February 5, 2006

Africa Source II

Author: Rod Amis

The Africa Source II (AS II) conference, an eight-day hands-on workshop aimed at building the technical skills of those working with and within non-governmental organizations (NGO) on the continent, was held in Kalangala, Uganda, last month. The focus of the conference, held on one of the most beautiful islands of Lake Victoria, was on how free and open source software (FOSS) could be integrated into the projects of NGOs. More than 130 IT professionals and NGO staff from across the region, along with field leaders from Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia, were in attendance this year.

One of the organizers of AS II was Allen "Gunner" Gunn, an associate for conference sponsor Tactical Technology Collective who is based in San Francisco. Gunn was a senior software engineer in the Silicon Valley before becoming co-founder and chief technology officer of Pensare, an eLearning "dotgone," as he phrased it. Today he is on the faculty at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., where he teaches Java programming and Web development. He also is co-director of Aspiration Tech, an organization that advises NGOs on technology strategy and best practices.

ITMJ: Please share with us some highlights of AS II. What were your successes? Who were the interesting participants?

Gunn: First, I believe we succeeded in strengthening the social network of FOSS practitioners in Africa. This is essential for building FOSS capacity in Africa; participants now have relationships and contact information for those who can help them to move forward in their migration to FOSS technologies.

Second, more than 120 participants left AS II with practical, hands-on experience and know-how about migrating NGOs and schools to FOSS. These skills include assessment, planning, deployment, configuration, training, and support. We look forward to watching them collaborate on the mailing lists, and to hearing their success stories and reflections both online and when next we convene.

The interesting participants were too many to list. A noteworthy dynamic was the percentage of women participants. AS II was more than 35% women, and we'll be striving in future events to achieve a full balance. Groups such as LinuxChix Africa were well-represented, and a good number of facilitators were women. Source events emphasize peer-to-peer sharing over lecture or panel formats, and virtually everyone stepped up and let their voice be heard.

The agenda was well-received, so any future Source events will likely have similar agenda content. What we'll definitely do better next time is to lock in better infrastructure; we had insufficient electricity and floor space for our participants at this event, and we'll look to find more robust venue resources, most likely in a less remote setting. But the scenery couldn't be beat!

ITMJ: What's the history of Africa Source? How did this conference get started?

Gunn: The first Source Camp took place in Croatia in September 2003. The goal was to bring together a range of practitioners and stakeholders working to implement FOSS solutions for NGOs in developing countries. Africa Source I was the second Source event, taking place in Namibia in March 2004. That event focused primarily on FOSS developers, seeking to strengthen social networks while also mapping out who was doing what on the continent.

ITMJ: What are some of the successes of FOSS on the continent and what benefits does it bring to the region?

Gunn: In terms of FOSS success stories on the continent, I would mention several excellent organizations: SchoolNet, and in particular SchoolNet Namibia, have really innovated with FOSS, installing it on recycled hardware and training high school students in the use and administration of the tools. TuxLabs has done similar things in the Western Cape region, building computer labs in schools with volunteer labor and the Ubuntu Linux distribution. Also, Ungana Afrika is doing amazing work to support NGOs in South Africa. In Uganda, both Linux Solutions and WOUGNET are helping to grow FOSS capacity.

FOSS is a preferable alternative for a range of reasons, including:

  • Ability to localise tools and platforms for local communities
  • More stable and secure environment than Microsoft Windows
  • More secure platform for those doing activism and political work
  • Ability to run on older, less powerful hardware, thus extending machine life and lowering hardware costs

ITMJ: Can you give us examples of specific challenges and issues faced by working CIOs at the conference?

Gunn: The biggie: ongoing challenges with cost and availability of Internet access, especially broadband. The debate about which technologies are most appropriate for backbone and edge zones of future network topologies is always fascinating in Africa; fiber is the preferable conduit but various wireless options have the potential to deliver access to underserved communities years and arguably decades sooner.

Localization: language drives the classic mountain/Mohammed debate: do you compel users to learn Western languages (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish) to utilize ICTs (Information Communications Technologies), or do you emphasize localization efforts with the vision that this will yield greater uptake and skill gain among potential ICT workers?

In terms of hardware in developing regions, "rugged" is still the way. Stabilizers and UPS components play a much more critical role in the developing world, where power grids fluctuate like the weather, and planning for extreme hardware redundancy (as in "at least one extra of everything you need") is a critical part of sustainable, successful ICT deployment.

ITMJ: What's the big opportunity for IT on the continent?

Gunn: I think an interesting topic for discussion is ICT project collaboration between NGOs and for-profit ventures. NGOs are sorely lacking services and resources they would pay to obtain, while corporate entities so often prove utterly uninformed about how to work with civil society partners.

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