Our Technical Director, Amanda Hickman, is not a formal Idea Lab blogger, so I’m posting this on her behalf. This won’t be the last you hear from her on the Idea Lab. —Gail

As the Gotham Gazette prepares to launch our first Knight-funded news game, I’ve been thinking a lot more about their requirement that we produce our games using free and open source software.

It is only fair for me to start with a couple of observations about where I’m coming from: I think that software freedom matters, a lot.

As a Circuit Rider at the LINC Project I watched a lot of organizations being priced out of upgrades to software they’d suffered through beta versions of. I watched small grassroots organizations struggle to find a functional membership database that fit their budget, while large counterparts were reaching for extremely expensive off-the-shelf packages that still didn’t really meet their needs. I got involved with the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative because I was (and am) fundamentally interested in helping organizations work in a way that doesn’t just lock out groups that don’t have the financial resources to keep up with software advances, and that does allow them to truly own the tools that they are building their work around.

So I was impressed when I heard that Knight was asking grantees to develop games on free and open platforms. I think it shows a lot of foresight. I’ve heard a lot of folks grumbling about how Flash is the industry standard (it is), and about how much easier it is to just pick up a box, install Flash and get started. That if you aren’t an expert on free and open source software and programming this is just one more hurdle that will discourage people from getting started down the path towards making their reporting more engaging. I don’t buy it.

We had a hell of a time finding a programmer who could build what we needed without Flash. It is the industry standard and most everyone I talked to who has experience building the kind of games we’re working on uses Flash and wasn’t interested in changing that when Flash works just fine. I think we would have had a harder time coming up with other options if I wasn’t already connected to a number of online communities specifically committed to helping nonprofits use free and open source software (NOSI and May First People Link among them) where I could count on getting thoughtful answers to my questions.

The developers we settled on, a local interactive shop called Isotope, are primarily a Flash shop. They’re readers of Gotham Gazette, genuinely interested in our work and excited enough about working with us that they were willing to try something new and build the game in a software platform they’ve never used before, but it took us a lot of legwork to find them. That might sound like a plea for Flash, but the truth is, I believe that our work will pay off in the long run. For one thing, the guys at Isotope (who are working in OpenLaszlo) have added to their repertoire and now there’s one more OpenLaszlo developer out there. For another thing, we’re planning to release the source code for our game, so next time someone wants to write a garbage game about their own town they’ve got a place to start from, and they can see how we approached the problem in LZX. That is about how most people learn Flash: they look at code snippets that people have published and try to build from them. So by using OpenLaszlo, we’re contributing to a community of OpenLaszlo users and making it a little bit easier for other people to pick up the language.

Which brings me to another thing we’ve been hearing over and over: the day of the local newsroom is passed. Media consolidation means that your daily paper isn’t your local paper and national news chains can’t be bothered to with local coverage. It will be up to local web sites to pick up the slack in local coverage.

One thing about proprietary software in general is that it is a lot easier for a big budget news corporation to absorb the cost of software licensing than it is for a much smaller organization that can’t pull in national advertising bucks. Building community around software that is free and open source means that we’re helping keep interactive news content a viable option for these little local sites that we’re counting on to cover our local politics.

Gotham Gazette has consistently tried to serve as a model for local independent news sites with a small budget. Over the years we have received countless requests for information, advice and guidance from people hoping to replicate all or part of what we do. We’ve always tried to help, and we see this game as part of that effort. Using more free and open source software is consistent with our values as a publication when our software choices make it easier for civic groups to launch good news sites.

We’ve been asked a few times whether a game made without Flash can be as good as a Flash game. Very soon, we’ll be inviting all of you to see for yourself.

—Amanda B Hickman
Technical Director
Gotham Gazette