The Open Source Software Engagement Award

Outside of my day job, my life revolves around three primary foci — Open Source Software, in that I am a contributor to FreeBSD and from time to time release other small projects independently; classical music, in that I play with the West Coast Symphony and am the Treasurer of the West Coast Amateur Musicians Society; and my Alma Mater, Simon Fraser University, where I am one of four alumni on the university Senate, and serve on three committees dealing with the creation and adjudication of scholarships, bursaries, and awards. While these foci are usually quite separate, I am always happy when they overlap; and so it is that I am delighted to announce the establishment, with funding from Tarsnap, of the $1000 Open Source Software Engagement Award at Simon Fraser University.

Simon Fraser University, some years ago, adopted an explicit strategy of being "engaged with the community": It is not enough, the thinking goes, for a university to be an "ivory tower" of research and learning, but instead a modern university must participate in the world around it. Such programs as the Trottier Observatory are thus not merely outreach activities which attempt to recruit future students, but rather a core part of the University's mission, by bringing science to students of all ages. Similarly, SFU now has a long list of awards (generally valued between $500 and $1000) which recognize students' non-academic activities — covering everything from serving in the student society, to helping at local hospitals, to teaching English to refugees, to running kids' sports camps. Indeed, one of the only communities which I never see mentioned is the one to which I have the strongest connection: The community of open source software developers.

To me, this seems like an obvious place to encourage extra-curricular activity: Like other forms of community service, contributions to open source software constitute a clear public good; in many cases such contributions allow students to directly exercise the skills they are developing during their education; and while it is unusual in not being geographically localized or propagated by lineal descent, there is a very distinct culture within the open source community — one which has striking similarities to the gift cultures of the indigenous populations which inhabited the area where the university is now located, in fact. Unfortunately I can do nothing to direct university funding in this direction; but since I run an online backup service which has an explicit policy of donating money to support open source software, I was able to make the funding available for this award nonetheless.

To quote the terms of reference for the award:

One award [will be granted each year] to an undergraduate student who meets the following criteria:
  • is enrolled full-time in a Bachelor's degree program;
  • is in good academic standing [GPA 2.0 or higher]; and
  • has demonstrated excellence in contributing to Open Source Software project(s) on a volunteer basis, consisting of code and/or documentation.

Preference will be given to students who have taken a leadership role within a project.

Applications must include:

  • a list of contributions to the Open Source Software project(s); and
  • a letter of reference from another project member describing the project and the applicant's contributions.
Unlike Google's Summer of Code, this isn't an award which pays a student to work on open source software; rather, it is "free money" to recognize the contributions a student has already made.

A few notes about this: First, as a developer I know the importance of good documentation — and the fact that it is often overlooked — so I asked for it to be explicitly included as a accepted form of contribution. Second, I know that trying to lead volunteers is similar to trying to herd cats; but I also know that having people step into (or sometimes fall into) leadership positions is essential for the smooth progress of open source software projects, so I wanted to recognize those less quantifiable contributions. Third, because this award will be adjudicated by a committee which is not very familiar with open source software (or software generally, for that matter), the letters of reference are absolutely crucial. While requiring a letter from another project member does rule out single-person projects, I don't particularly mind this: I'd rather give money to a student who works with other developers than a student who just writes code by his or her self anyway. And finally, because this is an award rather than a scholarship or bursary, it is disbursed entirely based on the above terms — there is no need for a high GPA (as with scholarships) or financial need (as with bursaries).

This award should be disbursed for the first time in the Spring 2015 term, and the deadline for applications is January 16th — although given the need for a letter of reference, I would encourage students to apply well before the deadline. In future academic years this will be awarded in the Fall term.

If you are an SFU student who contributes to open source software, please apply!

Posted at 2014-09-21 23:30 | Permanent link | Comments
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