11 Open Source Projects that Make Free Information Rock

data robot photo

Photo via Todd Huffman via Flickr Creative Commons

What happens when data is available for anyone to access and use? What happens when projects are open source so people can contribute their skills to improve it? We're now more than ever connected to a wealth of information stored literally at our fingertips -- if we can access it. So the concept of sharing is useful beyond creating tool libraries or Zipcar services. Sharing, when extended to information, can do amazing things, from creating fascinating mash-ups of data to explore and extrapolate new ideas to improving our transportation systems. Here are 11 examples of the wonders that can be worked when everyone is included.

american burying beetle encyclopedia of life image

Screengrab via Encyclopedia of Life
Encyclopedia of Life
A partnership between scientists and the general public, the goal of Encyclopedia of Life is to catalog information about every living thing on earth, and make that information freely available to every human being. It's been a favorite project of TreeHugger since it launched in 2008. Anyone can participate in data gathering, helping to upload text, images, videos, tags and more to make the information as complete as possible. EOL is committed to making the information as open access as possible, so everything included is under a creative commons license with credit to the sources. Already, over 30,000 images and videos have been uploaded thanks to participants from the general public, adding to the over 150,000 species pages in the database so far. Eventually the EOL will have 1.8 million pages -- one for every known species on the planet -- that anyone can access.

Avoiding Mass Extinction Engine (AMEE)
The goal of AMEE is to assign an energy identity to everything on earth -- and they mean everything -- by pulling together the most accurate and reliable information available about the carbon and energy footprints of products from businesses, organizations and governments. The project is open sourced, and anyone can contribute their skills to help improve AMEE's platform, from coding to planning. And of course anyone can access the aggregated data. Businesses and governments can use the data for their own accounting, and anyone with a healthy curiosity can find out how much embodied energy is in their new laptop or how much carbon dioxide their last flight spewed out. By focusing on and advocating for transparency of information, AMEE hopes that globally, we will gain more understanding about and responsibility over our impact on the planet, and perhaps avoid an untimely end as a species.

PLoS One Journal
Access to published scientific research is vital to improving current research. But publishing research in scientific journals can be extraordinarily difficult for the scientists, and accessing the published works can be very expensive for the readers. So, open access journals that maintain the same rigorous standards as the top journals are undeniably helpful for everyone. PLoS ONE is one of our favorites -- it is a peer-reviewed journal covering every scientific discipline, and makes the published works available in its entirety to any curious reader. Free high-quality information is invaluable.

timetree iphone screengrab image

Image via Apple
How are humans linked to prehistoric bacteria? When did cats and dogs evolve away from each other? Everything you wanted to know about the timescale of life on Earth is heaped in one giant project called TimeTree of Life, a brilliant idea to chart the entire timescale of the evolution of life on our planet. Available both online and as an app for smartphones, the TimeTree is a public knowledge-base for information available to anyone who cares to find out, from students to scientists.

Open Source House
Open Source House is a truly inspiring project. It's a place for architects and designers to contribute ideas for sustainable housing for low-income countries. They can add their own concepts, improve on those of others, or adapt a design found in OS-House to a new project. OS-House uses eight design principles to ensure the contributions fall within the realm of sustainability, but the rest is a giant free-for-all of creativity. The project states, "Open Source House doesn't force a new solution, but makes knowledge available which puts the power back in the hands of the end-users. This way they can free themselves from the limited choice that is offered to them by the market today." A place to work out new green solutions to put roofs over peoples heads -- we love it!

