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Opinions of Saturday, 7 March 2009

Columnist: Pipim, Akokoraaba Adansi

Letter to the President


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The Best Kept Secret: Free* Software for a Free Africa

Dedicated to the memory of Guido Sohne – A true African Geek

Excellency,

For starters, permit an opening welcoming you to the “hot seat” of The President of The Republic of Ghana.

Next, forget the headlines and briefs drawing attention to the ever unfolding intensity and ramifications of the global financial crisis and other dooming news. There is a real revolution under way, one that holds key promise to the millions of Ghanaian children and youth who need to be equipped with the knowledge and skills and to also develop the competences needed to ensure the nation garners itself a competitive advantage in the fierce times ahead. Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have all been active in their pursuit of the solution in question. The UK government has recently said it will accelerate its use in public services, amidst increasing calls from the opposition to that end. Its use is projected to lead to annual savings in excess of £600m in government spending on software. The chief open source officer of a leading global IT firm points out that the UK government's stance was part of a "global wave" of take up for open source in governments. How can Ghana ride this “global wave”?

The announcement last week by Mr Haruna Iddrisu, Minister of Communications, that government was keen on mainstreaming ICT in all aspects of the country's development and that it would not relent in its efforts to achieve the goal, couldn't have come at a better time.

The key to the above task might lie in the innovation of a 35-year old South African, Mark Shuttleworth, the first African in Space and the founder of Canonical, the company behind the software that is causing waves and attracting superlative reviews in the IT and general press. Every year in December Mr. Shuttleworth leads hundreds of programmers who assemble for the occasion at Google headquarters to ponder the next main moves in an ongoing battle to unseat the dominant operating system on PCs throughout the globe. A somewhat less assuming goal is “forcing [the dominant player] to adapt”. Ubuntu is an African word but the philosophy is true for humankind. It is only worrying that the solution based on it is known and used throughout the world whilst it only remains a kept secret among few in Africa who have accessed it. Luckily, there are some in Ghana who are already reaping benefits from its use. The challenge is to carve and implement a national policy that will help spread the word and increase the benefits to the people and government.

IT could hold the key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of The UN

Among developing countries a great deal of hope is held in the importance of the role and ability of information and communications technologies (ICT) in helping to achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs) of The UN. Schoolchildren and out-of-school youth constitute two major groups that have received widespread attention. An Information-enabled Society is unthinkable without availability of affordable software and applications.

However, it is very well known that not all ICT for development policies work. What works, and what does not, is a subject that has received very little attention. Little wonder that sub-optimal (and in certain cases even retrogressive) ICT policies have been implemented across countries where scarce resources have been thrown down the drain.

Today, what Ghana needs most are proven, development-enabling practices that ensure that the nation's ICT budget produces the highest possible return on investment (ROI) and a guaranteed low total cost of ownership (TCO). This seemingly impossible goal is not only possible to achieve; indeed it is made available from the short outline presented here. An case study is Brazil, a developing nation that saves over US$500 million annually from its policy of opting out of paying software license fees.

FOSS holds the key to bridging the Digital Divide

At the heart of the solution advocated by the author are the notion of Free (as in 'Freedom' or The French 'libre') Open Source Software (FOSS) and the humanist philosophy of Ubuntu. Free and open source software has not only cost benefits (i.e. cost-saving), but is also superior in quality (in terms of reliability and safety) to proprietary software. The money-saving benefit of FOSS, while important, is rather shallow. Think of proprietary software companies distributing software freely to recipient entities that do not ask themselves the (hidden) cost of future upgrades.

In the view of this author, open source is the ideal development and business model for developing countries like Ghana in today's massively connected, Knowledge Age economy. Open source is about sharing; the model offers liberties to every user and developer that encourage truly collaborative innovation.

As outlined by the GNU (GNU's not Unix) Project, the freedom in free software refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

• The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).

• The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

• The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).

