For us, free software is not just about software

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By AG for APCNews

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, 20 August 2013

The APC network is enthusiastic about its newest member from Kerala, India. SPACE’s membership comes at a critical time when APC has renewed its commitment to implementing and promoting the use of Transformative Technologies.

To mark this occasion and to introduce the history and work of SPACE, APCNews interviewed Executive Director Arun Madhavan.

APCNews: How did SPACE Kerala get its start?

Arun Madhavan: The Society for Promotion of Alternative Computing and Employment (SPACE) was founded in 2003 by a group of free and open source software (FOSS) activists based in Kerala. Back in 1996-97, the FOSS movement started gaining momentum in Kerala. In 2001, the state government announced that it would adopt a pro-FOSS IT policy. It was the first state in India to formally do so. It is not surprising that this movement gained popularity amongst activists – Kerala is known for its alternative governance model, largely driven by social activism.

In 2001 the Kerala government launched a program to bring ICTs to schools. This initiative was called IT@School Project. The Free Software Foundation of India (FSF-India), which started around that time, decided to turn this into a public debate on freedom in computing. The public discussion that followed finally lead to a situation where government decided to drop proprietary platforms and move to free software. Government was in need of a formal entity that could support it in the process of moving to free software. In this context SPACE was formed.

APCNews: FOSS has been a high priority of APC’s for many years and SPACE is an important driver of FOSS promotion and support. What do you consider your major accomplishments in this area and what specific expertise in this field are you bringing to APC?

AM: The use of FOSS in education has been a priority for SPACE from the very beginning. This particular experiment in Kerala has been recognised as the best model for ICT in education by the Government of India.

SPACE has a lot of experience with FOSS in education, particularly in developing curricula using free software, training teachers and planning programmes.

APCNews: SPACE has done great work in helping handicapped, or “differently abled,” users access ICTs. To what extent have ICTs helped improve social and economic inclusion for differently-abled users?

AM: In 2007, SPACE started training the blind in how to use software. To date we have trained over 1,000 visually impaired, many of which are master trainers who train others. This has helped foster a community of visually impaired free software users, who provide feedback to the technological community, contributing to the development of FOSS.

In 2009, SPACE’s work went beyond programmes for the visually impaired. We began working with children with cognitive and motor disabilities, primarily developing tools and support mechanisms for individual students and their families. Currently SPACE emphasises transferring experience that it had gained to other organisations so that the facility that it created can be replicated.

APCNews: Are there any other initiatives you would like to share with the APC community?

AM: In 2008-09, SPACE conducted a survey in colleges amongst students in non-technical disciplines. Findings indicated that ICT awareness amongst female students was very low compared to male counterparts. We discovered that ICT-related capacity building was happening through a peer learning process – there was no formal system in place. This was not really a FOSS issue, but SPACE saw this as an opportunity to promote FOSS to new users.

Men had higher ICT awareness because they were much more connected to peer learning processes. The inequality amongst men and women regarding ICT awareness is actually perpetuated by social and cultural norms. Firstly, formal learning systems through which girls use to gain new skills and knowledge are not kept up-to-date for ICT technologies. At the same time, social norms restricted their access to knowledge of FOSS through peer learning. Secondly, there is a negative perception of technologies like the internet that was perpetuated by media. Wide coverage on media on the negative aspects of new technologies lead to a situation where, society at large and girls specifically were viewing women and girls who use technology with suspicion. A kind of self-censorship was in place. However, we also found that girls were more technically capable than boys in using computers.

As a result of this study, SPACE, in collaboration with the Women’s Development Corporation, piloted an ICT awareness programme for female students. Government is also making policy initiatives to address this gender gap. SPACE undertook separate initiatives for the development of community-based media with help of free software.

APCNews: What is unique about SPACE?

AM: SPACE is a multi-stakeholder group. It has the rigour of activism yet also employs the discipline of an organisation to implement social change.
Activism is about creating new ideas but using the existing structure. We are quite successful in balancing these two forces. We have gone beyond free software into gender and disabilities-based initiatives. Our slogan affirms, “SPACE – where free software is a way of life” and we try to use the spirit of free software to bring about social change. For us, free software is not just about software.

(END/2013)

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