Open Source

Giving Back: Become an Open Source Contributor

We live in interesting times. In the open source community, individuals give their time to create and maintain many of the technologies that digital citizens rely upon. These products are used for a variety of reasons. They help us create content, secure our communications, and power our computers.

Being a part of the communities that sustain these products is an edifying experience. You can learn new skills, understand what it means to work as a team, and have a sense of what it feels like to participate in something bigger than yourself.

Over the past year, people have come to realize that many of the core technologies that we rely upon are being maintained by underfunded and under-supported groups. In some cases, corporations that use these products have stepped up and pledged continual support. That is encouraging.

Regardless, I believe that it is beneficial to have an overview of some of the digital world's most important projects (in my opinion), and to show what you can do to help make sure that they receive the resources they need to continue.


There are numerous ways to contribute to an open source project. If you do not have time to spare, you can always donate money. If you do have time, your contribution will depend on your skill set and what you feel are your greatest strengths.

If you are a developer that is fluent in the technologies a product is steeped in, a code contribution is an obvious way to go. However, there are many people that are passionate about open source that do not have the requisite skills or desire to participate in this way.

If this is the case, you can help in other ways. Every good project has documentation that needs to be proofread, edited, and expanded upon.

If that is not your thing, you might be able to spread awareness of the project (i.e., be an evangelist) and help pull people into the community that have the skills it needs. Testing a product and identifying/reporting bugs is another critical way that non-developers can contribute to open source projects.

Regardless of what you are comfortable with, there is something you can do to give back and help improve the quality of all people's online lives. These are some projects and organizations you can get started with.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a non-profit organization that focuses on defending civil liberties in the digital realm. In a post-Snowden world, I do not think there is any organization more important or deserving of your support.

  • Our Work: The EFF is a busy organization that works towards their goals on multiple fronts. This page provides a nice overview.
  • EFF Action Center: Sign up for EFF's newsletter and review their current campaigns.
  • Donate to EFF
  • Shop: Another way to show your support. You can always use more EFF flare.


If you are looking for a way to create, manage, and publish content, WordPress is an excellent solution. It is free, open source, and is surrounded by a vibrant, supportive community. If you have something to say and are looking for a way to leave your mark on the world, WordPress can help you.

There are many paths towards WordPress contribution. The Make WordPress page at breaks it down by area of interest.

  • Core: If you are a developer, you can begin here.
  • Design: A home for designers and those fascinated by user experience (UX).
  • Accessibility: This group makes sure that WordPress maintains and improves accessibility for all of its users.
  • Mobile: This team focuses on the WordPress mobile apps.
  • Support: Answering questions in the forums is a great way to start contributing, and this is ground zero for all things support.
  • Polyglots: If you are passionate about language and translation, these are your people.
  • Documentation: Who does not love excellent documentation? Another great way for non-developers to start contributing to WordPress.
  • Themes: This team reviews and approves the themes submitted to the WordPress Theme repository.
  • Plugins: If you are a current or potential plugin developer, you will find valuable resources here.
  • Community: If you are into community organizing, this group will help you put those skills to good use.
  • Meta: Develops the site, associated sites, and builds tools for all contributor groups.
  • Training: If you are an educator and enjoy helping other people learn, the Training group is for you.

The WordPress Foundation is a non-profit organization that aims to protect the WordPress, WordCamp, and related trademarks, and educate the public about WordPress and related open source software.


Ubuntu is my favorite Linux distribution. Like WordPress, it has a large, devoted community and there are manifold ways you can contribute towards its development.

Also, Ubuntu has a nifty tool called Find a Task. You click through each prompt answering basic questions about your interests and, eventually, the wizard tells you if there is a volunteer role available that matches your criteria.

Open Whisper Systems

Open Whisper Systems is a non-profit group that develops open source software that aims to be a secure, simple, communication solution for the masses. Their Redphone, TextSecure, and Signal apps are best-in-breed when it comes to private, secure, voice and text communication.

Also, the technology that underlies these solutions has been integrated into the Android version of the popular WhatsApp platform. iOS support will be coming soon, as well.

These solutions:

To help you understand why these people and their work are so important, check out this video of Open Whisper Systems' founder, Moxie Marlinspike.

You can support Open Whisper Systems by contributing towards their projects on GitHub or by donating via the Freedom of the Press Foundation.

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Paul Ciano

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