International Organisations Take a Close Look at Linux
For India, it appears that good news is around the corner. International organisations and prominent networks worldwide are waking up to the rich potential that free and open-source software can offer to third-world countries. But can this potential be tapped speedily and effectively?
Global organisations, from UNESCO to the World Bank, are all catching up on the possibility of using GNU/Linux as a potent tool in working towards development. This is especially true in countries where the cost of a proprietary office suite could eat up six months or more of the average citizen's earnings.
Radhika Lal, an information and communication technology policy advisor for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), recently drew attention to a conference titled "Open Source for E-Government", to be held in Washington, DC on October 17-18. InfoDev, the Cyberspace Policy Institute of The George Washington University, and the UNDP are jointly behind this event. The conference hopes to draw participants from local, national and international organizations in both the public and private sectors.
The conference intends to present cases of best practices, as well as raise awareness about the potential of open source and free software for e-governance. More importantly, it will be sharing experiences among policy makers, donors, users and consumers, universities, and industry specialists in open-source, e-government and related fields.
ICT-for-development is a campaign to use more of the Internet for global development and for fighting problems such as poverty and illiteracy. Despite some shared goals and concerns with the GNU/Linux world, so far little networking has been done between these two separate circles.
Besides the UNDP, other arms of the United Nations also are showing increasing interest in the potential of free software/open-source tools. Paris-headquartered UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) recently launched its own free software portal.
UNESCO's Jean-Claude Dauphin, of the Information Society Division, also announced that this international organisation is looking out for contributors with extensive knowledge of the Free Software movement in correlation to UNESCO's fields of expertise--education, science and culture.
UNESCO is particularly focused on those people coming from the third world (also called the "South" countries) who could make propositions for "revising, updating and extending the UNESCO Free Software Portal", as well as for including new basic documents. "This work could be done using a fee or consultant contract, and the fee can be discussed depending on the amount of work described in the contract", Dauphin said.
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Recently, UNESCO also announced the launch of two new tools--ImpExp2709 and IsisAscii v 0.92--for data exchange from and to its CDS/ISIS software. CDS/ISIS is a generalized information storage and retrieval system that is freely distributed. It has attracted users in places like libraries within the third world. The new utilities have been released with their source code under the GPL license.
Meanwhile, UNDP's APDIP (Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme), based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, also is learning to think seriously about organizing some kind of a consultation on open source, GNU/Linux and related issues. "We want to see how we can further this cause in the region", said APDIP's Shahid Akhtar.
Niranjan Rajani, of Pakistani origin and based in Finland, currently is working on a research project titled, "Significance of Free/Open-Source Software for Developing Countries". Financed by the Finnish Foreign Ministry, Niranjan has undertaken to write the paper by the end of November 2002 for Maailma.Net, a local division of OneWorld.Net.
This project's goal is to discover, evaluate and analyze the extent to which free and open-source software, especially some of their most significant and popular projects--GNU/Linux, Apache, Mozilla, OpenOffice--are being used in developing or third-world countries. It will also look at their possible impact on the economies, societies and lives in these countries.
"Shift over boldly to the world of open source and free software": that's the message being sent to governments across India, as official computerisation efforts get bogged down due to spiraling software costs and speedy, software-fueled hardware obsolescence. Senior IT and e-government officials from across the country tuned in attentively during a recent seminar held in Goa, as executives from computing giant IBM and leading Linux systems supplier Red Hat India narrated long lists of benefits that governments could receive by going to Linux. Pointing to examples from across the globe, Red Hat India explained that the US Department of Energy has built supercomputers on GNU/Linux and that the Chinese are making Linux the official server operating system. Overall, GNU/Linux is being widely used within universities, military installations and governments.
In addition, some months back an organisation under India's Ministry of Information Technology, the ER&DCI (Electronics Research and Development Centre of India), entered into a strategic alliance with leading Linux systems supplier Red Hat India to popularize the open-source solution in the government sector.
GNU/Linux is a suitable tool for organising too, as it was recently pointed out by LINC. "The Low Income Networking and Communication (LINC) Project of the Welfare Law Center has helped many low-income led organizing groups acquire access to the Internet and use technology more effectively," says Dirk Slater, senior circuit rider for LINC at the Welfare Law Center.
Although these groups have increased their abilities to communicate with one another and their allies by using the Internet, one communication hurdle remains--communicating with their leadership via the Internet. Despite many digital divide initiatives addressing access to the Internet in low-income communities, it is still an issue.
Public Internet access points, such as libraries and schools, are not sufficient. Many low-income leaders do not have access to the Internet where it would make the most impact--in their homes. LINC argues that the need for Internet communication is particularly great for rural groups whose members live far apart and cannot have frequent face-to-face meetings because of distance, time and money constraints.
"We began to explore the idea of using Linux, a free operating system that works well on older computers, when we learned of Microsoft's decision to discontinue support of its older operating systems like Windows 95", said Slater. LINC supporters also say they had been troubled by the frequent problems that occur for Windows users simply by having Windows run on its own. "Giving a person who lives in a rural area an older computer with Windows seemed like we were just asking for trouble", says Slater.
Therefore, LINC wanted to increase its ability to provide stable desktop systems using donated computers for board members and leaders of low-income led organizations that LINC serves. "Our goal is to increase the ability of LINC Project partner groups to use open-source software to support their organizing work. We also wanted to document the project as much as we possibly could, so we could provide details of our experiences for others doing similar projects," LINC explains.
To help in their goals, LINC identified a partner in Grass Roots Organizing (GRO), based in Mexico. GNU/Linux was installed on 10 computers used as standalone workstations in people's homes. GNU/Linux also was installed on a brand new standalone computer to work as the main computer in the GRO office. Links were built with the Mizzou Linux Users Group for ongoing local support. "We still have a long way to go before we can call this a completely successful project. After a period of a few months we will assess whether the board members are actually using the computers to communicate more effectively", said Slater.
To view the daily journals on the project with GRO, visit the LINC Project Linux pages.
Bala Pillai, who was previously based in Malaysia and now lives in Sydney, Australia, is founder of Tamil Innaiyam, an organisation that promotes the Tamil language worldwide. He points to the impact GNU/Linux is making in some distant areas of the third world. Pillai says:
The most interactive Open Source/Linux community in our time zone (Asia) springs out of the Philippines., primarily because the Filipino psyche is a more secure psyche, a more self-confident psyche. Folks who are self-confident worry about the future less and allocate more time diagnosing and solving problems rather than echoing and re-echoing it. Filipinos are also more into sharing and on-line sharing--we should look to more symbiosis with them.
Pillai also notes that the Manila-based Miguel Paraz, whom he has interacted with since 1996, is a key catalyst in the Filipino Linux community. "Q-Linux.com is a good starting point to get a feel for the key open-source catalysts in the Philippines", he says.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia-based Dinesh, who runs Alphaque.net is another leading open-source catalyst from the region, explains Pillai. "Do look for symbiosis opportunities there too", he suggests.
"I see lots of room for us to [work] together. For example, there is likely to be areas of diagnosing, documenting, analyzing, coding or publicizing where there is over-duplication. If we coordinated ourselves and found out where our circles and priorities intersect, we could share this work and get [results] faster", he adds.
Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist in Goa, India.
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