Finland Works on an Applied Linux Institute

by Frederick Noronha

An old saying posits that a prophet is never recognised in his own home or time. Helsinki, however, is trying to prove all that wrong. To start, the city is planning an institute that would play an important role in promoting FLOSS across the globe, specifically in developing countries. It's a nice way of remembering that it was in this city that a college student once contributed the kernel of a new idea about how software is developed and shared across the globe.

The whole idea of the Applied Linux Institute began about six months ago, following a seminar organized by KePa, a Finnish development network that recently put together the study "FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) in the Developing World". One common thread was how significant the ideas of FLOSS were to the countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa. To Seppo Koskela, one of the two people involved in taking this concept forward, "The idea is simple: to get together the small Finnish Linux activities (from) here and there and, when we are strong enough, to start to cooperate and to help South-to-South FLOSS efforts."

While working on the ideas on The Applied Linux Institute, Koskela says he himself came across several small scale efforts promoting free software ideology, open-source solutions, copyleft licenses, Linux and training and so on. He says, "I have noticed that the Finnish Linux-landscape is fragmented." He argues that Linux nowadays encompasses more than a piece of code. "It's a way of production and distribution, an odd phenomenon in the field of copyright and intellectual property legislation, a tool for community building and more."

Over time, Linux has come to refer to the kernel of an operating system, a wider set of software, the ambiguous community around the development and the use of all kinds of free and open-source software. It even has come to represent the special copyleft licensing policy and a business model based not on products but services.

The Applied Linux Institute currently is a joint venture of three public institutions: the Department of Communications at the University of Helsinki, the Institution of Adult Education of Vantaa (University of Helsinki) and the Department of Schooling and Education of the City of Vantaa, which lies on the outskirts of the Finnish capital.

Koskela, who coordinates the Institute and its development projects, became involved in digital media in the 1980s, when he was setting up one of the first computer-based animation and video studios at the Helsinki University of Technology. In the 90s he became a video producer, media activist, coordinator and teacher.

The other person running the Institute, Dr. Sinikka Sassi, is in charge of its research projects. Sassi started her academic research by studying one of the first computer-assisted bulletin board and discussion from the 1980s. Her doctoral thesis, "The Net in the Hands of Citizens", was published in the late 1990s. She currently is a professor of network communications at the University of Helsinki, Department of Communications. Koskela and Sassi are married and have two daughters.

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the Applied Linux Institute (ALI) and its future with Koskela.

Linux Journal: How would you explain the idea of the Applied Linux Institute? What will its role be?

Seppo Koskela: The Applied Linux Institute is a network-type organization, dedicated to multi-disciplinary research and development of free and open systems. Currently it exists as a project and is located in the Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education, University of Helsinki. In time, the institute hopefully will be established in a more permanent form.

It would have three sections. First, The Academy would link research activities from different academic fields, organize seminars, carry out research and development of social innovations, promote openness and transparency of governance and facilitate usability of open systems (free and open-source software and beyond).

The School would organize the training of Linux and FLOSS trainers, develop the quality of the training, publish network-based and distance learning materials and promote the use of Linux in schools.

Finally, The Lab would maintain a server; organize the development of applications; study the usability of different teamwork methods (with the possibility of cooperating over networks); study the legal and political aspects of FLOSS production, such as the intellectual property rights; distribute Linux and other FLOSS packages; and consider the localization problem, that is, the quality and uniformity of software packages in native translations.

The main areas of the Applied Linux Institute are development cooperation, multi-cultural development of open systems, and citizenship and governance.

LJ:How did the idea for the Institute come about?

SK: Nobody is a prophet in her or his own land, and this goes for Linus Torvalds as well. The Linux operating system was used on a larger scale in other European countries before it was really acknowledged in Finland. Thus, it came to our minds that we could pay homage to Linus Torvalds by founding an institute in the name of Linux. In fact, Linus was a student at the University of Helsinki, the same place where we happen to be working.

Practically, this project needed a full-time coordinator to go ahead with the plans and support of the three different institutions involved. To come into being in the first place, the Institute needed the initiative of the city of Vantaa, which [funded] a five-year professorship in the Department of Communication at the University of Helsinki.

In her position as that professor, Sinikka Sassi has had the opportunity to create activities that benefit the institutions behind her post. She believes the task of a university is to promote openness, the accessibility of information and knowledge, and the common good, so it seemed logical for her to get involved in free software and open-source development in a more organized manner.

So far, it has taken a year of negotiating with different parties and gathering information from the field. Currently the Institute exists as a development project under the auspices of the Vantaa Institute for Continuing Education, University of Helsinki.

