Lessons from Siem Reap...software is not just a tech issue
GOA, INDIA, 03 October 2005
BytesForAll co-founder Frederick Noronha, an active Free Software evangelist, went to Cambodia’s small town of Siem Reap. But his goal wasn’t to reach out to the splendoured Ankor Wat temple structures nearby. Rather, it was to take part in FOSSAP-II, the Free and Open Source Software Asia-Pacific Consultation 2005. FN, as he is known in the GNU/Linux circuit, brings homes lessons picked up in the longish essay below and stresses the need to build links between two sets of natural allies — Free Software and not-for-profit organisations.
After a day in airconditioned planes and airports, Siem Reap’s scenic yet small airport is a touch-down with the reality of Asia. Outside, the poverty and disparity of much of Asia hits you squarely in the face.
Maybe this is another reason why Free Software is important here. It’s the only tool available that is affordable, potent, plentiful (even though one needs the skillset to be able to use it) and allows you to use it without needlessly making you feel as guilty as a "pirate" in high seas.
More importantly, we have other major lessons to learn from Free Software — I deliberately opt for this term rather than the media-preferred ‘Open Source’ because it focuses more on freedom rather than just on the technical efficiency of the product.
Free Software teaches us new ways of creating and sharing knowledge. It breaks up the artificial divide between producers and consumers. It helps us to deal with intangible products, which can be easily replicated almost at no cost, yet which we have grown used to, in just a generation, being prohibited from sharing under various excuses. Including terms like ‘piracy’. There are lessons to learn which go far beyond the software realm.
FOSSAP II, or The Free and Open Source Software Asia-Pacific Consultation, is organised approximately every two years. It brings together policy planners, techies, evangelists, UN representatives and others … to talk of plans of promoting Free Software (and Open Source) in Asia and the Pacific.
Free Software can’t depend for its growth solely on official conferences. It never did. More likely growth could be achieved from the initiatives of geeks, and the many dedicated enthusiasts, scattered across the globe, who deeply believe the work they’re doing is of immense importance and are more than willing to share its fruits with generosity.
Of late, Free/Libre and Open Source Software has got some backing from the corporations, eager to cash-in on a winning horse even if they don’t believe in concepts like ‘freedom’, who do play a role.
Yet, international conferences like these do contribute in bringing diverse groups together. One could add probably that a planet threatened by global warming needs to look for more sustainable ways of furthering the dialogue, and keep it going even in times when there are no major events on the horizon. In a world where the internet is fast spreading, we might need to look more determinedly to find solutions that could work.
This event was organised by the International Open Source Network (IOSN), in partnership with APDIP, Intel, NIDA (the National Information Communications Technology Development Authority of Cambodia) and APC’s member organisation the Open Forum of Cambodia.
IOSN is, itself, in a way, the daughter of the Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP). It was formed as an initiative of APDIP and with support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada. In turn, APDIP is the daughter of the United Nations Development Programme. So there’s a complex set of relationships here.
Organisers saw the event as providing "an effective policy level platform for the exchange of information and experiences in the use of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) for development". The term ‘development’ is not used in the context of software engineering, or to mean creating software. Rather, the attempt here is to link the potential of software to international development and alleviating poverty among citizens of the so-called ‘developing’ countries.
IOSN.net says: "There is a growing need for raising awareness on the benefits of FOSS, assistance with formulation of national policies, and case studies of FOSS implementation. The consultation will primarily target policy-makers who can influence national ICT policies."
One good thing was that this meet wasn’t restricted to The Suits (formal, business- and government-oriented participants) alone. There was a fair crowd of grassroot practitioners, and that lent for a useful mix.
Many interesting experiences came in; participants learnt from each other and shared quite a lot of ideas and inspiration among themselves. Of course, the true test comes in seeing whether this event can lead to many more contuining ripple-effects across Asia, over time. With global warming looming and so much resources spent, each event has a real responsibility to see that something positive comes out of it.
In a lighter vein, IOSN doesn’t quite live up to its name. It isn’t international but restricted to the Asia-Pacific region; APDIP’s Shahid Akhtar has however argued that anything with two or more nations involved is "international". And it isn’t about just Open Source. Rather, the inspiration it continues to derive from key figures like Richard M Stallman show that it is very much about Free Software too. And these are two different movements, with disparate philosophical approaches, even if within the same camp.
But, the IOSN’s strength has been its ability to network with a wide range of people doing diverse work across the region. It has also been able to throw up some interesting products, which it puts out in a free-to-reproduce and share format.
