Obstacles for making FOSS development truly global

Li Yang, who works for Freescale Semiconductor, gave a very interesting talk at linux.conf.au a few weeks ago about the obstacles of getting people from all around the world involved in FOSS projects. He started off by saying that he'd like FOSS to be really global, and not just global in the sense that developers from North America, Europe and Australia are involved.

He started by comparing Internet usage and FOSS involvement of different parts of the world. The US, Europe and Australia make up about 45% of Internet users while 55% come from other parts of the world. He also noted that Internet usage is growing particularly fast in Brazil, China, India and Russia. When you look at FOSS development, you see a different picture. He looked at the attendees of the Linux Kernel Summit 2007 and found that 51% were from the US, 32% from Europe, 9% from Australia and only 8% from other countries. He also presented some statistics from SourceForge that showed a similar picture: 36% of developers are from the US, 40% from Europe, 3% from Australia and 21% from other parts of the world. His conclusion was that it's important to get more people from Asia, Africa and other underrepresented regions involved.

His presentation followed with obstacles associated with the participation in an international community. Unsurprisingly, language is a big problem. Learning English can be hard for people from China and other countries whose native language is not part of the Indo-European family. While many educated people in China can actually read English at a basic level, written and spoken English is often poor because of lack of practice. This makes communication slow, misunderstandings are more common and it's difficult to express yourself clearly.

The problem is not just with language, though. Culture is also an important factor. For example, direct criticism is taken as an insult in China. This is a problem since the patch review process can be very direct. Furthermore, Li Yang argued that Chinese people are more effective in close-knit teams whereas the FOSS community prefers to form loosely-knit teams.

Time difference is another problem. For example, China has a 8-12 hour time difference to Europe and the US. This makes it hard to use real-time communication, like IRC. While e-mail works fairly well, communication is quite slow since each round of discussion takes a whole day. Finally, developers in China have less time for hobbies and so it's often hard to get more people involved. There are also some problems with net access. For example, sourceforge.net and freebsd.org used to be banned by the government and wikipedia.org is still banned.

Li Yang finished his presentation by sharing his experience with local communities. The idea is to establish a local community in a country with members who can talk to each other in their own language. A local community should also have some experts who are part of the international community. Those experts can then help other members with sending bug reports or patches to the international community for feedback. This way, it's ensured that the local community has at least some connections to the global community and hopefully over time members of the local community will get more experience interacting with the global community.

(Originally published on FOSSBazaar)