Skip to main content.

Fri, 18 Dec 2009

Diversity in Free Software: South Asians as an example

As someone born in India, I sometimes look around and wonder, Where are the Indians (and other South Asians) in Free Software?

(I don't mean to exclude South Asians from other countries, so I will lump us together. I believe that we are more similar than we are different, although I know more about India than about the rest of South Asia.)

There is no shortage of Indians performing information technology jobs in the United States. The same is true in academia; the Computing Research Association uses National Science Foundation data to show about 15% of computer science bacholor's degrees are awarded to "Asians or Pacific Islanders." These are not precise numbers targeted at South Asians in particular, but they confirm a general feeling that plenty of technologists in the United States are from that part of the world.

South Asia is quite a populous region, coming in at over one billion people. It, too, has plenty of technology workers. So much FLOSS conversation happens in English, and India is well-suited to handle this; English is an "official language". Indian academia reports that there are 350 million English users and about 90 million English speakers.

So let's visually compare the Debian developers map for South Asia (over one billion people) and that of New Zealand, a country of four million.


New Zealand:

These two countries have about the same number of Debian developers (at least, who have marked their location in the Debian LDAP database). About four.

South Asians comprise about one sixth of the world's population. There are about one thousand Debian developers; we represent at best 1% of that. These numbers are comparable to the under-representation of women in Free Software, especially when you compare the figure to South Asians' over-representation in the rest of information technology.

That makes me sad.

Take a look at the Debian developer map again. You'll see that Debian is certainly not an Americans-only project, or even an English-speakers-only project. South America has a respectable dotting of developers, and Western- to Central-Europe are packed.

I have strong feelings about Free Software. It emerges from an ethos of personal empowerment, and with open source it has become a dominant force in computing. Yet there are plenty of sharp people -- at least women and South Asians -- who, somehow, become culturally excluded from participating.

Why care about diversity?

Consider the diversity of contributors we already have. Some contribute to Free Software because of particular business needs, such as what caused Avi Kivity to write KVM, the new leader in Linux-based virtualization. Everaldo's art background gave us the "Crystal" icon set that set the standard for sharp-looking icons on the Free Desktop for years. Josh Coalson knew about compressing sound, and his Free Lossless Audio Codec is now the standard in high quality audio.

We already have a great deal of diversity. We should be celebrating!

Back in 2001, FLAC's users were celebrating. In that year, I decided to ditch proprietary operating systems because I felt I could achieve all my computing needs in the Free world. A happy user of FLAC myself, I lurked on the mailing list as I watched grateful people thank Josh for the great software he wrote.

Different contributions will excite different sorts of users. The more different people we have improving FLOSS, the more happy users we can make. Happy users of FLOSS are Free users. Happy users can become contributors, putting forth code, documentation, translations, and word-of-mouth marketing.

The first reason to improve diversity in FLOSS is to better suit our users' needs. The more diversity we have in our contributors, the more chance we have of tickling our users in the ways that please them the most. I wish to see an end to software that restricts users' freedom, so I want to see us build the tools that users want.

One thing that pleases me is when I see other people contributing who seem similar to me. When I went to Debconf, I was thrilled to be surrounded by people who cared about software freedom and technical excellence. I had even more fun being social, chatting about rainforests, mutual friends, websites, and music. I might have had the most fun playing the card game Mao.

A second reason, then, to improve diversity in FLOSS is to increase contributor retention by increasing joy. Mao was an example of a cultural bond I happened to share with a handful of Debianites. The more diversity we have, the more frequent these sorts of coincidences will be.

The final, most obvious, reason to reach out to groups of people who do not typically contribute is that we can increase our numbers. That by itself is so valuable. Ubuntu sees 100 new bugs per week, even after the bug squad's efforts. If we can do a better job of recruiting new contributors, the raw numbers give us more strength in creating and maintaining world-class software as well as letting the world know about it.

Changing the balance

I believe that there are plenty of South Asians quite capable of contributing to FLOSS. I believe the same of women. I believe the same of men.

Back to the topic at hand. Why do the South Asians vanish when we look at Free Software, not tech in general?

There are plenty of reasons I can dream up, based on my experience with Indians.

It's tough for FLOSS advocates to work directly on these distant issues. But I think we can focus some problems we can help solve. Crucially, awareness of Free Software spreads best by social circles. I learned about Linux from a friend at a summer camp. I'll repeat that:

So if you want to spread that awareness, try to be a bridge.

If you meet someone from an unusual background for open source who needs support or mentorship, try to help. That is an investment in the diversity and growth of Free Software. Those people can now unlock more "open source minorities."

What success looks like

Google Summer of Code helps some new contributors get started and provides that mentorship. Rachel McCreary was invited to the SciPy conference after a successful summer. Her father left a comment explaining how her sisters participated in FLOSS via Google's Highly Open Participation (GHOP) Contest:

Rachel was inspired and motivated by BOTH of her little sisters, each completing six GHOP tasks (if memory serves).
GHOP and GSOC has been a game-changer for these girls. Rachel's younger sister is applying to schools such as MIT with an interest in a science major. The youngest daughter now has a Caltech poster on her wall with the intent to eventually attend.
Their proud Dad

Soon, these stories will be commonplace. Until then, we have work to do.

(I'm still researching these topics. If you can help me find any sort of data to help me learn more about diversity in FLOSS, even if it seems like I wouldn't like it, leave a comment.)

[] permanent link and comments

Comment form

  • The following HTML is supported: <a href>, <em>, <i>, <b>, <blockquote>, <br/>, <p>, <abbr>, <acronym>, <big>, <cite>, <code>, <dfn>, <kbd>, <pre>, <small> <strong>, <sub>, <sup>, <tt>, <var>
  • I do not display your email address. It is for my personal use only.

Your email address: 
Your website: