Giving back: 5 reasons for open sourcing Trace

A little while ago, our tech team proudly announced that it was a fact: Trace’s Field App was now open source. By now, the not so techy Fairfoodies learned that open sourcing a solution’s code means the whole world can now inspect, modify and enhance that code. We also learned there are good reasons for an NGO like ours to want that. In this blog, Trace’s product owner Derek Hardwick shares 5.

For over a year now, Fairfood has been experimenting with our offline traceability app: the Trace Field App. The development of this app started with a tough question: how do you include smallholder farmers in a digitisation process when you can’t rely on any infrastructure – farmers often don’t have smartphones, email addresses, internet access, bank accounts, or even reliable cell service.

Asking this question took the product design in a new direction: we built an app for buyers, not farmers – the Field App. We focused on streamlining the process and requiring as little data entry as possible – often just one question: the quantity of the delivery. Next, we issued farmers smart cards – our so-called Farmer Cards – that they can use to ‘tap’ to confirm what they were paid, after it is scanned with the Field App. We built the whole system so that it would work in the field, offline, and compensate farmers (and buyers) for their efforts with a so-called Data Premium. And last but not least, we gave farmers the ability to access their data and signal problems via multiple channels when needed.

It’s been a wild ride. Farmers are happy with both the Farmer Cards and the Data Premium that comes with them. Buyers, at first weary of possible extra effort, have reported that it greatly improves their efficiency and relationship with the farmers. Brands and consumers are happy to learn more about the people behind their products. We’ve taken the app out of the pilot phase with two suppliers who are now scaling-up its use in day to day operations, and we’re scaling-out to new projects in other countries and commodities.

So, what do you do with a product that’s out-performing your own expectations? You give it away! We’ve chosen to open-source Trace mobile for anyone to contribute to or use, because we believe in open-source software, and it’s added value in:

  1. Adaptation and scaling-up: Value chains have a responsibility to improve the lives of those who produce their products. Data collection around product deliveries and payments to smallholders is a large piece of this puzzle, and we believe the Field App can contribute in this space. If other organisations, independently of us, would like to use the tool to have more certainty about payments to farmers, we see that as a win.
  2. Collaboration: The open-source route allows others to improve Trace mobile and contribute back to both us and a wider community of users. There’s still a lot to learn in order to expand usability to more commodities around the world, and we would love to build on the experiences of others.
  3. Independence: Potential users may show reluctance to incorporate a tool developed by a non-profit into their core sourcing practices. While Fairfood is committed to supporting the Field App, open sourcing allows organisations to use their own resources to continue to adapt and support it going forward.
  4. Ethics: Put simply, it’s the right thing to do. Fairfood is a not-for-profit that receives public funding to improve the lives of vulnerable target groups. It only makes sense that we release our efforts back to a wider community so that they can be further built upon. We also proudly use and support open-source tools in our efforts, and this is a way to give back.
  5. Housekeeping: When you expect guests, you tidy up. The process of open sourcing this app pushed us to improve our documentation, quality control, security, release procedures, and make the code easier for others (and ourselves!) to understand and contribute to.

What’s next?

The Field App is ready for others to review, contribute, or to explore for independent usage. It currently links to our Trace platform, but over the next few months we will develop a standalone server which organisations can host themselves and use to bring Field App data into their systems via an API, JSON, Excel, or other formats. In this way, it can be truly turn-key and independent of Fairfood’s other systems. We are also committed to open sourcing the rest of our Trace platform tools, like the storytelling interface, and are currently finalising the remaining items on our roadmap to do this.

Open sourcing a product is more than just releasing it, and we are exploring ways in which we can encourage and support its usage outside our projects, and ideally build a community of developers around our open-source tools.

Some techy details

  • Trace mobile source code is distributed under a dual licence structure 1) AGPLv3 Commercial licence, 2) a harmony agreement which grants Fairfood a licence to use contributions (the latter is necessary to be compliant with Apple and Google’s app stores).
  • The Trace mobile source code is located on GitHub.

If you’d like to explore using, contributing, or collaborating on Trace mobile, reach out to Derek!

What’s in Trace for you?

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