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The state of CC software, for IJCCR
This report briefly covers the field of non-commercial mutual credit software, discussing the issues and challenges they collectively face in meeting the needs of the movement. The author's purpose is to draw out some themes of collective concern to a few small, under-resourced, and disparate projects which are working along very similar lines, and to encourage discussion. The intention is not to make direct comparisons but to take a higher view, with concrete examples.
Disclaimer: The author is the developer of the Drupal module and Co-founder of Community Forge
Projects under consideration here all have multiple instances active and are open source. Proprietary software for our purposes is anathema to an economy of abundance.
The term 'association' is used here to mean a distinct mutual credit exchange circle, using its own currency, and whose member balances add up to zero.
The playing field
Before getting to the issues, here is a synopsis of each of the main projects, in order of age. These projects are selected on the basis that they are open source, have multiple implementations, and support community exchange using an arbitrary measure of value.
Cyclos is the software implementation arm of the Social Trade Organisation. It is an open source, java, comprehensive accounting package used in increasingly large projects around the world. The German Tauschring network picked up Cyclos and now use it routinely, contributing back code. Many other 'one-off' projects also use it as a back end accounting package.
Comunity Exchange System (CES)
Arising from a grass-roots movement in Cape town, CES is a free web service that hosts 200 'Exchanges', each with its own currency and separate database. Some exchanges charge membership fees in the national currency, some in the currency of the exchange and some use the optional transactional levy feature. Trade is possible between exchanges.
Cclite is a Perl package for local exchange trading systems (LETS), banking and other alternative money systems. Multi-registry, multi-currency, web services based transactions and templated to give multi-lingual capabilities.
Fourth Corner Exchange is a small family of LETS like groups. Their php/MySQL application was written for multiple implementations of that specific model. LETSlink UK has forked the software and done several implementations.
Drupal & Community Forge
A Drupal module for web developers to implement a complementary currency with total flexibilty over usability, design, wireframing etc. Community Forge is a non-profit hosting Drupal implementations tailored for LETS.
Developed by members of the Austin Time Exchange, this project is now under development for the Bay Area Community Exchange. While the platform, Insoshi is not well known, much attention has been given to openness, so that the system plugs in easily to the rest of the web.
Also worthy of mention is Time Banks whose membership includes a special license to use the proprietary 'Community Weaver' software.
Supporting community implementersMany nascent projects are opting to have paper currencies, which though archaic have some advantages
Cc activists are trawling the net trying to work out what each software package does, how they compare, and which is best for them. The only information available to them is in the form of a few poorly maintained lists on the web with no review and no attempts at balanced comparisons.* Implementers find themselves sifting through lists including dead projects, ready rolled services, and hard-core applications and there is very little actual information from users' perspectives.
We need to building up communities of users, who support each other and handle enquiries from strangers. Note that the Tauschringen are streets ahead in this respect with a community of volunteer developers. The network is so comprehensive that joining it is just a matter of time for the few remaining German associations outside.
Encouraging good governance
It's well known that complementary currency projects have a high failure rate, and widely acknowledged that this is largely due to poor governance structures being unable to sustain an initial flurry of interest. There are various ways in which software can support governing activities.
At this stage in the development of the ecosystem, associations are moving from isolated instances, into networks. Providors of software have an ideal opportunity to bundle in governance support to add value to the package. Later on the governance and the software should become separate again. A delicate balance has to be struck between encouraging good governance, providing the tools and expertise, and local autonomy.
One of the major barriers to achieving scale in a decentralised mutual credit economy is the fundamental inability of members of currency groups to exchange value between groups. however it is critical for the usefulness of the network that members be able to trade outside their local groups, across the network firstly with adjacent local groups
The most highly evolved solution seems to be that each scheme has a single 'intertrading' gateway account which holds the balance of all external transactions. The schemes then make a virtual transfer as user A pays into his schemes intertrading account, while user B is paid an equivalent from her intertrading account. CES offered this mechanism almost from the beginning as all its 'exchanges' lived on the same server.
