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OPEN / FREE_ a discussion

What is ‘free’, what does ‘open’ mean? We’d like to share this brief @-mail conversation, that took place in late october 2013 between r0g_team and two r0g_friends.

(A:) I just wonder about the meaning of Open Source material and stuff, are they neccessarially free stuff? If so, it bothers me how do the people getting involved into this revolution make things happen with this world stress financial and economic crisis? I am afraid; this might make the little understanding I have about ‘Open x x x x… things’ appears very stupid, but I really want to (learn) more things everyday about Open source.

(r0g_:) Hi,
there is a bit of difference between free and open … While in general open source licenses are and should be free, the free refers more to ‘free’ as in ‘freedom’ to use, share, build upon, and develop new creations with it. The issue can get a bit dogmatic at times, and for example, ‘open data’, or ‘open educational resources / OER’ are both free and open for public use, but are not ‘open source’ per se as they are not code or materiality in the same way, but are very important elements within the broader realm of ‘open systems’ scenarios. OER for example, is a vast network of public domain information and resources that are available for use in many sectors and contexts. So we talk more about ‘open systems’ or ‘open solutions’ because they are things that put the control and use of the resources in your hands (among other things).

It’s a large field, and more than I can get into here in a quick mail. One of the many great things about open source (and generally free) software is that it is being designed by people and communities who can work together to make it do what you want it to, not what you are told to do with little chance to use it the way you want. It also doesn’t mean that you don’t get paid for what you do (although very often open source software is developed voluntarily, or via public / taxpayer funding), or for the products and services you sell based on open source. The scenarios of choice between open source / free vs. proprietary software become relevant when, for example, a company changes the terms or pricing of a contract/license, or when somebody finds an error with something that can then easily be fixed by a large community in a way that perhaps a closed or proprietary construct can’t. This also why open source operating systems and platforms tend to be more secure, less virus prone and more stable than, for example, Micr/soft. Open Source tools tend to be more agile, more flexible, and depending on how they are used, can be used as catalysts for new innovation (i.e. the internet itself). They also collude with systems that support freedom of expression, transparency and accountability, genuine sustainability and collaborative enterprise. There are more reasons also …

Perhaps you take a look at the clip of Dorothy Gordon‘s intro at MMJUBA, she has a good way to sum things up also

or for some general background, check diverse sites such as these (and this is very minimal, relatively random list, just to illustrate the breadth of the field):

 Open Knowledge Foundation

The Peer to Peer Foundation (P2P foundation)

Appropriate Technologies

UNESCO WSIS Knowledge Communties
WSIS Knowledge Communites
WSIS + 10 Towards Knowledge Societies

The Open Source Initiative (OSI)

The Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA)

Sourcefabric

Ubuntu

Mozilla

Open Source Ecology

CERN open hardware license

GitHUB library and developers platform

Open Government Partnership

drupal or wordpress content management platforms

and many many many more … !

You can also read the ‘open systems report‘ for UNESCO, which includes an appendix of 130 related projects developed and transformation and post-crisis regions:

We and most of our (current and former) organisational and institutional teams/employees have also been using, without any problems, open office instead of MS Office / Word and other basic open source tools etc for years, and feeling very happy not to have to pay for the huge licences MS and co. charge for their products (that themselves are, or certainly originally were, primarily based on open source elements). Of course we used to use cracked, borrowed, copied, pirated and stolen software, but there were problems with this obviously, and when you start to run large, publicly funded projects such as xxxxxxxxxxxxx there was no way that a.) we would infringe on the legitimate copyrights of corporations by illegally using their products … for moral, philosophical and legal reasons and b.) we would not waste public money on software that is, in many cases inferior to open source solutions, that could be going, for example, to supporting artists and their productions. For us it is a very easy equation, and we have seen it work all over the world, in all kinds of contexts. And as such, open source, and its related elements, methodologies, resources and technologies are the inevitable future … (and, on top of it, many of the best open source systems come from Africa!!)

