Where's the Summer of Documentation?

by Ostatic Staff - Apr. 19, 2010

If you ask what's missing from open source software, one of the top responses is often "documentation." While there's piles and piles of great code stuffed up on Google Code, SourceForge.net, and others, the actual documentation to accompany it is often lacking. This is why it's doubly sad to keep seeing bounty programs aimed at generating more and more code, and more and more coders, but very little being done to address documentation.

Google has been running its Summer of Code program since 2005. It has reached out to hundreds of open source programs and distributed millions of dollars to try to encourage more people to get involved with open source. That's great, but it doesn't address the pressing need that many projects have to develop more docs to go with the software they already have. Now Fedora is ramping up a "Summer of Coding for 2010, and yet again — it's all about code doesn't address any other forms of contribution.

This is a shame, because this would be an ideal way to involve future technical writers in free and open source projects. This is a group that doesn't naturally gravitate towards open source the way that many developers do. But there's plenty of opportunity for writers to make an impact on projects and actually see their work published, and to develop a portfolio for future work. This would also be a chance to teach tech writers to work with projects and develop a taste for open tools.

I bring up documentation, but really the problem that I see is that the Summer programs are simply too code- and developer-centric. Projects and companies in this space should also be thinking about involving translators, user interface designers, artists, and other disciplines in their projects. Not only because it would help these projects be more well-rounded and address areas outside of just developing code, but because it would also provide a wonderful opportunity for cross-pollination. Students who are pursuing other fields of study would provide an opportunity to inform and enthuse ambassadors for open source who move in different circles. It would do open source projects worlds of good to have articulate and interested participants who could carry open source ideals to their peers in other disciplines.

There's no doubt it would add a layer of complexity to the programs, and require some tweaking and recruiting to get right. A good start for Google or Red Hat/Fedora would be to begin with just two or three slots to dedicate to documentation. But this is something that needs to change soon. Other disciplines are still far too undervalued in most open source projects. Don't even get me started on the lack of paid positions for anything other than code by companies playing in the open source space.

This isn't to pick on Fedora unduly. I've pinged some of the folks at Fedora and they seem receptive to the idea of adding docs to the program eventually. But out of the gate would be better. Fedora does pretty well at addressing documentation, translations, and other contributions as first-class. But, even though Fedora is better than most in this regard, designing the program for developers only is a signal to other contributors that their contributions are just a little bit less equal than those of developers.

Image courtesy of Richard Masoner under Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 2.0