Free Software Carnival: Latin America Takes to FLOSS in a Big Way

by Frederick Noronha

Latin America seems like it's a world away, but use of free/libre and open-source software (FLOSS) there is growing much like it is in South Asia and, arguably, better. Recently, a study of FLOSS in Latin America pointed to the contribution of GNOME (started in 1997 by Mexican developer Miguel de Icaza), Brazil's Sourceforge-like portal site, the simple UTUTO distribution from Argentina and the popular PHP-Nuke content management system from Francisco Burzi of Venezuela.

Latin America, specifically Peru, also has challenged the role of proprietary software and Microsoft. In addition, Brazil has come up with interesting university-based software solutions. For instance, the Brazilian UNIVATES says it has saved about $130,000 USD by not acquiring copies of proprietary software for servers and desktops. It saves $70,000 USD each year on software upgrades and maintenance--enough to pay the salaries of the development group. Therefore, UNIVATES can produce effective technology for its own use, which others also can make use of, at virtually no cost.

To understand the larger canvas of the Free Software scene in Latin America, I spoke to Cesar Brod, the vice-president of the Brazilian free software cooperative SOLIS (Cooperativa de Solucoes Livres). More importantly, he coordinated the Latin American leg of a recent Finnish study on the significance of free/libre and open-source software for developing countries.

After studying physics at the University of Sao Paulo and the Federal University of Rio Grande de Sul, Cesar dropped out of college to enter the world of computers. "I abandoned university because I was traveling too much", he recalls. Getting involved with computers at the age of 20, he started work with multinationals and shifted from being a hardware analyst to being a software programmer.

Linux Journal: To start with, Cesar, could you give us an overview of what's happening on the free software front in Latin America?

Cesar: I think almost every country [in Latin America] offers a very good story on free software. They have good projects, but the only thing actually missing is communication--people talking with one another about what exactly they have.

For instance, in Peru, you have a good start-up project, which is an ERP for rural agriculture and the environment. This is the kind of thing that is needed all over Latin America and probably in every third-world country. But the people just don't know about it.

In the meantime, this software is localised. So, the way it is, it won't serve other countries. But with a little effort and probably very little financing, it could be adapted to fit a lot of other geographies.

LJ: Can you give us some other examples of interesting projects you came across in the course of your recent study of FLOSS in Latin America?

Cesar: One of the most interesting ones was the FreeMed Project from Cuba. It's a simple project; it aims to establish a network connection between doctors in several different hospitals, in order to share information and diagnostics about people and diseases.

Another good one is the Free Education Network put together by the state of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil. It's using free software to teach young people how to use computers, how to do their math and actually to use free software as a learning aid for all their first-grade disciplines.

LJ: Which countries, in your view, are the best off in this field in Latin America?

Cesar: In terms of free software production, Brazil. In terms of software projects allying with the GNU project, it would be Mexico, with Chile getting very close. In terms of a user community, Uruguay has a lot to teach us.

LJ: Do you see some Latin American countries lagging behind? Why?

Cesar: The truth is I don't know if they really are lacking or [if] they simply are not communicating enough. For instance, in the first version of my report, I have nothing about Chile. And when the people in Chile got to know what I was doing, they collaborated with a wonderful report. They actually have a lot of things going on that I was not aware of.

LJ: In terms of revving up the FLOSS engine for take off, what actually is required on the ground in any Latin American country? Is it a good technical base, access to the Internet, the ability of keeping in touch with the outside world or what?

Cesar: That's a very good question. I think if you just give computers to the people and some [basic] training--very little basic training--you'll be amazed by the kind of progress that can be made.

I'm basing my reply on one experiment done in Uruguay, by MIT professor Etienne Delacroix. He has a programming-and-art workshop, where he introduces people to computers in a very artistic way. For instance, he asks people how can you be sure that this motherboard will work once we know how a hair-drier works. He compares the small streams of energy that go into the motherboard with the electric plug of the hair-drier. And he asks people to identify where the big rivers of energy inside those small streams of the motherboard are located.

By doing that, he makes people peer into a motherboard and get it working...and by doing that he gets people together with technology. People who even lacked access to that kind of technology before. And after a couple of weeks, those people [are] programming in the C language. So, what's missing is [the means] to reconnect people with technology. The third world is a technology consumer; once you reconnect people with technology you'll see a lot of good things happening.

LJ: What are the three best things that free software can give to Latin America that proprietary software cannot?

Cesar: Technology independence, regional development. [After some thought] It's knowledge-freedom actually.

LJ: What would you see as the main roadblocks to FLOSS in Latin America?

Cesar: Proprietary software lobbying, actually meaning Microsoft lobbying. There's also fear of the perception of unknown technology. You can't say the technology is unknown, but that's the perception created. And, still, the lack of support.

LJ: What does Latin America have to give the rest of the free/libre and open-source software world?

Cesar: I think we already have given a lot of good examples [laughter]. To [name] one, the GNOME platform. Then, there's the PHP Nuke project. And a lot of KDE standard tools are coming out of Chile and Brazil.

LJ: While studying the contribution of Latin America, what did you learn?

Cesar: What we have been [doing is] reinventing the wheel in so many countries we are researching. We should communicate a lot more. Actually for a community that lives on the Internet, it's amazing that we still don't know enough about one another's projects.

LJ: Tell us about UNIVATES and yourself.

Cesar: UNIVATES is a small university centre in the south of Brazil, and I work for them as the technical consultant. Probably because they are so little and don't have any money, it's a community-owned university. That means we have to be very creative in terms of technology adoption. That's why, in 1999, I started the free software project for them that ended up in several products used inside the university. It became quite popular, initially in Brazil and now in the Mercosur (the Southern Cone countries).


LJ: And tell us about yourself.

Cesar: I got to know of Linux by chance in 1993--the kernel and the GNU tools. At that time, I needed a UNIX to run on my notebook; I was supporting a customer far from where I lived and didn't want to travel that much. But a SCO/UNIX license was too expensive. Since then, I have been using free software and doing some consulting jobs with it.

LJ: Has it made a difference in the way you work and think?

Cesar: It's interesting to think about that. I pretty much left the centre of the country, Sao Paulo and Rio--where you make the big bucks--and moved back to the city where I was born. My life is a lot cheaper, and I have a lot more fun. I started using free software because I didn't want to travel, but in the past year it took me to Finland and Sweden twice. (ENDS)

Frederick Noronha is a freelance journalist living in Goa, India.

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