Boy Scouts of America look to open-source community for help

Open Source Initiative kicks off to help scouts get best out of open source

Scouts honor, the 98-year-old Boy Scouts of America (BSA) organization is adopting open source software as a path to building better software that supports the almost 3 million scouts and 1.1 million adults who make up the group.

Faced with the need for a streamlined, organized way for its more than 121,000 local Scout troops to find and use software applications for fundraisers, event registration, facilities maintenance and more, the Irving, Texas-based BSA last month launched a Web site to begin its BSA Open Source Initiative.

So far, the group has done little to publicize the site, which has nary a post on it. But that could change as the BSA gets the word out and as the open source community finds out what is being done.

The site is envisioned as a place for scouting leaders to go when they need an application for their troop events or when they want to help other troops with their software projects, said Dan Nelson, director of application services for the BSA information systems division. The idea came up last year when BSA officials met with a group of corporate CIOs who suggested open source software as a valuable resource that could be used by the organization, he said. But until the BSA open source Web site was created, there was no way to organize such an effort. "We're in the perfect place to coordinate it" now, Nelson said.

By using a centralized Web site for its open source projects, Scouting leaders from around the nation can go there to find applications they need for their own projects, such as organizing a popcorn fundraising sale or a special event. By posting such custom applications on the site, and working together to modify, build and improve them, Scouting leaders won't have to start from scratch when they need an application for an event.

"I think there's a lot of potential to get some software into the hands of [Scouting] offices that don't have the resources available" to do these things on their own, Nelson said.

He acknowledged that little has been posted there since the site went live May 8 after six months of work, but he said the group plans to "seed it" with several open source projects that were done previously by others for Scouting activities.

And while there are no plans for anything like a Scout merit badge in open source -- although there has been a merit badge in computers since 1967 -- Nelson said it is possible that if the program is successful, it could evolve into use by IT-savvy scouts themselves.

Gregory Edwards, a Coppell, Texas-based independent software engineer and project manager who was brought in as a contractor to help create the Web site, said that once the site becomes known, the hope is that the large number of technology-oriented adult volunteers with the scouts will make it a creative, active destination for open source development.

"It's a true golden opportunity for the open source community, too," by connecting it with a large group of interested adults and tech-hungry children who can be inspired to use and learn about open source, Edwards said. "The open source community and the Boy Scouts can spread the word on it."

For the open source community, that can be a big win, he said. "Once you get the snowball rolling down the hill, if you get it rolling right, it does grow," Edwards said. "You nurture it. You get the exposure. You get people involved."

Though the project is aimed at Scouting leaders initially, there is nothing that precludes young scouts from volunteering on the site to help write, discuss, test and develop code, he said.

Other nonprofit agencies, from athletic associations to community groups could also gain from the BSA open source effort, because they could use these kinds of applications, too, Edwards said.

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Todd R. Weiss

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