In Himalayan Nepal: Where language can propel FOSS
By Frederick Noronha for APCNews
GOA, INDIA, 16 October 2007
NepaLinux, an initiative to create a localised GNU/Linux distribution in the Nepali language, has been chosen as a joint-winner of the first APC Chris Nicol FOSS Prize, by an international jury. This prize is named after a passionate campaigner for free software who played a crucial role in the Association for Progressive Communications before his untimely death in 2005.
The initiative began as an attempt to find makeshift solutions for electronically cataloguing books in the Nepali language (which has seventeen million native speakers, and an estimated 40 million worldwide). But as fonts were hard to come by, and there were difficulties in sorting text (or using find-and-replace commands), NepaLinux's Bal Krishna Bal saw opportunities grow out of these challenges.
Over time, this grew into campaigns for font standardisation, a Unicode initiative in Nepal. It has since sprouted into a Nepali GNU/Linux (free software/open source) distribution.
APC-member BytesForAll co-founder and journalist Frederick “FN” Noronha interviews NepaLinux's Bal Krishna Bal, who explains the project's relevance to FOSS local language computing solutions in Nepal, the challenges their project faced, why he carries on confidently, and his vision of the future.
FN: To a newbie, how would you describe the project briefly?
Bal Krishna Bal (BKB): NepaLinux is a fully-localised Linux distribution in Nepali.
In Nepal the English-proficient population is significantly low. English acts as one of the main barriers in accessing the computer. NepaLinux was conceived and developed to break this barrier and help the larger Nepali population benefit from the use of computing technology.
FN: How was your project implemented?
BKB: NepaLinux was undertaken differently from other free and open source software (FOSS) projects.
When we started developing, there were very few people who were aware about the work, let alone have the required development or translation skills.
We did try to involve university students as volunteers; but due to the lack of proper quality control mechanisms it increased the workload rather than decreasing it. So we started work with a dedicated team who would take help (both inside and outside Nepal) when required.
This was helpful in the planning and maintaining the progress of the work. However, things are changing now. Skills are more readily available.
We now collaborate with people or groups outside of the team on various fronts.
For instance, a group of volunteers had implemented and set-up a Linux Terminal Server Project (LTSP) in a school. This is an add-on package that allows many people to simultaneously use the same computer, by having applications run on a server with multiple terminals, or thin clients, handling input and output. It is based on Fedora [a Linux-based operating system; editor’s note]. We have now enabled the LTSP set-up in NepaLinux, based on the feedback we gathered.
FN: How widely is the work being accepted or used?
BKB: The initial focus of the team was to develop a stable release of NepaLinux so that troubleshooting could be maintained at a minimum. After the release of version 2.0, the focus has now shifted towards implementation.
Response so far has been good.
For example, the Ministry of General Administration has migrated to NepaLinux for all its desktops. We have already provided the LTSP set-up (including the hardware) to three schools in remote locations.
With help of the Nepal Telecom Authority, we will provide similar support in 25 more schools by next year. We are also partnering with ENRD to implement NepaLinux in their programme areas. This is still the early phase for the implementation; we plan to take it further as vigorously as we can.
FN: Is it a sustainable model?
BKB: NepaLinux, since the beginning, has been project-based work. It was done under the PAN Localization project and the support is until next year.
It's difficult to make project-dependent works sustainable. But, we have been thinking of ways to make the development and support of NepaLinux sustainable beyond the project.
For this, the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya (MPP), of Patan Dhoka [a not-for profit library which is the principal archive of books and periodicals in the nepali language; editor’s note] which has been promoting this project, has recognised NepaLinux as one of its core focus areas. This helps in making NepaLinux stable beyond the project term.
We are also trying to work and collaborate with other public and private sector partners over NepaLinux.
The network of FOSS practitioners is increasing in Nepal at the moment, and we hope that they also take ownership of NepaLinux and help to take it forward. We work very closely with the recently formed Nepal FOSS community.
FN: How important is local-language computing in Nepal? Why?
BKB: Really, really important in Nepal. More so when the government stresses language plurality and respect for all national languages (there are about 92, the last census reveals).
Also, the literacy rate is relatively low and English literacy even lower. Most Asian countries have a lot of linguistic diversities in them. Local language computing makes a lot of difference in providing access to computing technology in all kinds of languages.
It is not only about language but culture and local context as well. Local language computing is really important in all countries.
We are not greatly concerned about people who already use computers (either in English or otherwise). Our focus is in enabling the millions of other users into using computers.
FN: Of your targeted users (individuals, governments, corporations, educational institutions) who do you see as using it most effectively until now?
BKB: We think the government and schools would use local language computing the most. The government functions in the local language; in most schools in rural Nepal the medium of teaching is still the local language.
FN: Once you've created the solution, what's the best way of spreading it?
BKB: Carrying out a few pilot projects for targeted users, proving that the solution is actually worthwhile, and making the media aware of the solution, would be the best way of spreading. Our developers (both employed and volunteers) come from the various IT colleges.
FN: What are the biggest challenges you've faced so far?
BKB: There are challenges like the lack of awareness among users, and the need to develop expertise, but they are being tackled.
FN: What are the priorities for the future?
BKB: Making NepaLinux as stable and as user-friendly as possible, and deploying NepaLinux as widely as possible.
FN: Is it difficult to convince users to switch over operating systems to get a regional language (Nepali) solution?
BKB: No. Users would use whatever they think will serve them best. We just have to make sure that the solution that we provide is as good (both technically as well as aesthetically) as any other.
FN: Can this project help to spread FOSS use in Nepal?
BKB: Certainly. As FOSS has gained major hype in Nepal in the recent years, people are interested to see if it actually gets implemented amongst end-users.
Deploying NepaLinux will certainly help convince people to use FOSS. One way is to increase the widespread use of NepaLinux in schools and at the same time do some advocacy of FOSS.