Open Source and Transparency: Not The Same Thing

Open Source is a hot topic and the idea has reach almost every sector, not only as a concept but also in practice. Another term often spoken in the same breath is that of transparency, but transparency does not equal open source. The two are fundamentally different concepts despite their common themes of sharing contributions to be used by others. Transparency involves more than simply allowing access to code, products, designs, and services. It is a commitment to total clarity, in business practice, structure, finance, and design, something many companies would be horrified to consider. So what are the differences and how do we discuss these two concepts with consideration for their distinct implications?

Open Source 

Open source refers primarily to the availability of original coding to be accessed, modified, and repurposed. Software developers utilize volumes of open source code to create new programs with greater efficiency and new complexities. Access to code is becoming a standard in the development world. It is a give-and-take relationship where access to open frameworks leads to rapid development and quicker releases of new and updated software.
According to Rachael King of The Wall Street Journal, the largest companies with hordes of developers are utilizing open source to make new products in a much shorter timeframe. This list includes the likes of Facebook, Google, GE, Sears, Chevron, MasterCard, and Dell, with hundreds more contributing to the shared development of new technology. Let’s not forget about the impact of open CMS companies like Joomla, WordPress, and Drupal, changing the pace and accessibility of web development. The list of those who have not engaged in the open source process is much shorter than the inverse, with the primary holdout being the federal government. Why would the US government choose not to engage in openness, and how does all of this relate to organizational transparency?


Open source is certainly an aspect of transparency, but only as one minor demonstration of the greater ideal that transparency represents. Benefits of transparency include fostering trust with your customers and community, setting an example of faultless business practice, sharing your company’s innovation for the advancement of society and technology, and allowing creative problem solving out in the open. 
In an age of corporate monopolies, government bailouts, insider trading, and semi-legal contracts, where corporate lobbyists can but the right to screw you, it is hard to imagine that the largest corporations would ever adopt transparency as the standard. Their solution is to engage in open source sharing of code under the well crafted PR statements about “seeking transparency”. If one is to see through the blatant ploy of appeasement, we must first differentiate the two commonly interchanged concepts. 
Gerry Adams, president of the Irish Sinn Féin party, said “one man’s transparency is another’s humiliation”. When did the public become content to have industry strongholds operate behind closed doors and with so much to hide? If a business or organization has that amount of sensitive information, the question becomes “who is getting screwed here and what exactly are they hiding”? More than likely it is the everyday consumer, being charged several hundred percent of production cost, never gaining access to promised resources and services supported by millions or billions of investment dollars from venture capitalists and governmental organizations. Who knows, really? And that is the point.
Not all businesses choose to take this route, however. Every day, more organizations are demonstrating complete transparency in business, not simply open sourcing their software development, but going as far as to publish their spending, earnings and projects. One perfect example of this new standard for transparency is that of the social media management and automation company Buffer. They have chosen to make all aspects of their business practice fully open and you can read every bit of it on their blog Check it out. 
Transparency is the standard of altruistic organizations and it is just good business. No one is saying that transparency means the destruction of capitalism, but what should we expect from the largest companies and from our government? We should never have to demand a shift toward openness or set an example of what it means to operate a business in broad daylight. If we cannot expect our government to allow its citizens to know how it operates, then we are passively enabling wrong doing and marginalized success at the expense of all. 
Open source is a beautiful thing and it has transformed how businesses work, develop, and operate. However, as we have seen, open source is merely an aspect of the larger concept and ideal that is Transparency. The two are not interchangeable, but certainly should go together. More companies are jumping on the transparency train and a few are setting a new standard for what it means to demonstrate the concept.
All who believe in equality, should also strive for transparency, for one cannot exist without the other. 

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1 Response

  1. Alex Borrell says:

    Of couse open software is not the sama as transparency, but open software is transparent. Not only on code but how it is developed, the tools used, the organization. As such is an example on how to achieve transparency and and the tools available to manage open data which is so important to transparency

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