Linux in Government: Building Bridges and Managing Water
Some people transcend the boundaries of culture, ideology and political thought and have an ability to reach us in ways we never expect. They can surprise us with their depth of knowledge and grasp of details that one scarcely could imagine being at their disposal. Sometimes they simply have natural charisma and/or extraordinary communication skills.
We have to take such people out of the confines of their boundaries, set aside our preconceived notions and simply listen. Whether they come from Asia, Africa, Europe, North or South America makes no difference. They bring a message whether by word or deed that enriches our lives.
During my recent trip to Jordan, I met a man who fits this description. Ammar Ibrahim is a frequent speaker at open-source events, a member of the prestigious PHP Security Consortium, a successful business person and an important advocate for free software. As a teenager, he became interested in computer security, wanting to understand how people could break into computers. Even as a youngster, he saw security as an emerging need.
Ammar's natural ability with languages, and being a polyglot he began researching and reading, as he puts it, "all sorts of material". He told me, "The materials I found often recommended starting with Linux. So, I downloaded Linux and started playing with it. It turns out that there's a philosophy behind Linux. It was open source. So then, I started to read more about open source, FSF and the GNU project. The value I took from these rich materials was overwhelming. I fell in love with the philosophy. Since then I've been deeply involved in it".
After watching and listening to him make a presentation on open source, I asked for an interview and what follows are excerpts of our many sessions. As I got to know Ammar, I recognized that he has exception skill, diplomacy and knowledge in addition to an ability to get things done.
Linux Journal: I understand you are involved with a government open-source project. Actually, I heard that the Ministry of Water and Irrigation in Jordan started an open-source project called the Bulk Meter Flow and Operations (BMFO), and you have a role in it. It's an open-source project on Sourceforge.net. Can you tell me about it?
Ammar Ibrahim: I cannot speak officially for the government of Jordan or the Ministry of Water and Irrigation. I can explain it from my own experience. I function as a PHP expert and train developers from the Ministry.
In Jordan, people must manage water as a scarce commodity. Aside from being a critical infrastructure issue, we must maintain supplies for human consumption and irrigation. We had software called the Water Information System (WIS) for public wells, but it depended too much on human interaction. The system broke down somewhere between the meters and the people entering data in the system and that caused some problems. We needed an automated system that took human error out of the process.
So, the ministry found a way to implement a small messaging system (SMS) tied to a well's meter to broadcast the measurements and capture them in a database. The more remote the wells, the more important getting accurate data became. With the old system, some meters were broken for over a month, and nobody knew, because nobody was checking or visiting the remote locations. The whole process was manual and rigid; things needed to change.
At that time, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development wanted to become involved in water administration projects in this region. We could use the expertise, and they needed a starting point. Steffen Macke's company, DORSCH Consult, won a contract and got involved in the joint development with our Northern Governorates Water Administration (NGWA).
LJ: So this is a joint development project?
AI: True. It's a project that started here and will benefit the region. BMFO is a Web-based application and interface that allows us to record and analyze readings of bulk water meters. We receive data, and the interface creates a transparent layer so we don't have to manipulate the data by hand. PDF and SQL reports are created according to user requirements. Developers are located in Irbid, Amman and Aleppo.
LJ: Governments around the globe have had trouble getting open-source projects started because of intense lobbying from Microsoft. How did this project slip through, and what would you advise other governments to do to get started?
AI: Steffen believes that BMFO is too small of a project to be of interest to Microsoft. He also feels that open source is more sustainable and allows developers from around the region and in other parts of the world to participate.
LJ: What do you see as being the benefits from such a project?
AI: From the beginning, BMFO was developed in a distributed environment. Sourceforge provided the necessary development environment at no cost and, of course, being open source is a requirement for Sourceforge. So one of the benefits is that we were able to create BMFO so easily in the open-source development environment. People can get to the code, and the project management tools exist in a single and open place.
The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development also benefits from the project because it can use the application in other places with no additional licensing cost. They even have reusable components such as the JpGraph.
Aside from the public wells, I understand that BMFO will be introduced throughout the region for private wells. But that needs to be verified with the head of the BMFO Development Task Force if you want further details.
LJ: You look like you have more to say.
AI: Because the BMFO development worked out so well, another project has evolved successfully in Jordan, Syria and Yemen. This project has a broader audience, resulting in contributions such as translations in French, Thai and Italian. For BMFO there was less such feedback from the community. I hope that this will change in the future.
The biggest benefit I see from BMFO is NGWA's bulk meter data is more reliable now and estimates are clearly marked as such. This achievement was possible only through a combination of measures--new meter reading procedures, installation and replacement of bulk meters and training. In fact, the software was the smallest problem on the way to reliable data.
LJ: Can we talk about your involvement in PHP?
AI: Sure. When developing with PHP, the cool thing is you have a lot of preexisting code that you can look at and reuse. You start using other code and packages that other developers wrote. Often, you stumble across bugs and start fixing them and submitting patches. This is one of the basic levels of participation in any open-source project. I frequently submit bug fixes to various PHP projects.
I'm involved in the PEAR framework and distribution system for reusable PHP components. Basically, I sometimes think of PEAR being to PHP what CPAN is to PERL. Currently I maintain two packages in PEAR, Net_DNSBL and Console_ProgressBar .
In January, Chris Shiflett established the PHP Security Consortium, also known as PHPSec. The idea was to have an international group of PHP experts promoting secure programming practices within the PHP community. PHPSec also engages in exploratory and experimental research. I'm a principal member in PHPSec.
I find that PHP is popular in this region, so I'm invited to many conferences to speak about PHP. I attempt to promote it and answer people's questions.
LJ: You also use it in the largest volume Web site in the area.
AI: [Smiling] You mean Al Bawaba. Basically, I function as the CTO and Mr. Hani Jabsheh is the CEO. We handle two million visits daily. It's a significant site for the area and on the Internet in general. If you visit the site, you will see that it's what we might call a portal for the area. We've consolidated news there, have forums and offer e-mail. Although it is only a start, we're in the top 250 Web sites in the world. It's also 100% open source.
An interesting thing about this site relates to our visitors. We have visitors from all over the world, not only the Middle East. People visit because it provides what I believe is the real face of the Middle East.
LJ: I read some forum posts from people in Europe, for example, getting answers to some very personal questions.
AI: Exactly. Al Bawaba allows people to bridge communities, much like open-source development communities do. The media wants the sensational, but you and I just want to talk to each other and learn about each other and get the true experience of each other. So, our site provides the mechanism for us to see the mainstream of humanity both ways. We also get the other side of the story. It allows people to cooperate in a way that breaks down the prejudices we have.
LJ: You say Al Bawaba is just a start; do you have further plans?
AI: At the moment, we are continually improving the site. If you want me to discuss the master plan, I won't do that right now. But, you can say that Al Bawaba demonstrates the power of the Internet and open source.
I do not believe one interview can give anyone more than a slight glimpse into the character of a person. Ammar Ibrahim represents the best of humanity. At 23, he seems to have more than a life-time of experience and wisdom to share. He also represents a hope for the future. I easily can imagine him functioning as an emissary or poster boy for a world that works for everyone. I'm grateful that he calls me friend. I consider my life a richer place because he knows how to build bridges and write software.
Tom Adelstein is a Principal of Hiser + Adelstein, a consulting and operating company specializing in free and open-source software solutions and support. Tom is the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration and has written prolifically since 1985. Tom's business career began in public accounting where he first learned to program and develop software and later progressed to Wall Street, where he became the designated principal of a NYSE firm. He later returned to technology and has consulted and worked with start-ups as well leaders of the Fortune 500.