Mozilla’s role in the Open Badges ecosystem

I wrote this ‘one-pager’ for a client today. Just leaving it here in case I need to reference it in future!


Work around Open Badges began in 2011 with a pilot project. This was then funded by the MacArthur Foundation in two ways: a competition that seed-funded the ecosystem, and funding so that Mozilla could hire staff to build out the Open Badges Infrastructure (OBI).

Mozilla is a global organisation with a focus on promoting “openness, innovation, and opportunity on the Web”. It is best known for Firefox, the web browser used by half a billion people worldwide and which is developed by the Mozilla Corporation. The Corporation is owned by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. The Foundation concerns itself with initiatives around learning and web literacy. Open Badges has been one of the most successful projects that the Mozilla Foundation has incubated.

Organisations with an open source approach are very different to those who use a standard business model. With Open Badges, the aim has been not to build a product, but an ecosystem. In essence, the OBI is a specification upon which products can be built. There is a reference badge backpack, the default one to which users can ‘push’ their badges – but many others exist.

The transition to full community ownership of Open Badges began in 2013 with the formation of the non-profit Badge Alliance. This provides a way to ensure that there is no single point of failure, or barrier to innovation, in the ecosystem. Since 2013, Mozilla has worked with the MacArthur Foundation to transfer staff, assets and other resources to this new entity. The process will be complete in early 2016 when the Mozilla badge backpack is transferred to Badge Alliance control and ‘Mozilla’ is removed from the branding of Open Badges.

Mozilla still supports the OBI. They do this materially by employing contractors when work needs doing on key infrastructure, strategically through Mark Surman (the Mozilla Foundation’s Executive Director) sitting on the board of the Badge Alliance, and practically through issuing badges through initiatives such as the Mozilla Science Lab and Mozilla Festival.

One of the great things about open source software and open standards is that they cannot be ‘killed’, removed, or damaged by any one organisation or person. The model is consensus-based, with a deep understanding of the importance of community. Mozilla has been meticulous in handing over leadership of the Open Badges project to the Badge Alliance in an open, sustainable manner.

The Badge Alliance has hired two new staff members in January 2016: a community manager and another developer. Although anyone can volunteer to commit code, run working groups, and provide thought leadership, there does need to be some resource at the centre of things. 

It is inevitable that some people who do not understand open source development will feel that this is Mozilla ‘retreating’ from a project. The truth, however, is that setting up the Badge Alliance and transferring ownership to the community guarantees the long-term sustainability of the Open Badges Infrastructure.