Check out IOSN.net’s education e-primer. It also has primers on its site on other subjects like government policy and localisation. Tan Wooi Tong, Kenneth Wong and Anousak Souphavanh and Theppitak Karoonboonyanan (jointly, in the last case) have done a nice job with these texts.
For instance, in the case of education, Tan Wooi Tong makes an interesting case for Free and Open Source Software in education (lower costs; reliability, performance and security; building long-term capacity; an open philosophy; encouraging innovations; an alternative to illegal copying; possibilities for localisation; and learing from the source code). Tan then briefly zooms in on the requirements of educational institutions — networking, internet connectivity, security, webpublishing, email, file-and-print services, network services, web servers and other server software.
Thrown in are some examples of what works, together with solutions like the made-in-New Zealand Koha  GPL-ed library management solution, and PhpMyLibrary  and OpenBiblio . Moodle for e-learning  and ATutor  that offers tools which allows the instructor to manage online content are also introduced.
They also offer links to the Open Content phenomenon of sharing information and knowledge — MIT’s OpenCourseWare , the ever-impressive Wikipedia  and the Public Library of Science . Download your copy, and feel free to copy your download too.
Education came up in other ways at this event. Reports from Mongolia, Nepal and Pakistan shed some interesting links. Kamal Raj Subedi of Nepal spoke about the Project Ganesha — now known as the Digital Bridges project  — from the Himalayan kingdom.
Davaa Tuul, a Mongolian lady who is executive director of the Japan Mongolian Information Technology Association, outlined about the Sakura Project. This project describes itself as bridging the digital divide between rural areas and the capital city of this landlocked Central Asian country sandwiched between Russia and China. Mongolia incidentally is the 18th largest country in the world by area, but has very little arable land. Little over 30 percent of the population are nomadic or semi-nomadic Tibetan Buddhists of the Mongol ethnicity. Over fifty per cent of the population reside in capital city Ulaanbaatar.
Meanwhile, Dr M Anwar-ur-Rehman Pasha of Pakistan spoke about the Free/Open Source Software Foundation of Pakistan . It recently held its first National Free and Open Source Software Awareness Campaign.
Of course, the big challenge is how to scale up such projects, make them replicable — not just pilot projects dependent on scarce funding — and ensure that like the forest fire they spread far and wide.
There was also some impatience coming up for other reasons.
Open Source diva (as her visiting card describes her) Denese Cooper, now with Intel, raised another issue. After presentations by officials from China, India and Vietnam, Cooper posed a query to speakers specially from the latter two countries. "We have been hearing similar issues coming up about getting people to adopt Open Source. That it is still not easy to operate the software. And that it’s hard to educate people over this, specially government servants. It’s the same situation (from what we heard at FOSSAP-I , two years back). It’s very similar to what I heard the last time," was her comment.
This event help build others links. But can we sustain them?
When searching Technorati.com for FOSSAP-II, this writer ran into Jamil in Bangladesh. Browsing some links on his page took me to the Bangaldesh LUG page , screenshots of BanglaOffice and of a hack on Mozilla Thunderbird for Bangla localization Baaz Paakhi.
Naturally, the issue of software costs came up in price-sensitive Asia. FOSS isn’t only about price, we need to remind ourselves, it’s more about freedom as Stallman would tell us; or about creating software more efficiently, as Open Source advocates would argue.
Head of the Bangkok-based Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP) Shahid Akhtar put it well when he pointed to the vicious circle of poverty and ‘piracy’ the poorer countries of the planet are caught up in. Can Free and Open Source Software (FOSS, or FLOSS) provide a way out? Yes, he said, while underlining that the United Nations is taking a closer look at a global movement which was spawned by geeks, decades ago, and for entirely different motivations.
Shahid Akhtar, the Pakistani-born, Canada-educated head of the Bangkok-based UNDP Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), pointed out that many so-called developing countries are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and piracy.
"They are too poor to buy proprietorial software, and resultantly ‘piracy’ goes upto 90% in some countries (of the Asia-Pacific region)," he said. Then, countries cannot clean their act on ‘piracy’ because they are poor.
"FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) provides a way out of this vicious circle. It increases the user’s control. And also provides a framework for promoting intellectual capital, and achieving the millenium development goals (MDGs) which were accepted by many countries," he commented.
Richard Stallman, the founder of the two-decades-old Free Software Foundation, has his own take on using words like ‘piracy’. "I guess there is no piracy in Cambodia because it is land-locked," he said, half-jokingly. Then, Stallman went on to draw a sharp dividing line between attacking ships on the high seas (the original meaning of the word ‘piracy’) and the sharing of software. Sharing software is very important, Stallman stressed.
