October 15th 2008 is Blog Action Day. The idea is is to raise awareness of world poverty through blogging, which think is a fantastic idea. I think we are still trying to understand the power of blogging and every year the blogging world changes so radically that I think we need to constantly re-assess its effect. It will be really interesting to see the stats after the event and see what the impact is.

Anyway the point is to blog about poverty not about blogging. The guidelines are that the post should be relevant to yourself or your interests and fit in with the style of your blog so, probably, predictably I am going to blog about how I think open source software can help poverty throughout the world from Africa to Accrington. I am certainly not the only person who is taking the topic of open source as the subject of their Blog Action Day post which encourages me that there are plenty of other people who think the same way as me. I have also not tried to read these posts yet as they would be far better written than mine and would no doubt influence me so I have tagged them and will read them later.

The use of technology can only help even the poorest of nations. All our efforts should be to help these nations grow economically and become self sustaining so that they are less reliant on outside help. Technology can help any economy grow (and has, see India, China, UK etc) especially as it can remove physical barriers such as location. The internet especially is a great leveller as it allows anyone with an internet connection and the skills to compete whether you are in San Francisco or Saigon (sorry Ho Chi Minh City). Skills are the important requirement and that can only come from education and facilities for the young (and old) to learn (I am not dismissing the importance of broadband availability but that should probably be the topic of another post).

Now this was basically the aims of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project and the fallout from the once Open Source project being ‘bought’ by Microsoft can be seen all over the internet. Now I do not want to fall into Microsoft bashing here and I quite understand that a poorer nation is not going to thumb their nose at Microsoft and Bill Gates support but I think in the long term it is the wrong decision. The path that emerging nations take now can fix their decisions for a long time to come.

The advantages of open source software to emerging nations.

1. Open Source is free (OK free as in freedom not free as in beer), that means that they are free from license costs and that means free today, free tomorrow and free forever. Now proprietary companies may offer free versions, reduced cost versions or may even pay for them to use the software. But why are they really doing this and what are their longer term aims, who knows? I don’t and probably neither does the country who accepts such a deal. It maybe an extreme analogy but just like the crack dealer the first couple of shots are always free as that is all it takes. We see this in our country where office products are supplied to schools and universities at a fraction of their normal cost but this ensures the perception that these are the only products that the emerging students could ever use. What ever happened to teaching transferable skills? When did schools become an exercise in proprietary products? (I think the answer to that is 1995).

2. Freedom – real freedom in so many ways. To be able to share any of the software with anyone so they can teach others and learn from others without any fear of license restrictions and recrimination.

3. Education. There are two sides to education, of course all people can learn to use the software but because the source code is available people can learn from the programs code. OK this is small percentage of people who can be so technical but to an emerging economy these people are crucial. These are the people who through technology can help, with lots of other people with other skills, to bring prosperity to a nation. At a key point in a nations growth we should not be putting up barriers to learning.

4. Another important education point is training material. Ubuntu for example has teacher and student training documentation fully available and many other open source projects have excellent freely available training documentation. What a lot of this material requires is translation to other languages and this is why open source can be so strong. We have seen that a large open source community will create translations both of the softwares language, localisation and of the documentation. Information and documentation can be released under Creative Commons licenses continuing the open source methodology through the documentation.

5. As much as these points relate to say an African nation or other poorer countries they also apply in affluent societies like our own, in the UK. I believe, like many, that every household should have a computer and a broadband internet connection. In the UK the majority of homes can have this both logistically and financially. Where there are poorer homes there are various schemes to assist but there is an excess of second hand hardware available which could run free and open source software. These can provide education software and office suites plus much much more. But add an internet connection and it opens up huge learning possibilities. There are currently schemes to assist broadband into poorer homes. I know that I for one would give up my satellite/cable TV subscription to pay for broadband if money was the only issue especially if I had children in the house.

Adoption and promotion of open source software needs to happen at a governmental level in richer nations to encourage poorer nations to follow suit. There are some great examples of government all over the world promoting and adopting open source e.g. Brazil (52 million children) and France.

My message to everybody is – the open source community wants and needs emerging nations and they need the open source community.

What can we do? What can you do?

1. Raise awareness of Blog Action Day.

2. Write a blog post for Blog Action Day.

3. Comment on a blog post offering your opinion or support.

4. Tag and submit posts to sites such as digg, delicious, reddit and many of the others you can think of.

5. Use and promote open source software (probably one of the best things you can do to help)

6.Encourage others to do so (three generations of my family run ubuntu and openoffice)

7. If you have children or you are in education ask what approach your school/college/university has to open source. If they have no approach ask them why not. Easy and simple question question Are you using Microsoft Office? Why would you not look at OpenOffice.org? Read this.

8. Email your MP if you live in the UK (I did) and ask him what approach he has to open source software and to explain the policy of his party – he should know and if he is a labour MP should explain why there policy is generally not to look at open source.

I will also be attending Birmingham Social Media Surgery for Blog Action Day 2008 to see if can help local charities.

I saw another blog post that said that they would donate $1 for a every comment on their Blog Action Blog post up to $100. The best I can do currently is 50p per post up to £50. All I ask is that if you have any links relevant to this post like open source resources or other relevant blog posts please put them in your comments. Also If you have a relevant charity that you would like to see my donation going to please put a link to it in your comment. If you have no links please comment anyway (even my family might want to comment hint hint). All comments (except obvious spam) will be counted up to £50 (i.e. 100 comments) and all charities will be considered but if there is not a suitable charity e.g. ‘open source helping poverty somewhere’ in the world them it will be Oxfam or a charity promoted by Blog Action Day. I will blog the amount and the charity.

Like many things Open Source alone is not going to end world poverty but it could certainly help educate and grow economies, it certainly won’t be a hinderance.

Please comment.