NGOs, searching long for alternatives, find flavour in alt.software
By Frederick Noronha
GOA, INDIA, 22 January 2005
For an sector that talks of alternatives, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or voluntary sector stays surprisingly aloof from one significant alternative that has really worked — free software. But there are stirrings to bridge this huge chasm. In end-January, India’s technology mecca Bangalore is to be the venue for an international, APC-supported ‘camp’ meant to promote FLOSS among the NGO sector.
Others talk of building ‘another world’; in free software, it is already there. Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS, using the newish acronomy that better describe both diverse strands that make it up) today allows just about anyone to avoid globally dominant players, and to find more freedom-oriented options. It also, at the same time, works very efficiently in the growing world of computing.
Asia Source, as the ‘tech camp’ is called, will be held from January 28 to February 4, 2005 and "hopes to bring together over a hundred people from 20 countries to increase the use and awareness of FLOSS amongst the non-profit sector in South and South East Asia."
There will be participants coming in from a range of backgrounds.
Sucharat "Ying" Sathapornanon from Thailand looks after IT for the Asia-Pacific Regional Resource Center for Human Rights Edcuation. Umesh Pradhan comes in from Thimphu, Bhutan. Ujjwal from Nepal is a "technical supporter" of non-profits in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Yee Yee Htun from Myanmar lives along the Thai-Myanmar border, and is a volunteer webmaster for AAPPB (Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma) — www.aappb.org. Alecks Pabico from the Philippines is a journalist working with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
From a range of Asian countries, NGOs and grassroots technology support professionals will come in "to learn new skills, exchange tips, and share experiences", organisers say. Local hosts reminded participants that Bangalore is famous for its silk, sandle wood, handicrafts, designer jewelery and (tasty vegetarian) food.
But beyond the names and faces and local attractions, there’s a more important message.
FLOSS bestows on the user four freedoms — freedom to use the software for any purpose; freedom to study how the software works; freedom to modify the software; and freedom to share the software with others. From a technical perspective, this can be used to reduce costs and hardware requirements while also improving security, reliability, performance, stability, and scalability.
From a wider philosophical perspective, FLOSS can transform patterns of access, usage, control and ownership of knowledge and technologies. Globally, FLOSS has grown after several hundred thousand hackers and students scattered across the globe collaborated to produce a unified body of knowledge without resorting to hierarchical structures and exploitative relationships. This movement is also seen by some to demonstrate how wealth can be created by entrepreneurs in the free market without using the proprietary copyright regime.
In Bangalore, four themes will flow throughout the event. FLOSSophy for NGOs (or, why Free Software and Open Source makes sense), migration and access to non-proprietorial software, tools for content-building and communication, and the localisation of computing to make it relevant to countries across Asia.
Elizabeth, originally Timorese (from East Timor), is currently doing her internship at the Open Forum of Cambodia with KhmerOS (Khmer Open Source). The KhmerOs is working to localise software to Khmer, the Cambodian language. Says she: "I’m learning from them while also preparing a localization document for Tetum, one of our national language in Timor Leste." Tetum uses the Latin script with some accents, since it has words imported from Portuguese.
Talat Numanov from Dushanbe, Tajikistan works in Central Asian Development Agency as an IT specialist, and his goal is to learn more about FLOSS and distribute it to users. Says he: "My friends use Mandrake Linux (because it has been localised to Tajik)." Russell T. Kyaw Oo from Myanmar says: "I am focusing on localisation, translation and modification."
Guests from overseas should be meeting up with Guntupalli Karunakar, a soft-spoken extremely low-key Mumbai-based champion of localisation. He’s one of the key movers behind the Indian Linux Project (http://www.indlinux.org). Explains Karunakar: "My primary experience is in F(L)OSS localisation. I have been working on this for last four years. We have almost completed Hindi localisation part."
Not-so-friendly neighbouring regions are sometimes united by common concerns. From Pakistan, Sufyan told Karunakar in a pre-conference online discussion: "We at Open Source Resource Center of Pakistan (www.osrc.org.pk) will be grateful to you if you can give us an action plan for localization in Urdu."
Localisation is an issue that many are addressing in the FLOSS world, and taking computing to communities which otherwise might just be seen as an unviable market.
Javier Sola, a Spaniard living in Cambodia, is coordinator of the KhmerOS project. "Our goal is to make Cambodia OpenSource-Country by means of localisation. I am an enthusiast of F(L)OSS localisation. I believe that it is the key to adoption of F(L)OSS by users," says he.
He has been also working on a "toolkit" on how to do FLOSS localisation. In Javier’s view, localisation and making migration easy are the two "keys to FLOSS adoption". In Bangalore, he regrets not being able to attend both tracks.
Hok Kakada, another Cambodian, works for the KhmerOS project, which she sees as aiming to "enable all the Cambodian people to use a computer in their own language". She says that by using FLOSS, their team has already localised a number of applications into the Khmer language — actually, not just applications, but even the operating system as well.
