Why we are moving to open source software and tools
And the specific changes we made
by Fenna van der Ploeg
This summer, we as an organisation decided to change the software and tools we use. Since the start of the company three years ago, we have been collecting a growing set of tools, including Slack, Google Drive, Notion and many others.
Because of continuous problems with our emails, we needed to switch providers. This sparked a question and ultimately kicked off a process: which alternative do we pick? Do we go for Outlook? If so, do we move everything and buy into the whole Microsoft 365 suite of tools (which would save us alot of money and make adminstration simple)? Or do we look into more ethical options?
We decided for the latter: we are moving to open source — or rather free as in libre — alternatives for almost all software we use.
The term “open source” refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible. For open source software, this means its source code (i.e. inner workings) is made available to all and it is written in a collaborative way. Anyone can see the source code and tweak it, reuse it, study it or contribute to improve it. (For a more more detailed definition of open source, go here.)
Although sometimes assumed, open source software does not inherently guarantee more security and privacy than proprietary (i.e. not open source) software. It does, however, offer greater insight and control over the software you rely on, because it is transparent, encourages community input and enables faster security updates and fixes.
Even though open source software may not offer better security and privacy by definition, many of the open source solutions we are switching too (see below) are more secure than their proprietary alternatives.
For our team, however, an even more important reason to move to open source software is ethics. In the case of proprietary software, the owner has power of the user, and can (and often does) put in functionalities that hurt the user — for example by snooping or tracking the user, stealing data, or worse — in order to make money.
Open source software, on the contrary, respects the users’ freedom and community. Moreover, it is a great example of open collaboration; any user is able to participate in developing the software into something even better.
Thus, open source helps developing the world in a participatory way. This highly aligns with our worldview: we don’t believe a better tomorrow will be created by a small group of “leaders”. We believe co-creation and collaboration are key to developing more just and sustainable solutions.
In the end, this is what we aspire to do as an organisation: to bring forward systemic change and be a learning ground for a better world, for creating real solutions and inititives in collaboration with others. We not only want to do this by the programmes we offer, but also by how we work internally and what happens in the back-office. Which organisations do we support financially? What do they bring into the world and how are they affecting our future?
Although it is still quite hard to truly ‘walk the talk’ (for example, to make our programmes truly accessible for all) given the resources that we have and the systems that we are part of, we want to do what we can. In this regard, changing what software we use is quite a low hanging fruit.
So here’s what we did:
For internal communication, we are moving from Slack to Mattermost. Mattermost functions similar to Slack, with channels, private messaging, file sharing, @mentions etc. One key difference is that Mattermost offers way more and better security and privacy.
There are more open source alternatives to Slack, like Element and Rocket.chat. We decided to go for Mattermost because it is comparatively easy to setup. When migrating from Slack to Mattermost, you can import channel history, users and themes — which was important to us, as it allows us to make a smooth transition.
For online meetings, we moved from Google Meet to Jitsi Meet, which offers similar functionalities like chat, breakout rooms, screensharing and additonal functionalities like speaker time, which tracks what percentage of the meeting time each individual spoke. Another good open source alternative could be Jami.
Compared to proprietory online video software (like Zoom), Jitsi does not always run as perfectly. However, Google is an advertisement company that makes money from selling our data, Zoom can get pricey and also has had some issues with privacy.
Jitsi is open source, 100% encrypted, costs no money and you don’t need to give up any personal information to use it (you do not even need an email address).
For interviews and workshops where stability is very important, we keep using Zoom from time to time, at least for now.
We move to Proton for email and a shared calendar (we used Google Calender before). Again, Google is an advertisement company, is not GDPR compliant and, among other unethical practices, has some serious issues with privacy.
Proton is one of the most well-known secure email providers. It’s open source, based in Switzerland (i.e. protected by strict privacy laws), and provides end-to-end asymmetric encryption. Other open source email providers include Tutanota and Posteo. These not only focuses on privacy and security but also promise to run on green energy.
