July 16, 2010

12 open source tools you should be using

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We liked this 3-minute intro to Songbird, Firefox, Audacity, OpenOffice,
Gaim, Gimp, Inkscape and Ubuntu.

Programs powered by coders’ collective brainpower & generosity

Target audience: Nonprofits, social change organizations, educators, foundations, businesses, individuals. This is part of Creating Media, our ongoing series designed to help nonprofits and other organizations learn how to use and make media.

By Kim Bale
Socialbrite staff

Afew years ago, most of us relied on closed, proprietary software to create documents, crunch numbers, surf the Web or watch videos. Today the landscape has shifted dramatically, with tens of millions of people taking advantage of free open source software that’s equal to — and often superior to — tools created the old way.

Some of the most useful, reliable and productive Web programs were developed using open source methods — transparency, collaboration, peer review and testing — resulting in screaming-cool products that keep getting better. Many of the open source tools outlined below are distributed under the GPL (GNU General Public License), making them flexible, high-quality products that give their corporate competitors a run for the money at a fraction of the cost. A few were even developed by foundations.

Here are 12 open source tools your organization should consider using and supporting. How many of them do you know about? (Know about others? Recommend them in the comments below.)

Office tools

OpenOffice: Full-featured productivity suite

1A single piece of full-featured software that will fulfill all of your administrative needs, OpenOffice.org is a nonprofit’s dream. The package boasts a word processor, spreadsheets, graphics programs and database access from any connected computer. The main benefit of OpenOffice is its interoperability — open and save Word docs, Excel spreadsheet, PowerPoint documents, etc., even if you don’t own Microsoft Office. Compatible with the Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, Sun Solaris and Apple Mac operating systems, OpenOffice is a one-click install and comes with an international community of users. Anyone can suggest improvements, report possible bugs or help troubleshoot problems via the organization’s wiki page. Download OpenOffice.org.

Constituent management


CiviCRM: Manage your connections

2CiviCRM is a free, open source solution for the civic sector that lets you manage your constituents. Far more than a contacts database, Web-based CiviCRM is designed specifically to meet the needs of advocacy, non-profit and non-governmental groups. See this 4-minute explanatory video on Vimeo.

CiviCRM is a contacts, fundraising and eCRM system that allows you to record and manage information about your various constituents including volunteers, activists, donors, employees, clients, vendors, etc. Track and execute donations, transactions, conversations, events or any type of correspondence with each constituent and store it all in one place. CiviCRM was created by CiviCRM LLC, the nonprofit Social Source Foundation and the open source community. See this page about which content management systems are supported.

Audio-visual tools


Miro: Watch Web video in high-def

3Streaming your videos is free and easy with the Miro Video Player. A project of the nonprofit Participatory Culture Foundation, Miro is free to download and allows users to watch video in full-screen HD from anywhere, regardless of Internet connectivity. Once downloaded, Miro plays host to HD content gathered from sites like YouTube and Blip.tv as well as podcasts and torrent files. Users subscribe to channels and feeds in their video player, allowing downloads to happen automatically as soon as new content is available.

Miro is great for nonprofits because it offers a customizable player allowing any organization to co-brand their video players and blast them to the expanding Miro community — the player was downloaded about 4 million times over the past year and boasts hundreds of thousands of users each month. As an open-source program, Miro is run by a mere 10 staff members, leaving much of the translating, coding, fixes and upgrades to volunteers around the world. Download the Miro Video Player.

A related free tool is Miro Video Converter, an amazing downloadable app that converts almost any video to MP4, WebM (vp8), Ogg Theora, or for Android, iPhone and more.

Audacity: A complete sound editing suite

4Audacity is a free audio editor that makes it easy for anyone to record, convert, import, export, edit and mix audio files of many formats. The simple Cut, Copy, Paste and Delete options make it very user-friendly and the Undo/Redo options quickly correct any errors. Audacity allows users to layer music beneath dialogue for a professional-quality podcast and features effects that can change the pitch or tempo of the recording, remove any background noise and add sound effects, like an echo. The open-source Audacity Wiki Tutorials can be edited by any user and helps answer questions like how to export projects into iTunes and record audio that’s playing on your computer. Download Audacity.

Songbird: Take control of your music

5This open source media player combines the best of iTunes, YouTube and Pandora to give you an immersive audio-visual experience. Songbird lets you buy and download your favorite music, provides video, photos, news and bios related to each song you play, suggests music you might enjoy and allows you to create and manage playlists that can be downloaded to your synced mobile device. Users are encouraged to aid in the development by uploading add-ons and submitting code. Download Songbird. (Image of songbird at left isn’t related to Songbird site — we just loved the little guy!)


VLC Media Player: A cross-platform media player

6This open-source media player has cross-platform capabilities and is very easy to use. One simple, free installation will leave you a player that can read DVDs, Audio CDs, QuickTime files and more. VLC is ideal for playing video or audio files that are unrecognizable to programs like Windows Media Player or QuickTime, and it has the ability to play damaged files by simply skipping over the damaged parts. Download VLC Media Player.

