Emma Irwin with two of her three daughters

Working to keep the Internet an open source

Emma Irwin is a passionate advocate for web literacy

Have you heard of “open source” on the Internet?

Do you know what it means?

In a nutshell, open-source is the opposite of proprietary. Consider the sale of a muffin. The person who sells you the muffin is selling you a proprietary product. The ingredients (what they are and from whence they came) are kept a secret. With open source, the person not just gives you the muffin; she also gives you the recipe and invites you to change it even more, and pass it along to the next person.

Operating quietly in our midst is Internet developer Emma Irwin, herself an open-source advocate and educator.

Irwin passionately believes in open source. In an online essay, she once wrote, “‘Open’ is all about people, and I have met so many inspiring, courageous, brilliant and humble people from all over the world – changing the world.”

On a volunteer basis, Irwin gives her time to Mozilla Webmaker. This is an open source project that, according to their website (webmaker.org) “creates software, projects and events that promote web literacy through making and sharing.”

According to the About page on Webmaker.com, their goal is to encourage Internet users  “to move beyond using the web to making it.” It has tools that can teach users how websites work (X-Ray Goggles), how to build your own web pages (Thimble) and how to create mashups (Popcorn Maker).

Irwin is both a rep and a mentor with Webmaker.

Although Irwin is not currently teaching locally, she has in the past run a Webmaker Code Club for Grade 5 students in Sooke. “What I am missing right now is a classroom,” she noted, adding that computers and a functional lab space would be required. “I usually teach for free,” she said, adding that she is happy to give instruction to whoever shows up.

From her home in Sooke — often surrounded by her three children Molly (10), Daisy (9) and Violet (3) — Irwin works for Benetech. According to their website, “Benetech is a nonprofit technology company that provides software tools and services to address pressing social needs. Its four program areas are Global Literacy, Human Rights, Environment, and Benetech Labs.”

There are many types of open-source resources available online. MOOCs (massive open online courses, which we wrote about earlier this year in the Sooke News Mirror) are one example. Wikipedia is another. Open Office a third. Mozilla (an open source browser). WordPress (open source website development). And the list goes on.

Irwin, a self-defined “annoying optimist,” believes in the power of paying it forward. Her family was the recipient of tremendous support from Sooke residents when her middle daughter, Daisy, was undergoing cancer treatment.

Through open source technology using the Internet as a vehicle, Irwin strongly believes in the future. Yes, she acknowledges that there are issues surrounding privacy and safety on the Internet. But the potential future reaches far outweigh the hazards.

“I see open source solving major social issues like mobilizing (during) disasters, like putting the right tools in the hands of medics,” she speculated. Other issues that could be resolved using open source include literacy and Internet education.

The reach of the Internet has not yet been fully realized, and it’s people like Irwin who will be a part of the online community persisting in a quest to keep it open and available to all.

Other fellow web developers, programmers and enthusiasts who want to contribute to keeping information on the Internet free and available can get involved through Benetech using their online form, at socialcoding4good.org/volunteering/volunteer

Irwin challenges others web developers and technologists to contribute to the growing movement of giving forward.

“Lending your skills is a really meaningful way to have impact,” she said.

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