As the benefits of open-source software become more well known, more people – from individuals to public and private entities -- are abandoning costly proprietary software for open-source software. However, many are still reluctant to make this switch as they are unsure of the reliability and cost-efficiency of open-source software.

This research by Arlington, Virginia-based faculty at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech’s Social and Decision Analytics Laboratory was carried out with assistance from undergraduate students at the university’s Blacksburg campus.

Assisting the National Capital Region Campus faculty were Alex Gagliano, of Ashburn, Virginia and a senior in the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program; John Higgins of McLean, Virginia, and a senior and double major in mathematics and statistics, and Romcholo Macatula of Asburn, Virginia, also a senior in mathematics, all in the Virginia Tech College of Science.

The work was part of an undergraduate research project for students as part of the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics program, in the College of Science’s Academy of Integrated Science.

“Our project aims to develop metrics and useful statistics to measure the scope and impact of open-source software,” says Gizem Korkmaz, a research assistant professor with the Social and Decision Analytics Lab. She served as advisor on the project, funded by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics at the National Science Foundation.

“Alex and his team are working on identifying data sources and assessing their potential uses for measuring the creation, use, and diffusion of open-source software created by households, academic institutions, government entities, and nonprofits.”

“This project allows students to work with faculty with different backgrounds, such as economists, statisticians, and data scientists at the Social and Decision Analytics Lab, and interact with measurement and innovation experts at the NSF,” Korkmaz added.

Open-source software is more open to modification than proprietary software, and it contributes to the growth of research as it allows users to see contributions made to it previously, Korkmaz said. It offers many of the same services that proprietary software offers while allowing users to avoid high costs.

In their research, Alex and his team were tasked with finding data that shows how open-source software affects economic sectors and ultimately to figure out the cost efficiency and reliability of open-source software to determine whether or not people should invest in it. To answer these questions, Alex and his teammates have engaged in literature reviews on the subject matter, using programs that help them pull data indicating how many people are using particular pieces of open-source software.

“Last semester, we finished by creating two models, both of which took descriptive inputs like number of collaborators, lines of codes, and number of downloads to predict the popularity of a specific open-source software,” Higgins said. “This semester, we hope to connect popularity to the impact made by open-source software projects.”

The work of Gagliano, Higgins, and Macatula has the potential to impact the decisions of a variety of organizations, Korkmaz said. If reliable open-source software performs the same services as proprietary software for free, then there will be no need to pay for proprietary software. “If this can be proven, the influence can extend to the public sector, incentivizing governments to shift towards open-source software,” Gagliano said.

Gagliano said he was challenged by the difficulty and sometimes uncertain answers encountered in his research. “It’s both interesting and frustrating that there is no definite answer,” Gagliano said. “The open-endedness of the problems and the trial-and-error process through which they are solved reflects the way you solve problems throughout life.”

Gagliano added he enjoys the way studies in the Computational Modeling and Data Analytics allow him to learn about the world from a technical perspective.

Through their experience with undergraduate research, Gagliano, Higgins, and Macatula have had the opportunity to create answers to real world problems that will benefit many people. Gagliano added he works to ensure that his research extends across many different academic fields, enabling him to find solutions that cover every aspect of the issues presented to him.

“A better understanding of the scope and impact of open-source software produced outside of the business sector has the potential to improve our understanding of the sources of economic growth and the value of digital goods and services produced in the economy,” Korkmaz said.

Written by Jessie Rogers, of Suffolk, Virginia, a junior in the Department of English, part of the College Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

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