Open Source Software – Now More Than Ever!

Ten years ago, I travelled to a small town in Missouri, with a fellow Circuit Rider, Arif Mamdani, to help a small low-income organising group called GRO migrate from Windows to Linux.  The lead-organiser, Robin Acree, had her computer completely wiped out by a virus and she’d had enough. So we spent a week installing Linux on their machines, and training the staff and leadership.  Everyone was surprised at how easy the Linux desktop was to use (I think we used KDE). This was done as part of the LINC Project.  Arif and I were charged with helping low-income community driven organisations use technology more effectively.  At the end of the week, everyone was enthusiastic about the migration and we congratulated ourselves for a job well done and went home.

At the time, this kind of migration was unheard of, so we wrote a couple of case studies about it.  This was before things like the Tactical Tech’s source camps and Aspiration’s Penguin Days.  LINC got a lot of attention for it.  It also helped get us in-touch with like minded organisations who also saw the potential of using free an open source software to advance the missions of non-profits, such as May First (formerly known as Media Jumpstart) and One NW.

Less than a year later, GRO had migrated back to Windows.  Why? Clip Art.  Brochures and Posters were the lifeblood of the organisation, and Robin missed the Clip Art that was available to her in Microsoft Word.  So obvious, but at the time we did the migration we had no way of seeing that coming.

Fast forward to today, and I’m now working on an update of the ‘Non-Profit Open Source Primer’, and exploring all the different ways that free and open-source software (FOSS) is making a difference to Non-Profits.  A LOT HAS CHANGED.

The biggest change seems to be about migration itself.  Back in those early days, there was a lot of focus on migration – getting people off proprietary systems that were expensive, trapped their data and gave them a lot of grief in return.  Perhaps we had put too much emphasis on the need to migrate for migrations sake.  One of the biggest motivations had been around the use of pirated software – and this was a very good reason, in places like Bulgaria, where the police would occasionally knock on the door of an NGO and demand to see their computer software licenses and shut down any NGO that didn’t have legal software. However, in countries where the stakes of using pirated software wasn’t so high, they often migrated to Linux but then would eventually migrate back to FOSS.  Another reason that organisations would migrate would be around localisation.  If your version of Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office didn’t exist in your local language, you were stuffed.  However, FOSS could be freely localised if it wasn’t in the language you needed it to be, and several organisations took initiative themselves to conduct the localisation. These migrations stuck because organisations didn’t have any alternatives.

But the thing that is really amazing me about FOSS today, is the amount of FOSS software thats out there thats been specifically created for the needs of non-profits.  Forget about migration, lets talk about developing your own software!  This is exemplified by things like CiviCRM; a database that helps you keep track of your stakeholders, Sahana; a crisis response system or TOR; a circumvention tool that helps individuals in closed societies to get around government firewalls.

And then there’s all the great FOSS software that we use and don’t even think about, like Firefox and Adium.  Most of the functioning of the internet is achieved using FOSS software.  And Unix is the core of several operating systems, including Mac OS X and allows smaller devices to run, like the play station and wii.  Not to mention Ubuntu, which has taken the linux desktop light years ahead.

Of course, the driving force of why FOSS is more important to non-profits, now more than ever, is because its open, it’s community driven, it keeps your data portable and its as secure as it can be.  Ten years ago, we encouraged migration on the basis of ethical reasons and a promise of better software.  Today, we encourage use of FOSS for very practical reasons as that promise has been achieved; FOSS not only provides the foundation for important things that people do every day, but it also is used in very focused ways that directly help non-profits achieve their missions.

Stay tuned for the new version of the NOSI Primer, which will be released sometime later this fall