Different parts of the globe have to face up to diverse issues. In Cambodia, it’s the issue of language. Free software makes sense to Cambodia because it allows a small country of under 14 million to work towards language solutions that are relevant to it. Norbert Klein, in Cambodia since the late 1980’s and currently advisor to the APC member in that country, the Open Forum of Cambodia , underlines this.
"Our main means (of promoting Free and Open Source Software, FOSS, in Cambodia) is to point out that it supports local language solutions. And we do add, just by the way, that it is also legal to copy FOSS software," he says. Klein points out that in the field of localisation, Cambodia has to face not just the language problem "but also the font problem."
There are now over 20 different types of (often incompatible) fonts being used to write Khmer. "We have been trying to highlight the role of Unicode  (which provides an international standard which has the goal of providing the means to encode the text of every document people want to store on computers) since 2001." But the attention hasn’t been quite there.
He points to the need for more written material coming out of small countries like Cambodia (population 13.4 million). Among the early adopters of IT were some of Cambodia’s expatriate population which includes 400,000 in the US, and others in France, Australia, Canada and elsewhere.
But, says Klein, the question before smaller societies remains how to utilise the tools that computers and IT offer for productive purposes.
Besides language solutions, there are also ideas coming in from user groups in other parts of Asia.
Marvin Pascual, who heads the Philippine Linux Users’ Group, Inc. tells us that for over a decade already, the Philippine Linux Users’ Group, or PLUG, has been actively promoting the adoption of the GNU/Linux operating system in the Philippines. It is composed of volunteers, individuals as well as institutions, who actively advocate for the wider usage of the GNU/Linux operating system and other free and open source technologies.
PLUG was created in 1994. It has a mailing list. Actually, lists, because there are five lists . There’s an IRC channel, with all the geeks active on it at night, offering real-time support! There’s also a web portal, and quarterly technical seminars.
Check out this list of Filipino-made (Free and) Open Source Software Index . Marvin gave a list of ‘extension’ groups of the PLUG, including Unplug, CebuLUG, DabaweGNU, MITCLug, Batangas and more…
From Indonesia come some interesting ideas. Our planet’s largest archipelago Indonesia has an interesting link between Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) and cybercafés. As part of their ‘Indonesia, Go Open Source’ project, they have a three-CD pack which helps cybercafés to go in for free and open source software. This comes along with a ten-page booklet. It runs the cybercafe, offers a billing system, security, office tools, a broswer, email solutions and chat — all in Indonesian!
Some months back when I met Adi Nugroho in Bangalore, this link below  takes you to the fascinating story he was talking about, again regarding the use of GNU/Linux in Indonesian cybercafés!
But sometimes — often — the issue is more fundamental than just freedom in software.
Fifty percent of Nepal’s population is still grappling with illiteracy. "Even if we translate everything (on the computer desktop) into Nepali, the people wouldn’t understand. They can’t read," says Amar Gurung, bluntly.
But that doesn’t stop initiatives on the Free and Open Source Software front to localise computing in Nepal. Amar Gurung is the director of the Nepali Language Computing Project of the Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya. The Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya calls itself the "principal archive of books and periodicals in the Nepali language, the mother tongue (or lingua franca) of a little over 30 million people of South Asia."
MPP says the official opening of its PAN Localization Project of Madan Puraskar Pustakalaya took place on March 5, 2004. The main objective was to look at the standardisation of Nepali fonts, localisation and Open Source.
They’re coming out with a live CD in Nepali on December 16, 2005. Gurung says Nepali shares the Devanagari script with north Indian languages, so the script issue isn’t a problem.
But this event wasn’t all about software and geeks. It went beyond, to realms such as content and copyright.
Lawrence Liang believes that copyright, as a system, is going insane. Why so? It’s showing all the clinical signs of doing so, argues this articulate young lawyer from Bangalore, India.
Copyrights, says Liang, has a misguided belief in its own supremacy. It believes that without copyrights, there would be no incentive to create. It also has a belief in its own supremacy and immortality — as if the copyright system is the only one across all time and cultures. Likewise, it has bouts of delusion, is unable to empathise with the needs of fellow human beings, and also has a propensity for arbitrary violent behaviour, as evinced in ‘anti-piracy’ raids.
Now, Liang isn’t simply raising slogans. This alumni of India’s prestigious National Law School  has explicit examples to make his point on how ludicrous the contemporary functioning of copyright can be. Lawrence Liang is part of the Alternative Law Forum  in Bangalore. You can get a copy of his interesting Guide to Open Content Licences  with just a click-download. See another of Liang’s articles  convincing documentary film makers about the need to try the free and open content
This meet also threw up some interesting projects of diverse nature. Take the case of Franck Martin, a Frenchman based in the South Pacific.