It's such a part of our culture now that it's easy to forget a time when there wasn't a Wikipedia, when the idea of crowd-sourcing an encyclopedia of everything was brand new. Wikipedia has made looking up information, and rapidly updating that information by those who know it best and care the most, super easy. The fact that any entry can be reviewed and edited by anyone can be a double-edged sword; independently fact-checking info is still important, but access to the basics is fast and easy. And the fact that it is created by all of us means that even the most obscure things or newest cultural references can often be found in Wikipedia.

ifixit screenshot image

Image via iFixit
As simple as this: "iFixit is the free repair manual that you can edit." As the Maker's Bill of Rights states, if you can't open it, you don't own it, so knowing the inner workings of everything you own and taking on your own repairs is part of being a responsible owner of stuff. However, manufacturers aren't all that keen on providing such info to the people who purchase their products -- after all, repairing your stuff means you buy fewer things. That's why iFixit is so awesome. It houses a growing database for high quality repair manuals for all sorts of gadgets, and users can edit the manuals to continually improve them for accuracy and understandability. The goal is to make sure people have the resources they need to fix everything they have, and to help each other in the process. All said, it makes us more self-reliant and consume less.

Arduino is for the geekier among us, though anyone who has been to a Maker Faire is very familiar with it. An Arduino is a single-board microcontroller created with a very simple open hardware design, and it comes complete with a software suite for programming it. They can be used to create all sorts of awesome projects -- some of our favorites include a sensor for smelling pollutants, the ever-so-cool flashing turn signal bike jackets, and the well-known Tweet-a-Watt device. Thanks to a generous creator who recognized that it can be more productive not to keep the design of something under lock and key, the open source hardware is part of the Creative Commons, and anyone can use it to build just about anything they can dream up. What's not to love about that!

Sahana is a life saver, literally. It is a free, open source disaster management system. The online tool helps people coordinate efforts during disasters, from locating missing people to tracking volunteers, from managing aid to setting up and running camps. Everything can feel like chaos during a disaster and, as we've witnessed repeatedly over the last few years, it can be nearly impossible to carry out efficient relief in a timely manner. But Sahana links people together so that things can run as smoothly as possible. Started in 2004 as a solution in the aftermath of the the Sri Lanka tsunami, Sahana opened itself up to help as an collaborative project that has gone on to help alleviate suffering during the earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, the Souther Leyte mudslide disaster in the Philippines in 2006, and even the more recent Haiti earthquake.

open green map san francisco image

Image via Green Map
Open Green Map
This is an excellent way to navigate a new area -- the map pulls up all the green spots of a place, from public transportation and bike-friendly areas, to the best places to see flora and fauna, to where to find eco-information. The legend list is incredibly extensive, showing that it's more than a token map for finding parks and maybe a farmers' market. Rather, Open Green Map documents everything a city has to offer from its economy and businesses to its people to its buildings to its green spaces -- it's the sustainable profile of a place, and it's built by the people living there. Anyone can add a new spot to Open Green Map, or upload photos or details about existing spots. It becomes a fantastic resource for both travelers and the people living in a city who want to know more about its sustainable side.

WattzOn connects us to the real story of our stuff in the form of a website that allows users to calculate energy consumption. A primary part of this calculation comes from the Embodied Energy Database, or EED -- a user-generated database of the nitty-gritty details of what products are made of. With the EED, WattzOn hopes to measure and track the embodied energy in our consumer products, from foods to clothing to electronics and everything in between. To do this, the site is relying on us. The information on the site is all crowd sourced, putting the calculations and the final tallies in our hands. Users can take their cell phone or laptop, for example, and look up everything about what it is made from, enter the information into the form provided on WattzOn, and add the device along with its energy footprint to the database. Eventually, WattzOn hopes to have accurate information about everything on earth, all in one place.

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More on Open Source Information
Australia Open-Sourcing Ocean Data With New Integrated Marine Information System
NEON Project Encourages Open Access to High Tech Environmental Data
Open Data is Bringing Public Transportation Into the 21st Century
What Happens When Data is Open for Everyone? Tim Berners-Lee Explores Benefits

11 Open Source Projects that Make Free Information Rock
What happens when data is available for anyone to access and use? What happens when projects are open source so people can contribute their skills to improve it? We're now more than ever connected to a

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