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Thursday, 03 September 2015 07:44

Ada Initiative runs out of puff, shuts its doors


A little over four years since it began, the Ada Initiative, a project set up to encourage the participation of women in free and open source software and culture, has run out of puff and kicked the bucket.

In a statement on its website, the group says it would be shutting down in mid-October. During its existence it was active in trying to get technology conferences to draft codes of conduct that would make women feel welcome and also tried to get men to aid in this process.

Kicked off by Linux kernel developer Valerie Aurora and open source advocate and developer Mary Gardiner in February 2011 (seen above), the former functioned as executive director and the latter as her deputy. The group began promisingly, but then developed a streak of authoritarianism, seeking to coerce others to do its will.

This manifested itself largely in attempts to force conference organisers to adopt draconian codes of conduct. In 2013, Aurora was very much in the public eye when she forced the organisers of the Security BSides conference in San Francisco to cancel a talk that she deemed unsuitable.

The presenter was well-known speaker Violet Blue and the talk was titled "sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits".

Though Aurora tried her level best to make out that she had been asked to look over the conference programme by the organisers, it became apparent that she was the one who had poked her nose into the whole affair and tried to muscle the organisers into cancelling the talk.

In the statement about shutting down, the group said that late last year, Aurora had decided to step down and concentrate on running training programmes. Gardiner did not want to take over as executive director so a new executive director was hired out of 130 applicants, but, according to the statement, this did not work out.

"We considered running a second ED (executive director) search, but it had become clear to the board that the success of the Ada Initiative was very much a product of its two founders, and was a direct result of their experiences, skills, strengths and passions. We felt the likelihood of finding a new ED who could effectively fit into Valerie’s shoes was low. We also considered several other options for continuing the organisation, including changing its programmes, or becoming volunteer-only.

"After much deliberation, the board decided to do an orderly shutdown of the Ada Initiative, in which the organisation would open source all of our remaining knowledge and expertise in freely reusable and modifiable form. We don’t feel like non-profits need to exist forever. The Ada Initiative did a lot of great work, and we are happy about it."

Whether Aurora and Gardiner felt like it or not, non-profits have to keep going – and those who run them must be prepared to be stoic and carry on. If Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, had given up after four or five years, one can only imagine what state the free and open source software community would be in today – or whether there would be any such community at all.

Unlike many non-profits which suffer due to lack of funds, The Ada Initiative did not lack money to run the organisation if one goes by the statements for the first three years. In the very first year, the amount raised was over $US130,000, most of which was spent on the two co-founders.

In subsequent years, the revenue rose, to a little more than $US216,000 and then to $US320,000. Accounts for 2014 are not yet available publicly.

The organisation under-achieved a great deal and this led to even close supporters, like self-styled computer journalist Bruce Byfield, an adviser, quitting his role in frustration.

In sharp contrast to the Ada Initiative, the GNOME Foundation has been running an outreach programme for women that has been a marked success and has placed many women in free and open source software roles. This project is ably run by Red Hat's Marina Zhurakinskaya, aided by Karen Sandler, a former head of the Foundation. Of course, Zhurakinskaya has little baggage when it comes to ideology and is focused on practical outcomes.

There are some questions as to whether Aurora, given her background, was the right person to run such a project. When people are the product of extreme situations, their reactions also tend to be extreme.

Photo: Courtesy The Ada Initiative

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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