By FN for APCNews DHAKA, Bangladesh, 01 August 2006
From here to where? And how? APC’s April Bangladesh consultation on communication policy, which brought in diverse people from across South Asia, helped to connect ideas that nudge forward ideals of freedom-in-computing in this populous part of the planet. One of the sessions that participants themselves felt the need to look at, are the critical issues facing free and open source software.
Participants joining this group included language localiser Bal Krishna Bal of Kathmandu, citizens’ lawyer Namita Malhotra and ICTforChange’s Parminder Jeet Singh of Bangalore, Sarai’s Ravikant of Delhi, APC staff writer Frederick ‘FN’ Noronha, and the passionate campaigner and initiator Fouad Riaz Bajwa -who is fondly called the ‘FOSS Mullah’ of Pakistan.
Most who joined this session were individuals who – or part of groups which – have been taking an interest in the philosophy of free and open source software (FOSS). They came with varying degrees of experiences related to issues of development, usage, advocacy, localisation, FOSS in the media and ‘intellectual property’.
FOSS issues at stake
What emerged in the course of the discussion, were successful case studies from different regions in South Asia, including Nepal, India and Pakistan. Among the many issues and statements that were touched upon, the need for experiments with widening usage in South Asia, was made prominent.
This could happen, it was suggested, through promotional efforts like the recent initiative of Ubuntu, networking with the International Open Source Network (IOSN), and with regional or country-level Ubuntu Linux user groups.
One experiment pointed to was that of the government of Pakistan’s PSEB-Open Source Resource Centre. PSEB is the Pakistan Software Export Board and it creates and advocates usage of FOSS in different government departments, among other reasons to curb illegal copying – so called ‘piracy’ – of software.
Even though governments are seen as being central in promoting FOSS adoption, participants pointed to the problem caused by proprietary software’s anti-competitive practices, such as indulging the corruption and bribing being ongoing with governments in the region.
Little or no support
Civil society receives little or no support for promoting and adopting FOSS, it was pointed out. There’s a need for further support and commitment to FOSS within the government themselves.
It was also pointed out that South Asia lacked detailed information about the number of FOSS users. Compilation of such information could actually help build greater confidence in this sector.
Participants in this session, though committed to supporting and using FOSS themselves, pointed out that there still remained some usability issues for free and open source software, specially among the non-geeks.
It was strongly felt that unless technical skills were built up, it would be difficult to exponentially expand the use of FOSS, as the user-experience can be tough without the much-needed support.
“FOSS needs more visibility at all levels,” was one view strongly expressed.
Some specific suggestions came up over the practical initiatives that this group, and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) itself, could concretely look into.
One suggestion was that FOSS capacity-building and skill development – besides creating resources in technical support development – should be the main item on the agenda of all FOSS networks and related actors in the countries of the region.
“We need to convince civil society to play its role in developing sustainable capacity in the FOSS world and encourage wider participation in the FOSS movement, capacity-building attempts and technical support,” it was pointed out.
Likewise, another priority brought to attention consists in connecting existing networks. Many tend to work at isolated levels, bereft of contacts with one another. For instance, there are groups working in civil society, GNU/Linux user groups (LUGs), academia, and the public and private sectors. Building links between these diverse players could strengthen FOSS capacity and support.
Fouad said it was necessary for South Asia to build its own “FOSS heroes”, people whose work could inspire others to keep the freedom-in-software flag flying high.
There was also a felt-need for initiatives to build sustainable FOSS support and skills within our own organisations. “Everyone is a catalyst within the FOSS movement, whether one’s role is in creation, sharing or bringing about positive change,” it was pointed out.
It was felt that a FOSS ‘catalyst effect’ could snowball and help build non-proprietary software in the region. Another suggestion was that more GNU/Linux and other user groups should be created throughout the region, and interconnected through networking-oriented mailing lists.
There is a need to identify funds for sustainable facilitation of local grassroots initiatives, even if it is through the building of capacity and through support for entrepreneurial FOSS endeavours, it was suggested.
Need for facts, figures
There is a need for mapping the current status of ICT and FOSS usage across South Asia. Collating statistics about FOSS users in South Asia, building lists of prominent institutions doing work in various fields, the need for local mirror servers to spread FOSS software, building localised (and local-language) FOSS manuals, were among the more detailed suggestions.
In terms of potential allies, some identified civil society, government (both local and national), networks like APC and BytesForAll (with the latter promising to dedicate a section to FOSS promotion), and regional GNU/Linux user groups.
What was specifically pointed to, that there is a need for reaching out to networks of youth and women, ensuring wider representation for civil society in the FOSS movement, and building skills at the grassroots level. One way to do that, is by ensuring that talented youngsters get access to software and relevant information to learn speedily.