When the Rensselaer Center for Open Source Software (RCOS) was established in 2007, there were four student members, working on two open source projects. The seed money for RCOS was donated by Sean O’Sullivan ’85, a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees and founder of MapInfo, JumpStart International, and other companies, with the intention to “support the development of open software solutions to promote civil societies in the United States and across the globe.” Part of the Computer Science Department, RCOS is growing dramatically; there are now more than 160 student members, with over half of those new to the center this year.
To join, a student needs to start or become involved with an existing open source project, one that somehow serves the greater good. Every aspect of that project—plans, progress, issues, goals, and most importantly, the code—must be open, available, and transparent. When a project is first proposed, it is sent out for evaluation and feedback to the entire RCOS mailing list, including past and present members and faculty advisers.
While technically a faculty adviser could reject a proposal, the group’s entire focus—its operating system—is group consensus. David Goldschmidt ’94, a lecturer in computer science who received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in computer science from Rensselaer, joined Associate Professor Mukkai Krishnamoorthy (“Moorthy”) as RCOS co-director in 2012; Krishnamoorthy is on sabbatical leave this year. Goldschmidt notes that with minimal structure, and a large measure of “creative chaos,” the program forges student passion into real-world teamwork and project development skills.
To support the development of open software solutions to promote civil societies in the United States and across the globe.”—Sean O’Sullivan ’85
Once a student’s project has been accepted, it is assigned one or more mentors, either students or faculty with experience in its specific area (web applications, gaming, Android/OS apps, etc.). Students can choose to receive course credit or a stipend for their involvement, and this year it became possible for seniors to count RCOS as their capstone project.
The “peer-based culture of RCOS,” according to senior Dan Vegeto, makes it “a profoundly different experience than the traditional classroom.” Groups sign up to present their projects during the Tuesday smaller focus group meetings, or the full group meeting every Friday at 4 p.m. in 214 Amos Eaton. The presentations openly detail what is and isn’t working, project roadblocks, mistakes, and accomplishments. Feedback is expected, and freely given.
The concept of “open source” has expanded well beyond publicly accessible data or code to a mutual set of values, and a way of problem solving that involves collaboration, rapid prototyping, open exchange, and community. Recently a motion to ban laptop use during RCOS meetings was unanimously passed on the first vote. Since meetings are also transparent (filmed and posted on YouTube), members agreed that open laptops distracted from the sense that presenters were receiving everyone’s full attention.
Projects in Development
There are now more than 400 RCOS projects, past and presently in development. Many Rensselaer students use the RPI Book Swap, yacs, and RPI Directory app, all of which began as RCOS projects. Among the projects currently in development are “King Me,” an Android app that uses GPS data for bike training; “Peirce-Logic,” an existential graph proof system; “Tabloid” that takes an input WAV file song and outputs sheet music as a MusicXML file; and “Pay the Artist,” which scans a computer’s downloaded music files, noting the artists represented, for voluntary attribution payments.
There is a feeling in RCOS that it is a unique community, a meritocracy of choice, and that to be involved is a privilege. According to Peter Hajas ’12, “RCOS is a fantastic program. Software architecture is a skill best learned through experience, and RCOS helps students build that experience in an extremely supportive environment.”