FSF Moves to Greater Openness with Free Software Directory Relaunch

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 29, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Over the last few years, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has tried to become more open in its operations. The largest of the efforts in this direction is probably the LibrePlanet network and annual conference. But today, the FSF announced another effort: the relaunching of its Free Software Directory, with a redesign that makes it easier for people to contribute. Although what is implemented falls short of complete openness, it at least shows the FSF is at least trying to involve supporters more.
As the news release explains, the Directory has existed for over a decade. With some 6500 applications, the Directory is a thorough but far from complete list. In the past, part of the reason for its incompleteness has been the slowness of the submission process: to add an entry to the Directory, you had to submit an email that would checked and perhaps supplemented by the FSF's staff members when they had the time.
For almost a year, the FSF staff have been working to modernize the Directory. Now, the new Directory is based on MediaWiki, with Semantic MediaWiki and Semantic Forms extensions, and anyone with an FSF web account can submit additions -- although the instructions and the form, with its forty information fields (only some of which, mercifully, are required) might be a bar for some potential contributors, at least at first.
These submissions will not be indexed in search engines or in the local site search, according to John Sullivan, executive director of the FSF "because doing that would mean presenting users with potentially nonfree software." However, potentially, submissions will be more ordered because of the structure in the submission form, and therefore -- with any luck, quicker to approve.
Sullivan explains that the FSF considered allowing anybody to edit via MediaWiki's Flagged Revisions extension. Unfortunately, "this extension turned out to not be compatible with other extensions more important to our purposes." However, he adds, that more public accessibility remains "a possibility for the future."
Sullivan also hopes for more interactivity with the Directory in the future. "For example, what if users made their own lists of favorite free software, on the wiki? What if some people did the work to tag entries with properties indicating that certain free programs are suitable replacements for popular nonfree programs? What if properties were created for various features to enable useful dynamically-generated comparison tables between different free software programs in the same area? What if blogging software had plugins to automatically link to pages in the Directory when they blog about their favorite free software? What if we had a system for linking paid support providers to these programs? What if it were easy from the Directory pages to make donations to your favorite programs?"
The new Directory also has the advantage of providing accurate summaries of the state of each piece of software listed, as well as revision histories for each entry. However, as someone who has always wanted to see the FSF interacting with supporters more, what interests me most is the frankness with which the re-launch is being made, and the fact that more interactivity is even being considered. Both the implementation and the plans for the directory seem small but hopeful steps in the FSF's evolution, and I hope to see a similar spirit in the FSF in other areas as well.

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