, service providers and researchers who had gathered there for the conference.
Arriving at Kigali, I was amazed at the diversity and fellowship amongst the community, and of how happy they were to accept me as their own.
I took part in a pre-conference hackathon, and visited the OpenMRS implementation at Rwanda’s TRAC Plus health clinic. I listened to why implementers from Village Health Works used an Access database for their Burundi clinic, and to Dr. Joaquin Blaya’s work with Interactive Voice Response. Eduardo Jezierski, the CTO of InSTEDD, talked to me about their work in Haiti, while Christopher Bailey of the World Health Organization spoke of his experience working with developing countries.
I also enjoyed a Chinese meal with a group of US-based developers for the AMPATH program in Western Kenya. (Ben Wolfe, director of OpenMRS API Development taught me how to use chopsticks). I visited the Kigali Genocide museum, played cards with a group of research scientists, academics and other developers and spilled my drink all over a director’s laptop. I had dinner with OpenMRS co-founder Dr. Burke Mamlin, brought a drink for co-founder Dr. Paul Biondrich and had breakfast with an MIT graduate who explained why he quit building space satellites and an engineering career to enroll in medical school.
My participation at the conference was an eye opener for several reasons. Firstly, it helped me make the change from “GSOC student” to fully fledged community member. I stopped being just an offshore volunteer, and understood my organization for what it really was.
I saw my project as a community, a group of vibrant, talented and extremely capable people with a wide range of interest in software development, research, medicine, health informatics and public health. I understood that OpenMRS is not “just” OpenMRS, but a massive network of implementers, developers, healthcare workers and other organizations.
I saw the dedication and professionalism of community members, and their sincere concern to help make the world a better place. I also realized how community members were supporting themselves while enjoying what they do by serving as consultants, developers and service providers.
However, I believe that my experience at the conference highlights something that Google should definitely look into – the inability to ensure that GSoC students continue being a part of the open source community once deadlines are over. As Google clearly states on their website, GSoC is organized with the aim of encouraging students to contribute to open source projects. However it’s undeniable that many students consider GSoC as a get rich scheme for their internship year.
I feel that this is mainly due to four reasons – firstly because many GSoC students are offshore based, and see their project as yet another software, secondly because many of them consider it as a internship with strict deadlines, thirdly because they are unable to make the transition from volunteer to community member and finally because they fail to understand that open source developers have ways of making money while doing what they enjoy.
As I see, the best way that Google can avoid this is by tearing down the wall between student and community member.
Google can do this by introducing more flexible methods of student evaluation, by giving more weight to community participation in their evaluation criteria and possibly by moving up student application dates so that students can apply several months in advance, allowing the community to assess how they get up to speed on domain knowledge and technology stacks. This way, students will be familiar with their projects, the community will be aware of their capabilities and stronger ties would link the student with his organization.
Ideally, all this would happen before the student is even selected for GSoC.
Ultimately, I believe that both Google and mentoring organizations should consider methods to ensure that GSoC does not end with “successful project completion”. Also consider – why do we even get a certificate saying that we “are recognized for participating in GSoC”? It should say that we are “recognized as a successful community member” of our respective mentoring organizations.