On the Sustainability of Open Source Projects: Lessons Learnt from Cyberdam

Presentation at Online Educa Berlin ā€“ 3 december 2009

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Pieter van der Hijden MSc (pvdh@sofos.nl); Stichting RechtenOnline (Foundation LawOnline) (www.rechtenonline.nl) & Sofos Consultancy (www.sofos.nl), The Netherlands

1 Cyberdam

Cyberdam is a Virtual Learning Environment for online role playing games in the context of a 2D virtual city. It is owned by Stichting RechtenOnline (Foundation LawOnline, The Netherlands) and is available as a free and open source package. Initially aiming at law schools, Cyberdam developed into a product for education and training in many higher education programmes.

Cyberdam offers its participants authentic learning situations consisting of roles, a given case or problem, instructions and directions, and a virtual city with background information. The participants play different roles and try to bring the problem to an acceptable solution. This all takes place via the Internet.

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At the moment, the Cyberdam Software comes with 20+ ready-made games (English and Dutch), various virtual cities and English and Dutch system languages. Teachers can start and facilitate game sessions based on ready-made games, adapt the games to their wishes or create new games from scratch.

This presentation describes the development of the current Cyberdam open source product and the lessons learnt from it. It describes the Cyberdam story in four stages: creation, survival, growing up and independence.

2 Stage-1: Creation

The Cyberdam story starts in 2003 as twinning project Sieberdam/ROCS, a combination of an interactive city map (Sieberdam) and a role playing game engine (ROCS). Since 2007 the name Cyberdam is used for the whole. The original projects were funded by a programme of the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs that aimed at introducing ICT in Dutch law schools where it was almost absent at that time.

2.1 Nice wishes

From the beginning the initiators have chosen for free and open source solutions, both for principle and for practical reasons. The principle reason was that you should not commercialise products paid from public money. Another one was that open source software should be of high quality as community driven development implied a better alignment with user needs. The latter reason was also a practical one. The initiators expected the open source community to pick-up their concepts and ideas on gaming/simulation and to start creating and/or updating the necessary software without being paid. Another practical reason was that an open source product could be integrated more easily with other (open source) systems.

As a platform, the Open Architecture Community System (OpenACS) was chosen. It was used by well-known universities in various countries, had an active users community and a flexible internal structure.

2.2 Hard reality

Unfortunately, the nice wishes did not become reality:

  • The OpenACS community was not really interested. Apparently the concept was too narrow-focused, but also too vague to attract much interest.
  • As nobody started programming voluntarily, nor offered any help for free, programmers had to be hired. As OpenACS expertise was almost non-existent in The Netherlands, they had to be hired from abroad.
  • The foreign programmers saw their market value and could agree excessive rates. When the budget was gone and the system almost finished they had other priorities. As system documentation they delivered 200 pages of chat log with their clients and almost nothing more.
  • It took extra money to find a programmer from even further away to debug the system and to keep it running for a couple of years.

To conclude, Cyberdam at that time had a strong idealistic view where a realistic view would have been more adequate.

3 Stage-2: Survival

From 2005 government funding was over. The newly established Stichting RechtenOnline (Foundation Law Online) became the owner of Cyberdam. With a very limited budget it tried to keep the system alive, i.e. have it hosted, get support from an OpenACS programmer when necessary and organise help for users. It further tried to attract new interested parties to use the system.

3.1 Free lunches

Apart from some incidental lecturers of law courses, the interest for Cyberdam mainly came from larger projects, not specifically bound to law faculties. There were three in total. All preferred the hosting solution as offered by the owner and all were willing to pay, albeit from three different perspectives, instrumental, exploiting and cooperative:

  • Instrumental – One project paid for the hosting and nothing more. It used the product intensively, had ideas on how to develop it further, but did not want to invest any money in improvements.
  • Exploiting – A second project went even further. It paid for the hosting and nothing more and expected to make money by re-selling the original documentation that was free until then.
  • Cooperative – The third project paid for the hosting and, as far as its budget allowed, for immediate software improvements. It considered Cyberdam as a valuable tool that could play an important role in their education for years.

3.2 No momentum

The first two projects considered Cyberdam as an almost free lunch. The third project had a far-reaching view on gaming/simulation in education and the potential of Cyberdam. Although on its own, that project could not generate enough momentum to let Cyberdam grow; at least it helped to keep it alive, both as a technical artefact and as a promising educational concept.

Summarised, Cyberdam was product oriented, instead of market oriented. It accommodated projects that passed, while it could better have searched for itself for promising projects.