This intertrading can take place perfectly well without an all the web sites being able to talk to each other. Community Forge is working with the French and Belgian SELs to set up interSEL trading even before the software is ready. Each transaction would have to be negotiated by the scheme's accountants. In order for this to happen. All the participating schemes need to agree on a standard measure of value. They might do well to learn from the Tauschringen.
This diagram shows how intertrading usually works between mutual credit clearing circles. Each contained circle is an account within the association, with the intertrading account protruding slightly. Since it is meaningless to transfer value outside the system, value is transfered instead to an intertrading account, while elsewhere an equivalent value is transferred from an intertrading account. This method means that both parties use their normal currency, no special accounts need to be created for one-off transactions, and the currency doesn't go out of circulation, like the Nepali Rupees I brought home and couldn't sell.
The Tauschring network has been working with the Cyclos team, and made a lot of progress in this area.
This API would send a proposed transaction from one scheme to another, and carry back either an OK or an error code. There would soon be a need for transactions to be confirmed by the second party before moving from a pending state to a completed state
Feeding the Developers**
Developers are aware of all these matters but progress in the movement is very slow compared to equivalent technical endeavours. This is because there is almost zero investment in software itself, any investment is always directed at implementations, and most of the software is built by busy people in their spare time.
The movement is hardly organised enough to use its own issued money for funding (hat tip to CES), yet it needs highly professional skills to advance.
Of all the software under discussion, only Cyclos is insulated from the possible demise of its primary programmer. All the others are still dependent on the altruist who initiated them, and have been unable to professionalise. No investment means no staff, no reliability, no guarantees for the future. A viable business model needs to be established for a CC software project. Communities and networks could be responsible for raising funds for building new economic tools, and they need to understand it will be the best investment they will ever make.
In the localised economy, will intertrading be the exception or the rule? The final structure of the system that is emerging is unknowable.
The bundling of offers and wants with a transaction engine is very common, as the two services complement each other like the bank and the marketplace. But functionally and practically, these are beginning to separate. The web itself functions as a very efficient marketplace where buyers and sellers can meet. Instead of building closed directories of member offers, the payment tools need to become more platform and network neutral, more accessible to more buyers and sellers, much as PayPal is now.
There is much talk about 'virtual' currencies. These may broadly fit the definition of complementary currencies, but they offer none of the benefits which we are concerned with. Some are direct proxies for hard currencies which are paid for in advance, and then spent using a plethora of widgets and enticements. The distance of virtual currencies from national currencies allows operators to introduce games and incentives which blur the value, and make it easier to spend.*** It should be possible to use virtual currency tools such as the Opensocial API to quickly build a CC ecosystem, though an appropriate context would need to be found.
One proposal on my back burner is a mutual credit bank, which would offer secure hosting of many currencies via an API. There may be a social network on which all trading takes place; instead everyone would trade through payment widgets on their own sites.
Facebook makes an obvious platform for a complementary currency, but it might be a false investment. Facebook is now almost entirely corporate-ised, and edging towards the entertainment industry. It would be naive to believe any privacy were possible there.
All the models under discussion assume so far that the currencies live on one server, in one integral database, where the same users log in and trade with each other and the governance is very clear. If the Metacurrency initiative has its way, this rather simple economic unit would become enmeshed in a complex and abstract economic web.
If implementing intertrading between schemes in a network seems complex, trading between different networks will prove to be a real challenge. For example ccLite's definition of intertrading, while logically sound, is not quite compatible with the others. Multiple and diverse networks are emerging.
The CC movement has mostly been on the margins of society having minimal impact. There must be opportunities now, with software and expertise, to engage with larger players. Entrepreneurs could be approaching the following types of organisations proposing affordable CC software solutions to the coming deflation crisis.
** the author is a volunteer developer