• The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Open source software can lower customer barriers too: such barriers as access, switching costs, and greater value achieved. All this occurs in an environment that allows for increased participation and competition. Companies gain compensation for their innovations by building on the contributions of others. Open source software has been used to manage disasters, provide computer solutions to education (e.g. in Namibia's SchoolNet, a Linux deployment in 2003 on over 80,000 desktops in schools in Spain's Extramadura Region and Brazil's more than 350,000-desktop deployment in schools in 5600 municipalities), preserve genetic diversity and promote tourism on The Galapagos Islands.

The definition of Ubuntu given by Archbishop Desmond Tutu offers perhaps the most apt attempt:

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

He goes on further to say:

“One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu - the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality - Ubuntu - you are known for your generosity.

We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.” Ubuntu (the operating system)'s core philosophical ideals are:

1. Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.

2. Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice.

3. Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability.

The most popular examples of open source software frequently cited are the GNU/Linux operating system, Apache the web server and Firefox the web browser, with over 21,5% (according to netapplications.com and over 45% according to w3schools.com) global market share and 14% in The US. After years of deriding the advent of GNU/Linux and even characterizing the operating system as a 'cancer', Microsoft is now busy pursuing its own open source initiative (Port 25 and other interoperability projects, including one which had the late Guido Sohne managing the Africa region), having demonstrated that the biggest threat to the company's future comes from GNU/Linux. Moreover, just a couple of weeks ago, Microsoft was reportedly sighted seeking a new Director of Open Source.

Why use FOSS in Education?

Education is recognized as a key tool in helping people overcome poverty and injustice. It is not difficult to imagine that schools should aim at teaching students ways of life that will benefit them (students) and society as a whole. It is the expectation of The GNU Foundation that schools would promote the use of free software just as they promote recycling. If schools teach students free software, then the students will use free software after they graduate. This will help Ghana create local expertise in vital IT sectors such as software development and engineering.

Free software permits students to learn how software works. When students reach their teens, some of them want to learn everything there is to know about their computer system and its software. That is the age and the way people who will be good programmers should learn it. Ghana's own departed glorious world-class programmer, Guido Sohne of blessed memory developed an affinity for computers as a school kid, the same way in which Miscrosoft's founders, Bill Gates and his then school pal, Paul Allen did.

Kids introduced to Linux a bit earlier would learn of the available programs and use them every week to do their homework. Open Office, Scribus, GIMP, and many others work perfectly to produce great homework at no cost. (And without using stolen copies of commercial proprietary software - a dangerous example for school kids.)

The importance of having an adequate number of trained programmers and software engineers can be hardly be exaggerated. To learn to write software well, students need to read a lot of code and write a lot of code. They need to read and understand real programs that people really use. They will be intensely curious to read the source code of the programs that they use every day. Exposure to FOSS will enable the students endeavor to develop the tools and interfaces that help them to contribute to and benefit from the Information Society.

According to The Free Software Foundation, proprietary software rejects students thirst for knowledge: saying, “The knowledge you want is a secret—learning is forbidden!”, whereas free software “encourages everyone to learn”. The free software community rejects the “priesthood of technology”, which keeps the general public in ignorance of how technology works; we encourage students of any age and situation to read the source code and learn as much as they want to know. Schools that use free software will enable gifted programming students to advance.

The next reason for using free software in schools is on an even deeper level. We expect schools to teach students basic facts, and useful skills, but that is not their whole job. The most fundamental mission of schools is to teach people to be good citizens and good neighbors—to cooperate with others who need their help. In the area of computers, this means teaching them to share software. Elementary schools, above all, should tell their pupils, “If you bring software to school, you must share it with the other children.” Of course, the school must practice what it preaches: all the software installed by the school should be available for students to copy, take home, and redistribute further.

Teaching the students to use free software, and to participate in the free software community, must also be seen as a “hands-on civics lesson”. It also teaches students the role model of public service. This is true of all levels of school, thus making the case for use of FOSS. The education sector, as seen from all the above, is key to the successful adoption of FOSS in any country. It is with much pleasure that one notes the efforts of such stalwarts as Kafui Prebbie of The Winneba University of Education and One Village Foundation. Indeed Professor Jophus Anamuah-Mensah, a former Vice-Chancellor of The UEW admonished students to pursue FOSS during their courses so that they may make use of the acquired skills and knowledge in the execution of their future jobs.