4 Stage-3: Growing up

The Cyberdam story accelerates in 2007 when Dutch government hold a competition on developing serious games for higher education. The Foundation formed an ad hoc consortium with some higher education institutes, an educational publisher and a commercial game developer. This consortium won one of the prices which resulted in a new project that lasted until November 1st 2009.

4.1 Scaling up

The new project aimed at scaling up Cyberdam in three directions: software, content and organization.

  • Software – the Cyberdam software was migrated from OpenACS to Java, obsolete functions were removed, many new ones added.
  • Content – more than 20 new games were developed, used in educational practice and evaluated.
  • Organization – a sustainable organization was created (see below).

4.2 Cooling down

Amongst the project partners, the educational publisher had the lead in developing the new and sustainable organization to support Cyberdam, keep it alive and let it flourish. They felt handicapped, however, by the free and open source character of the product. They could not imagine a business model that was interesting enough for them. When the firm became part of a merger operation, it decided to leave the project.
A broker in game enterprises showed up, willing to commercialise Cyberdam. They forecasted and expected huge profits, not at least for themselves. As their orientation was quite different from all other partners, it never came to an official partnership.

The new partner was found in a firm dedicated to content development and hosting services for educational institutes and corporate HRM departments. Even they have their doubts about the sustainability of the new organization. Nevertheless they stayed on board, offer hosting and helpdesk services and help the other partners think about the near future.

In short, partners who expect millions of dollars in return of a modest contribution should be avoided. Passion for learning should be their nature.

5 Stage-4: Independence

Since November 1st 2009, Cyberdam reached a new stage in its development: (financial) independence. It now has to generate its own income to cover its costs. Instead of the earlier consortium a new system of public and private partners has been put in place.

5.1 Server

The Stichting RechtenOnline (Foundation Law Online) is still the owner of the Cyberdam Software and the licensee (for free) of the games developed so far. It delivers the following services to its clients:

  • to distribute the free and open source Cyberdam software and documentation,
  • to maintain the Cyberdam software (e.g. by minor modifications and bug fixing),
  • to innovate the Cyberdam software (e.g. by adding new functions).

The distribution costs are marginal; the maintenance costs are about EUR 5,000 p.a., the innovation costs heavily depend on the actual Road Map for software improvement (see below).

To cover its costs for maintenance, the Foundation makes both a production environment (server) and a helpdesk available and charges institutes for using them. The additional costs for this server are about EUR 10,000 p.a. Institutes will have to pay an annual fee (EUR 500 by course or EUR 2000 by programme or EUR 5000 by institute) to use this production server and help desk. The only risk is that they may find it cheaper to run a server themselves or via a third party. As the Foundation is planning to provide value added services to its clients, like seminars and workshops, the risk may be neglected.

To cover its innovation costs the Foundation engages in new and innovative projects based on Cyberdam but funded by external parties.

5.2 Clients

Newly established is the Cyberdam User Group, an association for individuals (teachers, HRM staff) interested in the development of Cyberdam and its games and/or their application. It stimulates mutual exchange of experiences and works on a shared vision, a road map, for future software development. It will advise the Board of the Foundation. All together it offers more body to the community of users than an interactive web site alone.

The Foundation is willing to transfer Cyberdam to the Cyberdam User Group in due course.

Given the past, Cyberdam is now more mature, but still very modest. Given the richness of the product and the interest in the market, it is time for a more assertive course.

6 Conclusion

We presented our search for an adequate and sustainable business model. The Cyberdam organization grew up from naive expectations about open source communities programming for free, escaped from being “kidnapped” by a commercial publisher, learnt from experiences of other open source projects and ultimately found its own way.

  • During the creation stage, Cyberdam had a strong idealistic view where a realistic view would have been more adequate.
  • During the survival stage, Cyberdam was product oriented, instead of market oriented. It accommodated projects that passed, while it could better have searched for itself for promising projects.
  • During the growing-up stage, Cyberdam met partners who expected millions of dollars in return of a modest contribution. They should be avoided. Passion for learning should be their nature.
  • And finally, during the independence stage, although more mature, the Cyberdam organization is still very modest. Given the richness of the product and the interest in the market, it is time for a more assertive course.

Acknowledgements

The Stichting RechtenOnline (Foundation Law Online) is the owner of Cyberdam. The official name of the 2007-2009 project was Learning in a Virtual World (project leader Diny Peters, technical project manager Pieter van der Hijden). It was sponsored by the Dutch Government programme M&ICT (Social Sectors & ICT).
References