A Beehive of Activity

Last April I gave a talk at the Linux Foundation’s Collaboration Summit, talking about some interesting stats and metrics from Ohloh about project activity. Not surprisingly, FOSS activity follows the Pareto principle – most of the effort is focused on a small number of the projects out there. So how do you know which projects have an engaged community and active development? We’ve been thinking about this for a while, and we’re excited to launch a new feature of Ohloh: Project Activity Icons.

Explaining Activity Icons

Activity is all about what have you done for me lately, and so in calculating a project’s activity, Ohloh puts far more weight on what happened last month, versus what happened a year ago. In addition, Ohloh puts more weight on the number of committers a project has versus the raw number of commits. We found, in evaluating different calculations, that no matter how prolific a single developer is, a team of developers gets more done and can maintain a higher level of activity and engagement. What this means, is that projects with a number of contributors making a steady volume of commits will show a higher activity level than solo efforts or those with very few committers, or projects with gaps in contributions or no recent commits.

If a project has had no activity in the past 2 years, it will show as “Inactive”. New projects – those less than a year old based on their first commit date –  will display the “New Project” icon. Any project that does not have a recent analysis because of incorrect or unresponsive code locations will show the “Not Available” icon. If you work on a project and you see the “question mark” activity icon, we need your help! Please consider correcting project code locations so that Ohloh’s analysis can be up-to-date.

You’ll see these activity icons show up on many pages on the site, including project summary, similar projects, and compare projects, as well as on a number of the Organization pages where multiple projects are listed. We’re planning on adding activity icons to the project search results in an upcoming deployment.

How to Interpret The Beehive

Activity level is just one aspect of a project’s health. There are many highly regarded, very popular projects that are not “Very High Activity”. In fact, Ohloh activity levels are relative to all projects on Ohloh, and only a small percentage of projects will have the highest activity level. For example, the Bash Shell is one of the most popular projects on Ohloh and is very broadly used and adopted. But it has been around a long time, the code base is very mature, and it has a “Very Low Activity” level with just one key maintainer – Chet Ramey. There is nothing “wrong” with Bash for having this level of activity. On the contrary, this ubiquitous bit of code has been refined over years of development and has become one of the best-known and loved FOSS projects in the world, therefore not needing much activity to stay relevant and broadly adopted.

Activity as measured by commits and committers is just one of many tools Ohloh provides for assessing projects. If you’re adopting FOSS for use in another context, you might find that the best code for your purposes comes from an inactive code base. With only a fraction of the vast code commons that is FOSS under active development, it is inevitable that great code is out there but not being actively maintained. The Project Activity Icons can help you see at-a-glance whether a project currently has an active developer community so you know if it is being updated and maintained, or not, and set expectations appropriately.

So what about those beehive icons? Well – we originally were inspired by the Tower of Hanoi game but in an unrelated context someone was talking about a “beehive of activity” and suddenly, these icons became beehives — which seems a lot more appropriate!

We hope you find this new feature valuable. Let us know what you think by commenting on this post!

About Rich Sands

I'm the Principal and Founder of RSands Consulting, a developer/FOSS strategy, product management, and marketing consultancy. Formerly Ohloh's PM, Black Duck is now a client of mine.
  • Peter Degen-Portnoy

    As one of the contributors to this feature, I am very interested in learning how folks think about it. Is this helpful? How could it be improved? What worked about this feature for you right away? What were some of your immediate questions? Thanks so much!

  • richsands

    @ab1dff5f02381fb3dfa5fe8c9dce22fd:disqus thanks for your comment! You’re correct – we’re consciously making projects with only one developer have a lower activity rating than their commit counts might otherwise indicate. One-person projects are valuable – there is a lot of great code out there that is FOSS, and written by one dedicated individual. Sometimes one person can crank out a lot of code! But ultimately, projects with multiple contributors can sustain momentum, and more minds building the code means more creativity, engagement, code reviews, etc. Ohloh’s Project Activity Levels are meant to capture some of this by counting projects with more contributors as more active than those with fewer or just one contributor. Another reason why multiple contributors is important is the “Bus Factor” – how many developers could a project lose (hit by a bus) before the project is no longer viable. This is a risk measurement – check out Donnie Berkholz’ excellent recent blog on this topic here: http://redmonk.com/dberkholz/2013/01/15/dont-forget-about-the-bus-factor/

    Thanks again!

  • richsands

    @marclaporte:disqus Great comments as always! Some of this (search results, tags) is already under development, and some (widgets) is in queue. Your idea to use Project Activity Levels to find interesting anomalies like popular but inactive projects is a good one – those outlier projects can sometimes provide us with new insights into FOSS.

    Thanks again!

  • Lukas

    I consider this too biased against high-commit one man efforts. This gives the wrong idea at a glance, and might discourage from trying out the application, possibly stacking the odds against getting additional contributors.

    The bus number does makes one-man projects fragile, but that is potential for inactivity. I do not consider that a reasonable part of the activity measure. I agree with having the number of contributors affect activity (e.g. how bustling a project is), but the risk issues of few contributors seem like an unexpected factor.

    There’s also the factoid “maintained by one developer”, so readers are already warned. I would be more comfortable with a slightly higher activity besides an icon stating “Fully maintained by a sad loner”.