OVER A HUNDRED
Over a hundred participants are expected at this global meet. Together with experts and specialists, they’ll look at how technology and free and open source software makes sense within the non-profit sector — in terms of access and content.
Asia Source organisers — the Dutch TacticalTech.org network and Mahiti.org in Bangalore — say theirs will be the "first event of its kind" in the region.
Peer-learning will take top priority. Participants will look at available options, learn how to select and apply alternative technologies. They’ll access skills and tools to utilise this in their daily work.
There will be experts to share the skills.
Colin Charles, also from Malaysia, considers himself an "all round open source person, actively involved in The Fedora Project and OpenOffice.org." He has helped many NGOs, companies and individuals make the switch, first to the Windows-like Open Office and then to GNU/Linux.
Soon-Son ‘Shawn’ Kwon from South Korea works with a "big corporation" by day and by night has been managing the highly-successful Korean Linux Documentation Project, "as a hobby".
David Tremblay is a French Canadian volunteer working for Oxfam Quebec as an IT analyst in Ha Noi, Vietnam. He says: "I’m implementing websites, intranet, extranet and networks using — as much as I can — open source, open standards and accessible technologies. I’m trying to build a strong open source community in Ha Noi. I’m also a proud [GNU]Linux desktop user."
Tremblay argues that he wants "to raise awareness among my NGOs that are too often giving away computers without thinking what their are doing…. I want to raise awareness that software choice isn’t genuine. Too often, they think of their computers as a hammer, and everything become a MS-nail."
One of the more colourful and high-profile though is "Rasta coder" Jaromil.
Denis ‘Jaromil’ Rojo is the maintainer of dyne:bolic, HasciiCam MuSE and FreeJ. He calls himself "a nomadic rastafari of south Italian origins" and a free software developer.
Dynebolic (dynebolic.org) comes out with a GNU/Linux multimedia-oriented distribution. Jaromil sees it as being suitable for "audio/video manipulation, network radio streaming, veejaying and anything else we can come up with together". He points out that this is a "100% free" operating system. (In the world of FLOSS, the word ‘free’ doesn’t refer to zero-cost, but refers to the freedom to run, study, redistribute and improve software.)
At the ‘camp’, there will be a range of sessions. From planning and helping an NGO to migrate to FLOSS, to sharing tips and techniques on using tools for content development, advocacy and campaigning. In parallel to this they will look beneath user-level scenarios, and break-down tricky issues such as techniques for localising software and forms of understanding the real cost of technology use.
Asia Source will be held in a small artists community on the outskirts of Bangalore. But perhaps this needs to be recognised as an endeavour that goes beyond just code.
FLOSS ideals are spreading to other fields. It’s amazing to see the manner in which the sharing of knowledge and information is catching on in other circles too. Today, like sharing Free Software, the same ideals are growing in fields like open law, open source biology, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Project Gutenberg and Books Online (that distributes e-texts free online), free dictionaries and encyclopedias, and the open music movement.
VENTURES THAT MAKE SENSE
Various experiments are seeing FLOSS being deployed to bridge the ‘digital divide’. While the potential is vast, and significant achievements are being reported at the ground level, there probably just isn’t enough awareness about it.
Tomas Krag in Copenhagen runs a small non-profit called wire.less.dk. It works primarily with low-cost wireless solutions for remote areas (mostly in the so-called ‘developing world’). With a background as a web-developer, technical architect, and technology evangelist, his interest is "in a variety of open (standards, source, spectrum, doors) technology solutions to bring more people on to the Internet, and make it a richer better place".
Adi Nugroho lives in Makassar, a small town in Sulawesi Island in Indonesia. He’s been using FLOSS since 1998. In March 1999, with some friends, they founded the Linux User Group Ujung Pandang, to learn GNU/Linux together and to help each other to migrate and use it.
Way back in September 1999, they build iNterNUX, the first full-GNU/Linux Internet cafe in Indonesia, which use FLOSS for all servers and workstations.
NEEDING A LEG-UP IN ASIA
In the West, FLOSS grew early. But in Asia it is a younger development, mainly because widespread public access to tools vital for collaboration — like the Internet — grew in these parts only very recently.
In Bangalore, the camp is being supported by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and Aspiration. This event is sponsored by Hivos, the Open Society Institute, and the International Open Source Network (IOSN). This perhaps marks a shift in the approach of international development organisations, who have come to recognise that the Free Software approach to knowledge and skills makes the most sense in a world where poverty and illiteracy and unconquered enemies for a few thousands millions.
Prior to this event, similar ‘source’ events have taken place in South East Europe, Southern Africa and are planned in 2005 in Western Africa. See
Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist who writes often on Free Software, and can be emailed at email@example.com