HandBrake: Rip your DVD collection

7The HandBrake DVD converter can take any DVD or DVD-like source and generate files output as MP4, H.264, Theora video, MKV and several audio options. Chapter selection, subtitles and other features are maintained even after the media has been converted, giving you a DVD quality file fit for any website, computer or iPod. Notably, HandBrake lets you rip copy-protected DVDs you own so you can travel much lighter. See the HandBrake wiki to ask questions of its strong support community. Download HandBrake.

Web browsing tools


Firefox: The Web at your fingertips

8Mozilla Firefox is the second most popular web browser in the world and is a model open-source product. It’s easy to download and runs on Mac, Windows and Linux operating systems. Mozilla is constantly rolling out new versions of Firefox, and its current version, Firefox 3.6, has racked up more than 121 million downloads. Users can join the community, report bugs, suggest upgrades and create and contribute to the more than 6,000 add-ons that make the browser customizable for you or your team. Current add-ons make it possible to aggregate your social network updates into one app, raise money for charities simply by browsing the Web (Better The World Fundraising Sidebar), create blog posts, manage Delicious bookmarks and more. Download Mozilla Firefox.


Flock: Manage your social network

9If your organizations is interested in beefing up your social media presence, consider Flock, an open source browser often overshadowed by Firefox but one that offers different strengths. Powered by the same platform and technology developed by Mozilla, Flock allows you to update your social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from any site on the Web. With Flock, you can instantly share links and post videos to your pages while you enjoy the same security and strong community Mozilla offers. Download Flock.

Website management tools

Drupal: A popular content management platform

10Does your organization need a content management system? Drupal‘s open-source software package is free to use and allows you to manage members, assign permissions and display content on your site. Drupal can be used for anything from a discussion site or community portal to building and maintaining your organization’s site or blog, and its engaged professional community is constantly rolling out updates and add-ons to improve service. Drupal offers many benefits for the nonprofit sector: It’s affordable and scalable, it gives you control over managing and editing your site and it’s easy to integrate podcasts, multimedia files and other social media. Many nonprofits are using Drupal, including 350.org and Mother Jones. Get started with Drupal.

Other popular open source CMSs or Web frameworks include Joomla, Plone and Ruby on Rails.


WordPress: World’s best blogging platform

11What started as a modest blogging program by a 19-year-old college freshman has grown into the largest self-hosted blogging tool in the world, and rightfully so. We love WordPress.org — it’s software that you can download and configure to easily build, manage and customize your blog or website. You can find your own web hosting platform or choose a WordPress partner to host it.

WordPress’s thousands of free plug-ins, widgets and (mostly free) themes offer a breathtaking array of choices (don’t overdo it!) and help brand your site and set it aside from the competition. The WordPress community is constantly working to improve the software both remotely and by attending WordCamp conferences. Side note: Socialbrite.org runs on WordPress! Get started with WordPress.

Messaging tools


Pidgin: Connect across chat applications

12Connect instantly with staff, volunteers and the rest of your community regardless of which instant messaging application they use with either Pidgin (if your office computers are PCs) or Adium (if you have Macs). Both are downloadable applications that allow you to connect with almost anyone running AIM, MSN, Jabber, Yahoo, Google Talk, MSN, IRC, Facebook and other chat networks — all at the same time. Customize your chat app with unique styles and organize your contacts in any number of manageable lists. Download Pidgin or Adium.

Other open source tools

We couldn’t list every open source tool out there, so please add your favorites in the comments below. Some other open source software includes:

Bean is a free, easy-to-use word processor (or more precisely, a rich text editor) for Mac OS X, designed to make writing convenient, efficient and comfortable. From the site: “MS Word, OpenOffice, etc. try to be all things to all people. But sometimes you just want the right tool for the job. That is Bean’s niche.”

Thunderbird: Mozilla strikes again with its open source email program. The messaging system allows you to manage email, instant messaging, social networking messages and more in one tool. You can link multiple email accounts to Thunderbird and see all of your incoming messages in one in-box, open tabs just as you would in Firefox allowing you to see multiple emails at once, and completely customize the system to fit your needs and personality. The community has created add-ons to extend its functionality. Download Thunderbird.


Gimp: Gimp is a photo editing application that rivals Photoshop for retouching images or creating new ones. It runs on Windows, Mac or Linux. Download Gimp.

Inkscape: Inkscape is a graphics application with similar capabilities to Illustrator that lets you create detailed line art. It runs on Windows, Mac and Linux. Download Inkscape.

• For other open-source software exclusive to MAC OS X, visit Open Source Mac.


Creating an Open-Source Desktop (TechSoup)

Short video discussion led by Mitchell Baker of Mozilla about open source software.Kim Bale was recently the community outreach specialist for The Extraordinaries. Follow her on Twitter at @balekimb.

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7 thoughts on “12 open source tools you should be using

  1. For an open source mindmapping and presentation tool, check out VUE (http://vue.tufts.edu; @vueProject). It's my go-to presentation tool.

    From the site:
    "The Visual Understanding Environment (VUE) is an Open Source project based at Tufts University. The VUE project is focused on creating flexible tools for managing and integrating digital resources in support of teaching, learning and research. VUE provides a flexible visual environment for structuring, presenting, and sharing digital information. "

    • Yep, Flock was shuttered a couple of months ago, after this post was written. Thanks Carla!