Building Bridges Between the NGO and Tech Worlds

An interview with an organizer of Asia Source about what NGOs and OSS technology can do for each other.

Stephanie Hankey believes that non-profit organisations need to have a healthier relationship with technology. She has spent seven years working on developing the relationship between NGOs and technology, most recently as part of Tactical Tech. Her work has resulted in an ambitious event--Asia Source--recently held in Bangalore, India's wannabe Silicon Valley. She was one of the main organisers of this event, intended to be a starting point to help build bridges between non-profits and free software.

Hankey and her team also do consultancy work; specifically, the Tactical Tech team are advisors to the Soros Foundation on about 20 projects. Hankey herself comes from an information design background and has run a magazine and worked in multimedia. After studying at the Royal College of Arts, where she studied computer design, Hankey designed an interface for social software. Her graduation project was an information system for journalists working in conflict zones.

Tactical Tech is registered in the Netherlands and has some of its activities based in Poland and some in the UK. Currently based in Brighton, England, Hankey herself had been based in Amsterdam until four months ago.

In the following interview, Hankey, Tactical Tech's information designer, creative director and producer, discusses what lead up to the Asia Source event and where she sees the marriage between open source and non-profits going.

Linux Journal: To start with, could you tell us where your work started, what lead you to co-found Tactical Tech and where it is now headed?

Stephanie Hankey: Co-founder Marek Tuszynski, from Poland, and I started Tactical Tech after we both worked on a project for the Soros Foundation called OSI Technology Support for Civil Society. [The Soros Foundation was founded by George Soros.]

We felt there was a need for somebody to look specifically at the open source-NGO area in developing countries. Also, there was the need for a group to be working at the level of connecting people across different regions.

LJ: So what's your focus?

SH: What we organise around is right-based work or social justice work. Perhaps the only other group doing similar work is the Association of Progressive Communicators, but [we have] a different style of working and a different perspective. Also, we got funding from the Soros Foundation.

For us, the first thing we put together was the Summer Source camp, which we did in Croatia in 2003. We were able to bring together a number of people there. So many had been working on the ground; we tried to bring all people together, people who we thought were interesting.

LJ: Why do you see a gap there?

SH: For our part, the main gap we see is that there is a lot of talk between technology and NGOs but very little work [is being done] at the practical level. Conferences take place, but nobody on the ground knows how to implement it.

We always saw that gap as needing to be countered by practical, hands-on work at the grassroots level. We thought we knew the people with the expertise, and that's why we thought of doing Summer Source.

It was far more successful than we expected it to be. We then were asked by computer programmer Kwindla Kramer, the CTO of allafrica.com, who had been a facilitator, to do a similar camp in Africa. We said we'd do it if we had an African partner. We got Schoolnet Namibia, a project to take free/libre and open source software to the students of that country, and Joris Komen. So we put it together.

LJ: What was the experience like there?

SH: What we discovered is the Open Source community and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) are not connected. Nobody knows each other. There have been a lot of African developers reaching out to Europe and US but not really to each other, within Africa.

It was really hard to find African facilitators. We just didn't know who those people were. So we made Africa Source, much smaller than Asia Source. There were some 50-60 participants.

Our intention was to get people to meet one another and also to help find facilitators and partners. That's why, for instance, we've brought in some people who were at the Africa camp here to Asia Source, such as FLOSS evangelist Wire Lunghabo James of Uganda.

LJ: If you were asked to list the three biggest problems in NGOs adopting cost-friendly and politically correct FLOSS tools, what would you list?

SH: Even if NGOs want to use open-source software, they don't have anybody around to give them that kind of support. If they had the money, they would go in for proprietary software. So, there's the sheer lack of technical support. That's one of the major stumbling blocks that needs to be addressed.

Connected to that, even those people who do know about open source and those in open source don't know how to go through the process of marketing [to NGOs]. Convincing NGOs of the benefits of FLOSS is the way to go, rather than doing things like throwing them into the deep end of the pool, where they simply can't survive.

Third is the need to raise basic awareness. What the selling point? Why do we want to use it? In some countries it's much easier to start with open source, especially countries where there is no entrenched computing tradition, such as Tajikstan. In other cases you have to make a solid case, so it's very difficult. As more open-source applications come onto the market, rather than only distributions, open source will filter into the NGO sector.

LJ: What is the message you're passing on to NGOs? What are you encouraging them to look at?

SH: We try to look at issues beyond simple migration to FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software). We've also been focusing on open publishing, video, audio and localisation. We've had a session on FLOSS and disabilities, for instance.

LJ: In terms of your "NGO in a Box" product, which tries to introduce NGOs to free software, what exactly is this package meant to be?

SH: We're trying to make it a standalone product. It's a collection of free and open-source software that would be useful for an NGO to deploy. We are working to have it localised and make it appropriate for each region.

We need to look at how information is handled within an NGO and look at the full cycle. From collecting information to seeing it efficiently stored and shared, taking care of security issues and how you analyse the information--all to make information understandable to people. Basically, this means having information rather than technology be the core focus when dealing with an NGO.

By talking about technology alone, you're never going to get to a lot of NGO people, because it terrifies them. Putting information first and foremost, it makes things much more accessible. If technology is a piece of that larger part, then it's fine.

LJ: What do you see as the stumbling blocks in the adoption of FLOSS by NGOs?

SH: With technology people, open source gained a big image maybe a couple of years ago. Still, you have a lot of people saying its not ready yet. They saw it two years ago, and they forgot all about it. They need to be convinced that it has changed a lot over a short period of time, and you need to be sure what you're talking about.

The other aspect is obvious: in a lot of countries we work in, software is free--in the sense of being free of charge--because of piracy. When proprietary firms, such as Microsoft, crack down on licenses, the people want alternatives. Take the case of Bulgaria. There, the government did a deal with Microsoft and in return started to crack down on licenses for NGOs. We worked with a group that realised that if everybody in the NGO sector had to buy a license for the software, it would cost $2 million for the sector.

LJ: How do you see countries such as India and their NGO sectors?

SH: We're still finding out. We're learning all the time. We'd love to think that India can play quite an interesting role for us in the future. What we would like is to see India as a good resource to draw upon to advance similar projects in other countries.

Other countries, for example the Philippines, leaped forward in the NGO and information areas. A lot of problems in Africa are similar to those here, but with a strong difference too. You [India] have a very talented tech sector and a dynamic NGO scene.

LJ: How do you see your work fitting into the wider priorities of the Soros Foundation?

SH: It works on both the policy and practical levels. On the policy level, I can't say. On the practical level, I think at the beginning they wanted to see what would happen. Philosophically, free and open-source software is very connected to their interests and the Open Society initiative. They're connected to openness. They want that process [of wider adoption of FLOSS] to be kick-started. Therefore, they fund events such as Asia Source. They do policy but they also promote some open-source toolsets.

From a strategic point of view, if you're into funding, open source is a really fast way of making contacts and having a wider impact in attaining your goals. People connected with free and open-source software usually are aligned with social belief systems, although it's not a rule.

We went to the Middle East, and in a couple of days, we got 20 names of people to meet, because of the networks that already exist in the FLOSS world.

LJ: What do you see Tactical Tech as being able to achieve by bringing two diverse sets of people together, geeks and non-profits?

SH: We wanted to bring NGO people together with the technology people. What we found is that you get an extremely talented 19-year-old hacker who wants to build a system for human rights activist. But the hacker has no idea what the activist needs, because he's never met an activist. It's not only a question of teaching NGO people about technology; you have to do the reverse too.

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