Make 2010 the year you give back to Free Software

January 8th, 2010 | Categories: Open Source | Tags:

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year?  If you did then who will they help?  Just you?  Your family?  Your students?  The whole world?  If I am being honest then I have to say that most of the new-year’s resolutions I have made over the years tend to focus on myself because at my very core I am a bit selfish.  So, my resolutions tend to be things like “I want to get fitter”, “I’ll not stay late at work so much” or “I want to learn more Python programming.”

If I keep these resolutions then I’m going to be fitter, more knowledgeable and have a better work-life balance.  So far so selfish!

Over the last few days though I have made a rather different sort of new-years resolution.  Yes, I admit that it’s a bit late but why limit change to an essentially arbitrary date?  My new new year’s resolution is to give a little back to the community that has given me so much – the community of organisations and individuals who provide me with software – either for free or for such a trivial amount of money that it may as well be free.

Now I am not a rich man so I can’t give away great wads of cash and although I am a programmer I have neither the time nor the knowledge to provide significant amounts of code to any particualr project.  So what can I do?


Well, although I am not minted, I can easily afford the occasional small donation or two so I will start making them.  It’s already begun with my Sage bounty hunt and will continue with other projects over the year.  Another small donation I made recently was to buy the ‘Premium’ version of Aldiko – a great ebook reader for Android smartphones.  Aldiko is a free piece of software, has been downloaded by tens of thousands of users and is used by me on an almost daily basis.  I noticed that they had a ‘Premium’ version available for $1.99 but it turns out that it is identical to the free version.  The $1.99 simply represents a donation to the developers and it’s a donation I made without hesitation.  Doing the right thing for less than two dollars – getting the warm fuzzies has never been easier!

Bug reports and feedback

Thanks to my job and to running Walking Randomly I get to see how researchers, teachers, students and average joes use mathematical software quite a lot.  I get told about bugs, about feature wish lists, about gripes with licensing, performance issues…the list goes on and on.  The best way to get bugs fixed is to report them – first tell the developers and, if the bug is interesting/severe enough, tell the world.  I do this plenty with commercial software but I am going to make the effort more with free software from now on.  Feedback is part of the lifeblood of free software and developers need both the good and the bad.

Did you try out Octave, Maxima, Sage or Smath Studio and it didn’t work out?  Why didn’t it?  What did these packages have missing that forced you to turn to alternatives?  Try to be specific; saying ‘I tried it and it sucks’ is a rubbish piece of feedback because it’s just an opinion and gives the developers nothing to do.  Saying something like ‘I tried to calculate XYZ and it gave the following incorrect result whereas it should have given ABC’ is MUCH more productive.

Tutorials, examples and documentation

One comment I have heard over and over again from people who have tried free mathematical software and then turned their back on it is that the ‘documentation isn’t good enough’.  These people want more tutorials, more examples, more explanations and just more and better documentation.  Do you like writing?  Do you like fiddling with math software?  I do and so I intend on giving as many examples and tutorials as I can.  I also have a (moderately) successful blog so I can provide a publishing outlet for people who want to write such things but don’t want to start a blog of their own.  This has already begun too with Greg Astley’s tutorial on how to plot direction fields for ODE’s in maxima.  Contact me if you are interested in doing this yourself and we’ll discuss it.


I like to talk.  Many people who know me personally would probably go so far as to say I talk too much but I can use this to help towards my new resolution too.  I’m going to give short talks, demonstrations and seminars on free mathematical software to interested people over the coming year via various fora.  Maybe you could too?

So, in summary, I plan to do the following to give back to free software over the next decade and I invite you to do the same.

  • Give small, direct donations to some of my favourite open source and free software projects
  • Set up bounty hunts for particular features I want in various packages
  • Buy donation versions of Android software whenever possible
  • Publish as many examples of using software such as Sage, octave and maxima as I can
  • Help write tutorials and documentation
  • Give talks to help spread the word

I’ll admit that none of this will change the world but it will possibly help a few more people than “I resolve to get myself fitter.”

  1. January 11th, 2010 at 18:26
    Reply | Quote | #1

    A very unselfish resolution Mike, and an inspirational one too. Having read this I think I’ll also endevour to support the community a little more.

    It is amazing sometimes when you see what people create in their free time, and especially when you consider that some do it from pure passion and not for commercial gain. Certainly worth supporting and encourging I’d say.

  2. January 11th, 2010 at 18:41
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Hi Martin

    Glad you think so :) Of course the point of this post was not so people think ‘Ah..Mike is a good guy’, instead I want people to think ‘Maybe I’ll do that too’ :)