This is one small reason why we are interested in doing what we are doing in South Sudan – it’s the first country in history that has the opportunity on a larger scale to implement open system solutions as part of its basic state structure, for the benefit of the empowerment and independence of its own people.

cheers, r0g_

(B:) One of my deep concerns with much of the Open Source discourse I’m hearing is that Africa and/or certain places in it are conceived of as ‘blank slates’ or ‘starting from scratch’ and that technology and access to it can therefore ‘revolutionize’ the continent. I don’t think Africa’s issues are issues of technology. I think it is more an issue of ETHICS – how Africans view each other, how foreigners view Africans- and how TOOLS are used to support existing dysfunctions, biases and power structures. It would be good to have an idea of the reality of government in, for example, a place like South Sudan where age, gender, tribe, family name and organizational seniority work against the philosophy of ‘open source’ as in ‘accessible,’ ‘public,’ ‘democratic (if you will)’ etc. I’m not sure that you can cultivate an OS community by knocking on the gate of the guardhouse. Donors tend to put new tools in the same hands over and over again and nothing changes because, well, it’s just a new tool. And donors also tend to deliver the tools in such a way so as to ensure that they are never eliminated from the equation of their use. The larger power structures remain even with the introduction of a new tool.

Just some thoughts. As I said, I’m learning everyday too.

(r0g_:) Hi,

yes, and we’re also wary of lumping all of ‘Africa’ into one pot … but, it is nonetheless interesting, that a lot of FLOSS innovation is coming from, and being implemented in some of the most innovative ways in Africa (quite specifically, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa, Cameroon, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ghana among others). As tools and methodologies of empowerment and innovation open systems also have relevance in defining various forms of ‘independence’, and the choices made for such. I don’t advocate as much for tools especially since i’m not a techy (although, yes, it’s part of the game) but rather for knowledge about alternatives to standard practice where decisions need to be made and structures developed. In South Sudan the so-called international community is somehow tasked in helping direct whatever is going on there, and the practical knowledge of many of these systems is outrageously low among the leading agencies. So it’s also about them. One thing we found interesting, long before we had any idea about South Sudan was, how some of the rhetoric about community and traditional knowledge sharing, power structures and mechanisms of decision making in some african communities or cultures, or perhaps tribal groups, was conceptually very close to the forms of open systems approaches we are working with. We’ve been involved directly in ‘open culture’ initiatives and projects in Canada, Europe, Asia (with close connections to many in South America) and I guess now Africa as well, and the challenges coupled with possibilities for education, access to knowledge and information … and even real empowerment in some cases don’t work any different because the place is different. The people are the same everywhere, and ultimately most people (and societies) aspire for the same things … freedom, quality education, prosperity (or as my chinese blogtivist friend xxxxx likes to say … to be ‘normal’) . For sure, larger or corrupt, or blind power structures will ultimately only be interested in power … but maybe that’s all the more reason to allow more ‘power through the back door’ to ‘regular’ people, citizens, using means and methodologies that were not so prevalent maybe 5 years ago to do so. People like xxxxx want to put their country ‘on the map’, and move into the future … but what is that future, and who controls it? Our argument is simply that it should be xxxxx and their friends rather than opaque corporations and corrupt or misguided governments.

That’s also one reason for having xxxxx’s community establish something like the xHUB/lab idea rather than some external organisation do it, so that it can be rooted in the aspirations that grow out of the vision they have developed. But these things don’t (or at least we don’t think they should) exist in an insulated, isolated bubble, but form a part of broader collaborative networks, that have the ability to grow and gain strength through a sharing of knowledge and resources, like the fablabs for example, which exist all around the globe, or the type of ihub which has become very prevalent in parts of Africa. I think there’s also a lot of relevance to seeing these things like this happen in places like South Sudan precisely because the ‘jury is still out’ with regards to the country’s political future. So the more people, especially young people get the opportunities, skills and connections that allow them to innovate and assert their own independence from the yolk of government the better. But if this process can be aided by some elements of gov’ts playing a positive role in supporting this, then that’s an extra added bonus.

I do of course agree fully with your caution and your exceptional experience, and certainly the issues you raise are always accompanying us …

cheers, r0g_