GOA, India, 16 October 2007
Contribute your work, and get a computer! That’s the option offered by the Portland,Oregon-based Free Geek. They have been "helping the needy get nerdy since the beginning of the third millennium”.
In recognition of their work – made possible with GNU/Linux and free software – this not-for-profit community organisation was jointly awarded the first APC Chris Nicol FOSS Prize, named after a passionate campaigner of free and open source software (FOSS) who played a key role in the APC network.
With ideas such as a thrift store (buy donated recycled parts, as is, and with no warranty), hardware grants, GNU/Linux certification, and internet access, the 2000-launched Free Geek has done some interesting work. The organisation states on its website: "In the four years since its formation, Free Geek has recycled over 360 tons of electronic scrap and refurbished over 3,000 computer systems that are now in use by individuals and organizations in the community".
Interestingly, Free Geek says it does most of this work with volunteers. At any given time, about 200 are active. Volunteers disassemble donated equipment, test components, then either recycle it as electronic scrap or into refurbished systems. Refurbished computers are all loaded with free and open source software (FOSS), such as GNU/Linux, Open Office, and the Ubuntu distribution.
But Free Geek does not just aim for efficiency and ecological-sense. It strives for a democratic model too. Says the group: "We are proud of being a democratically-run organization, and use consensus in our meetings. Our policy decisions are made by a group of volunteers and staff called the council, and those policies are executed by our staff collective".
Journalist and BytesForAll co-founder Frederick Noronha (FN) interviewed Elizabeth Swager of Free Geek, to find out more about the project, its challenges and how it can be replicated.
FN: How long has your project been active, and how many staff or volunteers does it have? Do you see it as a funded or aided organisation primarily, or a business venture, or both?
Elizabeth Swager (ES): Free Geek has been keeping the needy nerdy for seven full years. We currently have thirteen collective members. However, they are paid for working anywhere between 12-35 hours a week.
I see Free Geek as a self-sustaining non-profit community centre that aims to give people tools of empowerment.
FN: How effective has this project been in spreading FLOSS use?
ES: It has been very effective at spreading FLOSS use to people who would not normally have access to propriety software, to non-profits and our volunteers.
We distribute more than 2,000 computers a year with free and open source software.
FN: What are the challenges in giving people FLOSS to use when they have no initial experience with it (training aside)?
ES: Ubuntu is the version of Linux we use, and it has been very helpful for users who are new to FLOSS. Our main challenges are getting people connected to the internet and teaching people how to transition from another operating system (OS) to a [GNU] Linux-based OS. We have tech support that helps with these issues.
FN: Do users of FLOSS manage to get local support? (Apart from your group?)
ES: Yes. On the third Sunday of every month there is a Linux clinic that meets in our facilities, to exchange information and hold educational workshops. FLOSS newbies are also able to access excellent documentation online.
FN: What are your biggest challenges in keeping the project going?
ES: As laptops become more popular, we have a harder time getting people to use the large desktops that we rebuild. We also refurbish laptops, but they are much more difficult and time-consuming. One reason is that all use different proprietary parts.
Insuring that all recycling vendors are environmentally and socially sound. That means making sure that e-waste is handled safely, without the use of prison labour or child labour.
FN: Does recycling make sense in times when hardware-fuelled obsolescence is taking perfectly working computers to the scrap heap by the hundreds of millions?
ES: Recycling doesn’t really make the most sense, environmentally. That is why we prefer re-use.
As much as possible, we refurbish electronic equipment and get it back in use in our community. However, not everything can be salvaged and that is when we rely on recycling electronic equipment.
FN: Do you face the problem of speedy planned obsolescence in hardware making recycling increasingly more difficult?
ES: Actually, obsolescence of hardware makes recycling our only option. We do, at times, have to endure high costs for recycling the mass of equipment that is donated to us.
FN: Do you think your venture can be replicated?
ES: Yes, and it has been. If you are interested in starting a Free Geek, check out our how-to wiki page.
FN: Ideally, FLOSS could survive and thrive if there were local skills supporting it. Are you’ll working on this?
ES: Yes. We do as many educational workshops as we can to build the skills of our volunteer community.
FN: What do you see as the future challenges to your project?
ES: Same as the first question. There are more and more computers being manufactured with unique hardware. This makes is very difficult to switch out parts and refurbish machines.
FN: As the cost of low-end computers declines, do you’ll have more challenges or fewer?
ES: The more waste we get from cheap, disposable and low quality computers, the greater our challenges of processing the mass.