What’s interesting is his Tikimaps work? Mapserver, says Franck, is a tool, for "bringing data to all stakeholders via Internet and Opensource Technology." It promises the tools for e-government, good governance, transparency, sustainable development, asset management, disaster management and security…provided we have the political will for that.
To see what’s possible, visit some of these sites from the distant South Pacific islands of Tonga, Fiji, Tuvalu, Kiribati. Franck sees many advantages in using Free and Open Source software. These include sustainability, licenses, software support, no "black box" phenomenon (where we don’t understand the technology we use). It also allows you to rely on standards and support many file formats (not vendor dependent). It is reliable and secure too, provided the administrator cares for it.
For more links on what uses Tikiwiki can be put to, take a look at the Tikiwiki Community Portal . Uses include uses in educational context , using the mobility features of WAP browsing or for use with a PDA, and, of course, Franck’s interest in maps.
Many issues emerged from the talk at Siem Reap. In a historic region home to 12th century temple structures, FOSS campaigners, supporters, funders and officials from across Asia sought to chart out priorities. Overall, the focus was on capacity building, localisation, development paradigms of FOSS, open content, e-governance and more.
Building capacity is important in a world where this form of software — which can be used, copied, studied, modfied and redistributed — is trying to make its dent in schools, universities, IT education, government policies and strategies of global agencies.
Localisation means "translating" software, not just for language but also in a culture-sensitive manner that fits the context. Talent-rich, resource-poor Asia also needs software that runs on earlier-generation hardware! "Open content can be particularly relevant in a situation where students don’t have access to textbooks (because they can’t afford them) and we need to find ways to bridge this knowledge deficit," says IOSN.net manager Sunil Abraham.
Policy and e-governance were also discussed. With upto 50% of software sales going to governments in the region, e-governance is seen as a "huge area for FOSS growth" too.
Participants came from a wide background.
There were people linked to Bengalinux, BurmaIT, NiDA or the National ICT Development Authority of Cambodia, Co-Create Software Branch of the China Software Industry Association, the University of the South Pacific in the Fiji, SOPAC, or the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission, Sun Wah Linux of China, the National Institute for Smart Government, India, the Alternative Law Forum of Bangalore, India, BytesForAll, the Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme, Indonesia Go Open, the Ministry of Research and Technology, Intel.com, Farsi KDE, the Jhai Foundation, Muang Lao of Laos, the Free and Open Source Software Foundation of Pakistan, the Pakistan Software Export Board, the Philippines Linux Users Group, Inc, Jetro Singapore, ICTA, the Information and Communication Technology Agency of Sri Lanka, theLanka Linux User Group, among others.
As we left the airport in the small plane out of Siem Reap, en route to Bangkok and back home, one was still struggling to make sense of issues.
Three of us (from Sri Lanka, Thailand and myself, headed to the west coast of India) were on the same flight with Richard M Stallman, the inspiration of the Free Software movement, whose doggedness about issues he believes in can both seem frustrating and yet the essence that keeps alternatives in the software world alive…and successful.
With software issues behind us, we could shift attention back to the real world. Books at the airport departures’ section make the most of Cambodia — or should one say Kampuchea’s? — past. This small country of under 14 million was an intense battle ground in the days of the Cold War.
In the mainstream press, it is held out as an example of what happens when a far-left ideology goes awry. Yet, there are only hints of the US interest in backing the Khmer Rouge as a pro-China and, hence, anti-Soviet force.
Some English-language books seemed to grapple with the issue of prostitution and sex-tourism. One turnted it into a debate over who is more at fault — Western men or Asian — for the unacceptable situation that currently is. On the internet, sites promoting sex-tourism with their first-person how-tos themselves seemed at least a bit taken aback about the cheap price of sex-for-sale in this part of the globe.
For a change, the boot was on the other foot. One experienced what it feels like to be a ‘tourist’ coming from a (even if mildly) more affluent economy, and taking advantage of cheap local prices. And it didn’t feel good. More so because it reminded me of the tourism-generated inequities in my home state of Goa.
Cambodia and Siem Reap is a strange mix today with its prevailing poverty and social ills, side by side with booming luxury tourism trade — mega-media hype created over Angkor Wat, the Tomb Raider and Lara Croft, and the Killing Fields at least account for part of this. Just a single text we came across hints at the nature of Third World elites and the its political class, and how these could lead to an impending implosion in just about any society.