Joachim Breitner, a German volunteer who spent time at The Herman-Gmeiner SOS School in Tema and later with the Ghana open source community gathered useful lessons on the problems facing anyone wishing to introduce FOSS to Ghanaian schools. Although the school failed to allow itself to be converted, the young German held on to his contacts to the community and to this day maintains a vital blog.

Freedom, Affordability & Choice

Affordable ICT infrastructure, coupled with the ability to generate content and applications in local languages (localization) are essential to bridging the digital divide.

Not a single one of the millions of users who have downloaded th highly successful open source browser software Firefox. Yet Firefox continues to offer its many users the freedom, affordabilty & choice in the face of offerings from proprietary browser software packages

The proliferation of FOSS in web servers, mail programs, social networking software has made their (FOSS) use widespread in so-called Web 2.0 standards compliant applications. At the heart of several of Googles' applications, social networking services such as Facebook, Myspace, etc lie FOSS.

Beginning with the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) project's XO, Linux in all its flavors has found acceptance and adoption in the so-called netbook class of devices. These gadgets hold much promise for governments in developing countries looking for cost-effective ways to roll out laptops to schoolchildren and even adults.

FOSS relies on whole communities to improve software packages

A recent news bulletin announcing a big boost from the Open society Institute for FOSS advocacy in west Africa is very encouraging news for the entire FOSS community, for reasons explained below.

The FOSS development method harnesses power of distributed peer review and transparency process. Obviously, this approach yields better quality, improves reliability, augments flexibility, drives down cost and provides a way out of “predatory vendor lock-in”.

A very critical requirement for the flourishing of FOSS in any region is the existence of a vibrant, lively community; both the core community of expert developers and the broader community of users and devotees. It is equally important as a prerequisite for there to be a successful open business that builds on it and demonstrates that it can benefit from the momentum and goodwill of the community to drive passion into adoption. In addition, business must operate openly to earn the trust of the community.

The future holds bright prospects for Linux globally

The Linux server market is predicted to reach $50 billion in three years, and the embedded and mobile Linux markets continue to explode, thus increasing the demand for developers and users with Linux expertise.

What is more interesting is that Linux growth is being projected at a time when other sectors are embarking on job-cutting and layoffs due to the recession. Odesk, a freelance marketplace, recently reported that the number of Linux-related jobs posted on its boards has increased more than 1,400 percent since 2006.

The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the growth of Linux, has announced a Training Program that will help meet this demand for industry and provide the tools for a new generation of programmers.

“We’ve received consistent feedback from companies worldwide that the rising number of Linux deployments is putting new demands on a talent pool that needs more Linux-related developers,” said Jim Zemlin, executive director at the Linux Foundation. “We believe the Linux Foundation can provide a vendor-neutral forum in which students can learn from the community’s most influential contributors in order to drive their careers in more lucrative directions.”

It is very encouraging to note that the budding FOSS community in Ghana is thriving against all imaginable odds. No one expects it to be an easy battle to compete with the huge installed base proprietary software vendors have in the country and also the general inertia and unwillingness to depart from the status quo that one has observed in other emerging economies. That notwithstanding, the hard work of the local FOSS users, facilitated by, in addition to several initiatives, the Accra Linux Users Group, The Winneba Linux Users Group (WiLUG), The Ghana Linux/Unix Users Group and several others, not forgetting the Advanced Information Technology Institute -Kofi Annan Center of Excellence in IT, gives one the impression that FOSS has come to stay in Ghana, and for that matter, Africa.

By Akokoraaba Adansiman Pipim**

The author is a Hamburg, Germany-based management consultant and entrepreneur with specialization in information and communications technologies (ICT) for Development. He has a background in exploration geophysics and an MBA in international strategic management of technology.

*Free as in “Freedom”, not as in “Free Beer”. **A pseudonym

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