However, Proton comes with a couple of advantages for organizations like being able to use a custom domain, but the other mentions could be great alternatives for individuals.
We use OnlyOffice for collaborative documents (with either their desktop client or LibreOffice on desktop). It is an open-source online collaborative office combining editors for documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and forms. It is compatible with all popular formats and features support for MS Office files, enabling you to collaborate with other organisations using MS Word or Excel.
Beyond documents, OnlyOffice‘s functionality includes CRM, email, chat, calendar, integration with Nextcloud (see below). This makes it a great contender to Google Workspaces or Office 365; where OnlyOffice offers better privacy and security then these proprietary solutions. OnlyOffice is free and cloudbased in its most basic form but can be upgraded and set up on your own server.
We also use OnlyOffice for project management. Its project management tool includes functionalities for milestones, tasks, discussions, Gantt Charts, task/project assignments, time tracking and more.
To manage projects focused on product development, we use Taiga, which supports Scrum, Kanban and other agile methods. We use the free version of Taiga; there is also a premium version (which costs $5 per month) and a self-hosted version.
Other open source solutions include Odoo (which is way more than project management software; it caters to accounting, human resources, website and e-commerce, inventory, manufacturing, CRM etc.), OpenProject, and more.
Instead of Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, we now use Nextcloud for file storage and sharing, as well as for forms/surveys. It can be hosted in the cloud or your own server. We decided to rent our own server in Germany, which we installed it on.
Other open source solutions include ownCloud and Syncthing, among others. Nextcloud is secure and all its official components are free; you pay only for support and update services. You can share files or folders with whomever you want by giving them a link, with or without an associated password. It integrates with OnlyOffice, so you can edit office documents within the cloud storage.
We use OBS (Open Broadcaster Service) for screen + camera recordings (which we then share via Nextcloud). This open source software is more popular than many of its proprietary alternatives; the fact that it is easy to use and free make it one of the most popular apps for screen-casting and live streaming.
For Research & Design projects, we move from Figma (which was recently aquired by Adobe) to PenPot, unless otherwise specified by our client or collaborators. Compared to alternatives like Pencil Project, Penpot is the best open source design and prototyping software, as it enables you to collaborate with others and is web based, i.e. you can use it regardless of which operating system you have.
As a digital whiteboard, we are using Figjam, which belongs to Figma (where we have to keep an account for the cases mentioned above) and is not open source, because we have not found a good open source alternative.
At the moment, we are still using Notion as a collaborative workspace. We plan to move to anytype once it is ready to be used for collaboration.
Like Notion, anytype is a modular workspace. Unlike Notion, however, anytime stores all the data locally on your device. It’s private and secured and you can access it without an internet connection — we will wait for and test their online collaboration features and edit this article accordingly. Anytype is open source and free.
Although money was not a motivation for us to make these changes, the total amount we spend on software ends up to be a bit lower than it was before. We save a little bit of money, which we may invest in our learning programmes or donate to some of the open source software providers that are free and made possible by donations.
Of course, making these changes asks for a bit of time investment. You have to set up the new software, migrate documents and projects, and some people in your organisation may need some guidance to make the switch.
Yet, this is a one time investment, after which you are supporting the more ethical option pretty effortlessly. Again, it’s the low hanging fruit.
But doesn’t systemic change mean that — instead of on fruit — we should focus our time and energy on addressing root causes? Yes and no. We believe it’s not either or; it’s both and.
Systemic change is about shifting mindsets and paradigms, but also about making hyper-local, small changes — as things are fractal and do affect further. It’s about working both on the meta-level, and on the tactical level: doing the very tangible, hands-on things we can to change our part of the system.
By moving open source, we take a simple first step (while acknowledging that we need to take many more) and by that we strengthen a larger community that stands up for many of the values we stand up for. And along the way we even save a little bit of money that we can continuously put towards addressing the root causes of the system we work and live in. We would encourage everyone reading this to at least consider the same.