Open Source Communityware

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Fiorella De Cindio
University of Milano

Despite the wish that citizens are co-designers of the Networked Society, it is very difficult to pursue and achieve this goal. Web sites and portals are set up by public and private bodies and designed by computer professionals hired by them to inform people and offer them on-line services. People is conceived as users or customers and have no chance to play any role even in the design and implementation of on-line public utility services which shape the Network Society.


We believe that the web still suffers of its origin, i.e., to be a publishing - and therefore a broadcasting - application.
To develop on-line interactive services, the web browsers have been compelled to become the standard interface for databases and database applications.
Peer-to-peer communication occurs via email, mailing list, newsgroups, chats and cooperative applications: they are the basis for the development of a virtual commmunity, but unfortunately the web-based versions of the above applications are quite often less natural and effective than the original ones.

We believe that the possibility for citizens to participate in shaping the Networked Society relies ALSO in influencing


The major use of the Internet by public and private bodies is:
- to INFORM citizens (conceived as users or customers): this is a broadcasting (one-to-many) service;
- to OFFER them on-line SERVICES (which often replicate existing services and sometimes extend them thanhs to the facilities the net offers): these are interactive services which follow a predefined scheme which citizens must obey to; symbolic (instead of personal) email addresses are often provided to support such services allowing people to ask questions or help about the service.

Recently sites and portals includes also
- channels for bidirectional COMMUNICATION, i.e. free (unstructured) dialogues, typically through public forums. In most cases the goal of these areas is to encourage the creation of a community of users, as a way for atttracting and save the attention of navigators. The idea is to provide room for free talks, giving them the role of social glue.
In curret web site and portals, this last area is usually disjoint from the other two ones, while it would be useful to realize that a community of citizens, through their conversations, enriches information and assesses services. Notice that this community-generated knowledge is different from and much richer of the content which can be provided by a single citizen.
In this way, citizens would not be mere users of the information services or customers of the interactive services; they would become co-designers of the Network Society.

Let’s explain this concept through an example: let’s suppose a citizen asks the list of movies in Milano this evening. By accessing the local forum “Cinema” s/he enriches this information with community-knowledge created through discussions, for instance: “beautiful plot”. At this point, s/he would book a place in the closest hall giving the movie. After assisting the movie, s/he comes back and comments in the local forum the movie or the state of the cinema hall (e.g., from the point of view of the facilities for disabled people). Other citizens either confirm or question the remarks.
The same pattern can be applied in many situations, from the choice of home-banking service to the need of a laboratory for clinic analysis. In this last case, comments after service use provides a powerful way of assessing the quality of services.


We propose (the first running release of) VIRTUOSE (VIRTual CommUnity Open Source Engine) an open-source engine for managing a virtual community .
The distinguished feature it includes is to homogeneously couple both the publishing of information, and facilities for discussion, which characterize communication within communities. Facilities for the integration with other services are not considered in this first release.
VIRTUOSE keeps the message as the fundamental entity which constitutes both the unit of information to be published and the unit of discussion among people. Messages are grouped into conferences. Users access conferences through views..
The architecture of VIRTUOSE consists of a hierarchy of abstract machines which starts from a database management system and culminates in a graphical user interface for a Web browser.
VIRTUOSE has been developed in the framework of the project “Development of services and technologies to turn local communities to account in the Information Society" funded by the Lombardy Regional Government and carried on by AIReC (the Association for Informatics and Community Networks). In particular the software specification and implementation is a cooperation among the Univ. of Milan, the Univ. of Insubria, the Foundation RCM (i.e., the Participatory Foundation which holds and manages the Milan Community Newtork) and Pumpkin s.r.l., a small software factory risen from the University labs.

Pattern status: