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Open Source is on the Map


By Lasa Information Systems Team

Open source software is making inroads into the voluntary sector. Dan McQuillan of Lasa's Information Systems Team and the Multikulti project highlights the potential, the pitfalls and some proposals for the future.

What is freedom?

Open source software descended from the Free Software movement.

Set-up in eighties, the movement wanted to continue the tradition of co-operatively developed software, while Microsoft and others were busy turning it in to private property.

They say:

"Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer'."

The subsequent open source license gave two specific types of freedom: the freedom to copy and redistribute software, and the freedom to modify it.

Open source software tends to be developed collectively, which generally results in better security, increased reliability and open standards (see below open standards and open source section below) compliance. The best-known example of this is, of course, the Linux operating system.

Take-up of open source software by the voluntary sector has mainly been through the first kind of open source freedom - freely downloading and installing various applications. But there is also untapped potential in the second kind of freedom, the freedom to modify.

Overall, the openness of open source will have an inevitable impact on policy.

Open servers

Linux is from its roots up a server system (unlike Windows), and open source has always made up the backbone of the Internet with software such as the Apache webserver and Sendmail. As open source operating systems are internet-enabled by nature, it sits well at the boundary between the office network and the rest of the world.

As well as a file server, open source can give you a powerful mailserver and, through packages such as Smoothwall, a straightforward way to share an ADSL connection behind a secure firewall. Recent Lasa healthchecks revealed several law centres using Linux servers in these ways.

The open source server also benefits from interoperability; by using services such as Samba you can mix'n'match your computers, as a Linux server can talk to Windows machines, Linux machines and even Macs.

Free the desktop?

Open source is now making inroads on to our desktops firstly because of stable and high quality packages, and secondly because of the tightening of Microsoft's licensing regime.

OpenOffice undoubtedly leads the way as a free (in all senses) equivalent of Microsoft Office, and the Mozilla and Firefox browsers enable browsing based on open standards. All of these free packages can be installed on a Windows system.

The evolution of Windows-like desktops such as KDE and Gnome means that Windows can now be replaced with a friendly Linux-based system.

A recent development is Linux distributions that run straight off a CD (e.g. Knoppix which don't require you to reformat your hard disk. Combine these with a USB memory stick - a form of portable hard-drive - and you have a portable workstation.

The other side of the coin is the Microsoft licensing regime. Many groups are already caught in the upgrade trap, where the demands of up-to-date software mean upgrading hardware as well. But Microsoft is determined to tie us even tighter in to their revenue cycle. Already the Windows XP licence key mechanism can cause problems if you want to re-install a crashed system or swap it to a different computer.

In the future Microsoft will introduce Trusted Computing (which translates as 'Microsoft doesn't trust you'), extending its current rights to remotely meddle with Windows computers to a data level enforcement of access rights.

Low tech

Older hardware and a limited (or non-existent!) IT budget are a characteristic feature of community groups. But older hardware can be freed up by the low-tech benefits of open source; an old 486 can be redeployed as a firewall, and the past-it Pentiums can run decent browsers, office software and lighter Windows-clones. This reveals a hidden ethical strength of open source; its positive environmental impact. The computer industry is highly polluting, and re-using old hardware can limit some of that damage.

The Seeds for Change website has useful information about re-using older computers, and Lowtech has pioneered hardware re-use in community groups. The Linux Terminal Server Project turns old computers into terminals for a central server (great for a youth club or community-based cyber caf├ęs, for example).

Unforced Migration

Voluntary sector groups pioneering the completely open source office include Black Information Link and Alone in London. Other groups have produced useful migration guides with practical tips about switching to open source, for example the case studies in Open Source Migration Guide, or the very comprehensive resources on open source on the Open Source Observatory on the IDABC Website (Interoperable Delivery of European eGovernment Services to public Administrations Businesses and Citizens).

If there's a missing link it's probably a calendar and email solution to replace Microsoft Exchange, although there are some promising candidates such as Kroupware. Another potential stumbling block is the need for staff to learn new skills: the LINC Project (Low Income Networking and Communications Project) found there was a definite learning curve, whereas for Hanstholm Council in Denmark each user needed only 1 to 1.5 hours retraining.

Open source circuit riders?

The many freedoms that come with open source doesn't mean that it'll cost you nothing. Like any IT, open source has other costs such as training and support, which can be as significant as any license fee or lack of it. Although money saved by not paying for a license can be ploughed back to cover support, it's not a no-cost option.

There is, however, a potential synergy between the growing interest in open source and the rapidly expanding circuit rider movement. If the circuit rider movement takes the strategic decision to strongly support open source, it will become an immediate option for many more groups. The reliability of open source solutions will benefit the circuit riders by needing less frequent intervention; and because they are internet-enabled a lot of the support can be done remotely.

On the mission side, the characteristics of open source fit the circuit riders' aim to promote autonomy and to deliver secure and powerful solutions. It is notable that the most dynamic area of circuit rider development is the international circuit rider movement, which is enthusiastic about open source (for example, Eriders and Tactical Tech's Summer Source camp).

Strategy and Values

The strategic approach is to switch to open source where it's going to benefit you, picking from any of the above possibilities. A likely scenario for most voluntary and community organisations is a mixed economy of open source and proprietary software.

However, the signs are that open source will impact strongly at a policy level as well as a pragmatic one.

Governments and local authorities across the world are developing policies regarding open source; for example, the recent Danish recommendations for using open source in e-government (pdf file requires Acrobat Reader to view).

In Spain, the region of Extramadura has its own localised GNU/Linux with a user base of more than 10,000.

Security is seen as vital when e-government is dealing with confidential citizen data (as it is for voluntary organisations), and governments see open source as a way out of being tied to proprietary software or standards such as the Microsoft .doc format.

For community non-profits there is an even more obvious overlap of values with the open source movement; both are based on values of co-operation and collaboration.

Organisations are now in a position to include an ethical dimension in their technology decisions.

Free to develop

The second freedom of open source, the freedom to modify, is largely unexplored in the UK voluntary sector.

There is a huge range of open source solutions already developed; the SourceForge repository hosts over 70,000. These range from mailing lists to content management, and from databases to VPN (virtual private network) tools. These could underpin the sector's drive to deliver services online and to collaborate remotely.

The task is to find ways to configure and adapt these for non-profit use, which will require collaborative effort and coding skills (such as PHP and Perl), boosted by communication with interested open source developers such as Debian Non-Profit. The Pagetool project has been a good example, and various people have suggested setting up a Social SourceForge.

It might be easier for community users if some applications are delivered across the web by Application Service Providers (ASPs).

Open Roadmap

Despite pioneering papers like How Open Source Can Open Doors for Nonprofits the voluntary sector as a whole has been slow to respond, with the exception of initiatives such as Nonprofit Open Source Initiative in the USA, the Northern Ireland Open Source Community and the UK-based Social Software project. What steps can be taken to open doors to open source for the UK voluntary sector, especially for smaller organisations without in-house IT staff?

Some proposals are:

  • case studies of groups who are already using open source
  • collaborative 'how-to' guides (using tools such as Wiki Wiki)
  • a briefing for voluntary sector directors and board members
  • a migration guide for small organisations
  • signposting to open source support and training companies
  • piloting an all-in-one server distribution that will run on recycled hardware
  • promoting easy-to-try options such as OpenOffice, Mozilla and Knoppix
  • skilling up the UK circuit rider movement to deploy open source solutions, and to support and train others
  • holding events to promote open source, such as 'Demystifying Open Source'
  • use lessons from open source projects in other countries to cross the digital divide
  • work for extensible (XML based) open standards e.g. for client records
  • build links with open source developers
  • establish pilot ASPs (Application Service Providers) for key applications (for more information on ASPs see the knowledgebase article Application Service Providers).
  • seek funding for collaborative application development
  • set up an online repository of open source e-tools

In the end, open source is about more than software: it's about a way of working, and even an attitude. The extension from technology to content in the form of the Creative Commons movement is only the start.

Open Standards and Open Source

'Open standards' are a set of principles and a method of practice for developers of open source software. Roughly speaking open standards require developers to make their material freely available for others to use and implement with no royalty or fee.

The intention is for open standards to create a fair market - a customer isn't locked in to a particular software vendor or group.

For more information see Open Standards: Principles and Practice

Open source itself is defined as software that can be freely distributed - the program must include source code, and must allow distribution in source code as well as compiled form. The software license must allow modifications and works derived from the original software, and must allow them to be distributed under the same terms as the original license.

Additionally Open Source licenses mustn't discriminate against any person or group or restrict anyone from making use of the program.

For more detailed information see the Open Source Initiative (OSI) website and the full open source definition.

About the author

Lasa Information Systems Team
Lasa's Information Systems Team provides a range of services to third sector organisations including ICT Health Checks and consulting on the best application of technology in your organisation. Lasa IST maintains the knowledgebase. Follow us on Twitter @LasaICT

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29th November 2006try to search a list of open source software compared to their mainstream equivalents