Talking Freedom, Sharing Knowledge : The Future is Open

The Premise

In a recent issue (Vol 1 no 9) of Linux For You (www.linuxforu.com), Frederick Noronha raises an important issue when he states that -

“Mastering technology is good but it’s more important to be large-hearted when sharing it.”

A ground level shift is slowly but surely happening in the Free/Libre and Open Source software development scene. The driving force of this change is the number of projects that are being implemented, tested, pilot-run or phased in. As harbingers of the new future, they are important enough to merit nationwide announcements as well as discussions. FLOSS implementations challenge and more often than not completely reverse existing paradigms. Thus, successful models need to be reproduced, while cases which did not produce the desired results require to be analyzed.

The latest IBM promotion campaign themed around GNU/Linux (although the ‘Big Blue’ mentions it as ‘Linux’) has a quote about how sharing information is the first step towards community. The entire spectrum of the GNU/Linux movement has been based on the concept of community-led development. And as Frederick so rightly points out, the sharing of information has dropped to a precious trickle.

Some Background Information

The factors that interplay to bring about a change are many. To begin with, one needs to identify the various stakeholders in the FLOSS environment. At the ground level, there are the end-user of various FLOSS based implementations. They are members of the local LUGs (the Linux Users Groups) as well as being members of the various ‘Linux-India’ fora.

An important part of this picture is the Free Software Foundation of India and the members of the various FSUGs (Free Software Users Groups) and persons interested in the promotion and implementation of Free Software.

The information chain has further links like mailing lists and newsgroups like BytesForAll (run by FN), LittleLeague (run by Sukrit D), FLOSSToday(co-owned by FN).

The final level of stakeholders include the various government agencies and organizations, research and development institutes and the technology-transfer organizations.

The Approach Required

‘Freedom’ based on free software has two visibly distinct aspects –

1. R&D to develop robust and scalable technology and
2. transfer of such technology with the least cost-lines.

However, an aspect that is not clearly visible and thus ignored is the sharing of knowledge on such technology and R&D. ‘Talking tech’ clearly has two very different aims in front of it – Strategic and Tactical.

On a strategic aspect, talking about breaking technology or bleeding edge research emphasizes the robustness of the GNU/Linux OS as well as the entire spectrum of FLOSS activities. Coupled with intensive white papers and case papers on technology incorporation, this leads to the creation of a well-informed and aware population.

The tactical aspect aims at creating a ground-level awareness of the technology basics and implementation. Technology is only useful if utilized for development. Worldwide success stories in ICT4D give credence to the implementation feasibility. It is in this domain that tactical planning is required on a collaborative level.

It has been a traditional strength of the FLOSS movement that academic institutes, R&D centers have been quick to adopt the model and adapt it to their use. This is the time to return to those roots. Seminars and workshops conducted under the patronage (and perhaps sponsorships) of institutes actively involved in the FLOSS sphere creates an opportunity to get developers, technologists and researchers to come together and talk ‘freedom’. Using predefined ‘templates’ for presentation targeted at various cross-section of users can go a long way in easing the migration headaches (from Microsoft platforms to GNU/Linux based ones).

Information sharing and knowledge transfer is based on a matrix of connections. It is imperative that various efforts underway in the different domains of the GNU/Linux movement be aligned in this aspect. The lessons learnt can then be successfully utilized in other cases.

Getting the Interest Groups aligned

The aims and objectives of UGs involved in the movement is best channeled along the following lines:

1. Advocacy – create an extensive network of technical evangelists who provide the ‘front-end’ persona to the entire spectrum of activities.

2. Support – help create an extensive support base of technical competence and know-how to ensure proper and timely response to knowledge-based questions

3. Education – organize and participate in workshops aimed at creating a culture of GNU/Linux appreciation

4. Promotion – actively and aggresively involve media and other delivery platforms in the promotion of GNU/Linux as well as the Free Software Movement

Talks with SIGs involved in handholding and incubating technologies reveal a growing need to create a Software Project Directory for India along application specific lines. Something similar is being carried out globally by the Free Software Foundation and perhaps the Free Software Foundation of India is best suited to take a step in this direction. Coupled with a policy of promoting and sponsoring projects in sync with the Free Software Movement, FSF-India can initialize implementation aspect of these projects. In West Bengal, FOSET (Forum of Scientists, Engineers and Technologists) is one of the major technology transfer body involved in ICT4D. With several projects and models successfully implemented, the experience will come in handy for any project with social implications.

The need of the day is to ‘talk tech’. Yet, the need is also to structure the entire movement along defined lines. Managing the entropy of the system is something that is the obligation of the participants to the community. The concept of the Free/Libre Open Source Software paradigm mandates the mindview to include the needs of the community. At this stage, isolationist attitudes might ensure that a few islands of technology are created, but at the end of the day we all need to learn from each other.

“Collecting data is only the first step towards wisdom, but sharing data is the first step towards community - Henry Louis Gates Jr.”

The community development is feasible when communication about technologies are properly implemented, sharing knowledge is just the first step towards that.

Endnote:

* ‘The Future is Open’ is the tagline of the IBM campaign available at www.ibm.com/open/asiapacific

* The stakeholders in the movement have been very broadly defined and categorized, the interplay of the various interest groups and other agencies can be part of a larger document on the FLOSS implementation scene in India.

* The writeup aims to put some very basic ideas into the cauldron for discussion and possible adoption. Assuming or inferring anything else would be an error on the part of the reader. The ideas proposed are a result of countless discussions held with members of various Special Interest Groups on the modalities of ‘getting the message across’. The author is indebted to all of them.

Sankarshan Mukhopadhyay is a Free Software enthusiast and a member of the Free Software Foundation of India – West Bengal Chapter. He is also the member of Ankur Group – Bringing Bangla to the FLOSS Desktop. He can be reached at sankarshanmukhopadhyay@vsnl.net

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