David A. Wheeler's Blog

Sat, 24 Jun 2006

The Wisdom of Crowds and Free-Libre / Open Source Software

I just came across an interesting short essay by Dr. Les Hatton titled “Open source inevitably good”; it appears it was published in the July 2005 IT week. He has some intriguing conclusions about free-libre / open source software (FLOSS).

But first, a little about Dr. Hatton, to show that he is no lightweight. Dr. Hatton holds the Chair in Forensic Software Engineering at the University of Kingston, UK, he is a fellow of the British Computer Society, and was voted in “World’s leading Scholars of Systems and Software Engineering (1993-2002)” by U.S. Journal of Systems and Software. His work in computer science has primarily been in the field of software failure, especially the design and execution of experiments to determine the cause and reduce the likelihood of failure in software systems. He’s particularly known for his work on safer language subsets, such as “Safer C”. One paper of his I especially like is “EC—, a measurement based safer subset of ISO C suitable for embedded system development” - in this, he measures the common mistakes made in C by professional developers, and then proposes simple rules to reduce their likelihood (if you write software in C, it’s definitely worth reading). In any case, here is someone who understands software development, and in particular has carefully studied why software fails and how to prevent such failures in the future.

In his essay “Open source inevitably good”, Hatton starts by first examining James Surowiecki’s interesting book “The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many are smarter than the Few”. It turns out that crowds working together regularly beat the experts; there’s both good evidence for this (with legions of examples), and good mathematical underpinnings justifying this too. For this to happen, two simple conditions must be met: they must all have some knowledge, and they must act effectively independently.

He notes that while the “many eyeballs” theory of Raymond still operates, this “wisdom of the crowds” also has a strong effect. In short, FLOSS software development often appears chaotic because much of it uses a “survival of the fittest” development approach; several different ideas are tried, and then the most successful approach is selected by many others. When viewed through the lens of the “wisdom of crowds”, this is an entirely sensible thing to do. He concludes this startling way: “High quality open source isn’t a surprise, it’s inevitable.”

Obviously, there has to be a crowd for this concept to hold. But there are many FLOSS projects where it’s obvious that there is a crowd, and where the results are really very good. So take a peek at Les Hatton’s “Open source inevitably good”. It’s an interesting and provocative piece that will make you think.

path: /oss | Current Weblog | permanent link to this entry