LJ: What does this mean in practical terms?

SK: There are some ideas in development. For instance, training already is underway at The Institution of Adult Education of Vantaa. Another plan is Linux For Kids, which would put together a distribution for kids. There's also the user interface for citizens, the question of free public information--what is really free and how to use it. It's a question of democracy.

[We also want to look at] Linux and FLOSS in developing countries. The Service Centre for Development Cooperation (KePa of Helsinki) soon will publish a report, and after it comes out, we are going to look for some common viewpoints.

Our Linux Portal will be an attempt to bring together all the useful information around the topic. It will also serve as a way to build loose coalitions in order to raise funds from the Finnish Academy, SITRA, TEKES and programs of The European Union. This is a very laborious task indeed.

The development of ALI still is at a very early stage; we don't even have the obligatory Web site, not to mention a good English translation of our ideas. I hope [this interview] helps people understand what are the concepts, ideas and goals behind the grandiose expression "Linux Institute".

LJ: What contribution could ALI make? Where do you see it fitting in to the larger world of GNU/Linux?

SK: The Institute wishes to act as a forum for activities around free software and open social systems, that is, to get together people who are interested in the development of open systems and the idea of sharing. In practical terms, it could help develop social innovations concerning the needs of developing countries and the empowerment of citizens and local communities. It could provide poorer people with easier access to the Net and more advanced utilization of its resources. It could assist in making governance more interactive and help develop new democratic procedures.

The basic idea is cooperation. It is important to understand that development is not something to be delivered to poorer countries or poorer people, but that they are an integral part of the processes that already exist.

Development is about facilitating resourcefulness, and the whole point is to enable people to participate in the governance of their own lives. Thus, we would like to get people from the North and the South to work together and find new tools for self-empowerment. The idea is to create an environment in which the people could better empower themselves, both in the South and in the North.

LJ: Why is the Finnish contribution to theoretical discussions on IT-for-development and IT itself less than expected?

SK: We are living in a somewhat paradoxical situation. In the last few years, Finland has been one of the leading countries in the area of information technologies. Not many industrialized countries have been as greatly influenced by the development of telecommunications as Finland has. Thus, Finland can offer many valuable experiences to the ongoing development dialogue, as well as practical solutions regarding the digital divide.

However, Finnish contributions to theoretical discussions about the social and economic impacts of modern technologies have not reached a similar level. One reason for this could be the fact that the information society in Finland was created as a national-level normative project. Every ministry has a specific information society program with desired goals and fixed measures.

The normative-instrumental way of discussing information technology development has a set framework of research and theoretical considerations. Researchers who do not want to be counted as technology-optimists or technology-determinists find such a mode of discussion either alienating or limited. Therefore, many social scientists have long ignored the topic.

Research, therefore, is either fragmented or technocratic by nature and bound by the concept of information society. When compared to the variety of social experiments and practical innovations around the world, research in Finland seems to fall behind a bit. Therefore, the proposed research should focus on studying the significance of social, cultural and philosophic aspects of information technologies in both the South and the North.

IT implementation has to be user-centered and user friendly in order to, first, facilitate empowerment and democratic development and, second, be sustainable in the long run. Therefore one of the main objectives should be to identify joint practices and interactions over the existing digital divides.

LJ: What could be the outcomes of this venture?

SK: A survey of Linux activities in Finland found that there are a bunch of small dispersed groups that could benefit greatly from a connecting link. The Institute could help to exchange information and experiences and to encourage people to use free and open software.

On a more fundamental level the question is about the Linux working model or means of production; could the principles of sharing and voluntary cooperation be extended beyond the original world of programming to other social activities? Some say yes, some say no, and we would like to find out where and in what conditions it might be possible.

At this point, [the Institute has] only one full-time employee (myself, as coordinator). But some others owe part of their working time to the venture. The heart, however, is the larger network of interested people and experts that actually make it what it is or what it could be. We are starting with a training programme, initially for Finnish administrators and school teachers and then hopefully extending it to include international partners as well.

This venture started as a local and national project, but thanks to the Internet, it spread around the globe in a few hours. The software and the intellectual property rights are genuine global issues, but the localization, training and applications meet the local realities every day.

On the whole, the idea of the Applied Linux Institute has been well received here in Finland and internationally. There seems to be a common need to expand the ideas and practices of free software production to other fields of information and knowledge production, as well as to social life.

The turn of the millennium started with a gloomy and bloody chain of events. But fortunately, a growing number of people in every corner of the world are realizing that cooperation and sharing could be a better way to survive and achieve a better life.

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

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