How Open Source Technologies can help in Times of Crisis

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In this article, I would like to draw your attention to some exciting technology projects that are helping people in the current crisis. I have also compiled a list of open source solutions that should serve as inspiration for new online services.

Innovative projects with digital technologies

There are a number of really great initiatives where organizations are creatively using technology to inform or provide their platform and infrastructure to help.

Chatbots on WhatsApp inform about the pandemic

For example, the WHO and the Indian government use WhatsApp chatbots to educate the population.

Free platform and infrastructure

The software manufacturer Acquia currently provides its infrastructure free of charge to organizations offering COVID-19 support. Acquia offers comprehensive service, support, and platform capabilities for organizations such as government agencies, education, health and non-profit organizations that provide real-time information during a crisis or help the public and employees.

Free learning platforms

The learning platform Coursera currently offers schools and universities free access to their platform to hold courses online. Coursera’s mission is to minimize the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on students. Therefore, the Coursera community is launching a worldwide initiative to support universities and colleges in making course material available online.

Khan Academy has been offering this model for many years and is only funded by donations.

How Open Source can help in the crisis

Open Source software is not only a technology paradigm but also a mindset. Open Source projects live from their openness and their community. This inclusive, collaborative approach of striving for common goals makes Open Source software crisis-proof.

As Drupal project founder Dries Buytard writes in this blog post, unlike proprietary software, Open Source projects are crisis-proof because they are supported by a global community. Software vendors can go bust, real open source projects cannot.

So how can Open Source software help in times of crisis? Well, for one thing, the software is usually free or at least much cheaper than proprietary software. This usually results in enormous cost savings in terms of licenses, but also in terms of implementation, since many developments from the community can often be used or built upon.

Below I have compiled a small list of Open Source tools and manufacturers that help organizations worldwide to solve their digital challenges.

CMS solutions

In the field of Web Content Management Systems, there are some very popular tools that are widely used and run the majority of websites out there.

An entry-level solution for blogs, freelancers and small projects is WordPress. WordPress is very easy to learn and therefore enjoys great popularity. However, WordPress quickly reaches its limits when it comes to security, performance or more complex requirements.

Joomla! is a somewhat more powerful and flexible system, with which projects of medium size and complexity can be implemented well. The community of Joomla! is a little smaller compared to other systems.

When we talk about projects with very complex requirements and high-performance demands, TYPO3 and Drupal come into play. These two players play rather in the enterprise league. While TYPO3 enjoys great popularity, especially in German-speaking countries, Drupal has a larger community internationally and can offer considerably more modules and interfaces.

In order to facilitate the selection of the countless extension possibilities of Drupal and to be able to start projects faster, the Drupal project has so-called distributions. A Drupal distribution bundles the Drupal core with a number of pre-installed modules and configurations for special use cases.

Acquia’s Drupal Lightning distribution, for example, already contains all the features that are typically required in an enterprise publishing workflow.

With the Thunder distribution, Hubert Burda Media has adapted the Drupal CMS to the special requirements of media publishers.

There are also a couple of Drupal Distributions aimed at public institutions that can be used to map typical processes of federal, state and local administrations.

Since every CMS must be hosted on a server, the question arises: Which hosting provider do I choose best? For small projects, there are numerous providers on the market, who offer customized solutions at a reasonable price.

When it comes to running business-critical enterprise solutions, the demands are naturally much higher. A service level agreement — i.e. a guarantee that the application is available — and 24/7 support are required. In addition, security, data protection, and performance usually have the highest priority. Acquia is one of the few providers that offers the SLA beyond the hosting platform to the Drupal application.

LMS Solutions

In the area of Learning Management Systems, the top dog Moodle clearly dominates. Many universities use Moodle’s software to run their online courses or to offer blended learning services. In addition, there is a commercial Moodle extension called TotaraLMS which is aimed at the use of career development in companies.

But also in the world of Drupal Distributions, there is a system called Opigno which is specialized in learning platforms. The advantage of using Drupal is that you are not so much limited to the pure eLearning scenario, but have a powerful framework at hand with which you can implement the most diverse use cases.

eCommerce solutions

In online commerce, the entry-level solution is WooCommerce, an eCommerce extension that turns a WordPress website into an online shop. Again, this tool is more suitable for small, simple projects. But you will certainly achieve results very quickly and easily.

There is also an eCommerce extension for the Drupal CMS called Drupal Commerce. Drupal Commerce follows a framework idea with which you can build your individual solutions in contrast to the out-of-the-box approach of WordPress.

When it comes to medium-sized projects with medium budget and medium complexity, systems like Shopware, Oxid or Prestashop come into play. All three providers offer a free Community Edition, but also offer a commercial SaaS version.

In the enterprise league of open source eCommerce solutions, there is actually only Magento. With Magento, really large projects with complex requirements can be realized.

The company Acquia has taken a slightly different approach with its Commerce Framework. This framework serves as an interface between the Drupal CMS and eCommerce systems. Traditional eCommerce systems are good at displaying products and product catalogs, but usually have only rudimentary capabilities to create beautiful digital experiences. Therefore, it makes sense to bring these two worlds together and leverage the best of each.

Marketing Automation

There are only a few open source solutions for marketing automation on the market. Most of them are limited to subareas such as e-mail marketing. The only complete solution for automated multi-channel campaigns is Mautic. With Mautic, complex campaign logics and flows can be easily assembled using an intuitive campaign builder. Mautic also offers a free Community Edition and a commercial SaaS solution for rent.

Chatbots

Since chatbots are enjoying growing popularity, they shall not remain unmentioned here. In my opinion, the most mature chatbot framework on the market is currently Rasa. Rasa was built on the basis of the most successful libraries for machine learning like TensorFlow and therefore is able to learn. The framework can be connected to any channels like website chat or messengers. Besides the free Community Edition, Rasa also offers a commercial version for rent from the cloud.

A view into the crystal ball

After the corona pandemic, there will probably be a new normality. The use of online services has established itself more deeply at the center of society and in a broader form than before. Digital channels are probably no longer seen as nice accessories or pure marketing measures but have become business-critical and systemically relevant. The development is moving rapidly towards online first and online only. After the crisis, some things have probably become established as a matter of course that was not before. I am curious to see how the service landscape will change. But I am sure that we will soon be able to do a lot more things online than we have done so far. And a lot of these things will be powered by Open Source technologies.

Written by

Senior Solutions Engineer at Acquia, thrilled by digital technologies, outdoor sports, nature, sustainability and transparency. Based in Munich, Germany.

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