June 30, 2003

The Caribbean learns about Free and Open Software - Part One (of Two)

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
Port of Spain, Trinidad -- The inaugural Caribbean "Free, Libr� and Open Source" (FLOS) Software Conference - IT WORKS!" conference was held here June 26 and 27. It was an impressive first effort. Several local Free Software advocates felt the conference, which was held behind tight security in the Trinidad and Tobago Central Bank building, was too oriented toward officialdom. But was this bad? Officialdom was certainly there in force -- and was listening with open ears to the Free and Open Source message.Trinidad and Tobago (TT) -- one nation that spans two islands -- has oil, a reasonable amount of agricultural trade, and gets a fair amount of tourist traffic. It is best known as the home of Calypso and Carnival, capitalized, but is not known for computer sophistication.

But software is still essential here, whether it's powering the backends of tourist-related Web sites or running oil and natural gas extraction and refining facilities, and TT has little in the way of a local software industry. On the IT front, the country is almost entirely dependent on imports, mostly from U.S. companies. This is a serious foreign exchange drain, not to mention a brain drain; most of TT's computer-talented young people are forced to go abroad if they want decent jobs in their chosen field.

The idea behind this conference was to bring together people who can help create a local software industry that isn't dependent on expensive, propietary software licenses purchased from overseas companies.

It succeeded on one level, but failed on another.

Where it succeeded was in getting government and major local businesses to understand how FOSS can help them, and that it is now a truly "mainstream" phenomenon in more developed countries.

Where it failed was in bringing local proto-hackers together to help make the still-incipient Trinidad and Tobago Linux Users Group a more powerful organization that could not only help with FOSS evangelism but with localized tech support, which is sorely needed.

The success: Government listened eagerly

As in many smaller countries that only become independent in the second half of the 20th century, TT's government is a large factor in business. There is one telecommunications company, and it is a government-controlled monopoly whose Internet connection prices would be considered high in the U.S., and are simply beyond the reach of most TT citizens, whose salaries average about 1/6 of U.S. salaries for most positions, right along with the TT dollar, which is worth approximately 1/6 as much as the U.S. dollar.

The oil industry and port are also government-controlled, and many other local businesses are far more regulated than they are in the U.S., Canada or Europe.

The upshot: Get the government to listen here, and you can make things move. And this conference was well-attended by government people who took careful notes and buttonholed speakers to ask specific questions. Indeed several speakers also gave private workshops for Central Bank biggies on the specifics of converting their current systems to Linux and Open Source, and ministers from other agencies talked of holding similar private workshops in the future.

I gave a brief demonstration of Linux on the desktop, surrounded by (mostly) government people who had never seen Linux in action before and were astounded to see how simple and easy to use a Linux desktop can be.

"You mean this program is really free? We don't have to pay for it?" was a question I heard about OpenOffice.org from several ministry budget-watchers after they watched it in action. They were also impressed by the idea of software development tools that cost nothing; these have been budget-breakers for them many times when they decided to do inhouse development in a Windows environment.

The time vs. money "value proposition" often trotted out by proprietary software and operating system vendors in the U.S. doesn't work here. Yes, you might save "X" hours in training time by sticking with proprietary software instead of learning how to use a new set of Open Source tools, but when a single license for a proprietary office suite costs several times as much as an average office worker's monthly salary, a week of retraining time doesn't look like a bad deal.

Trinidad and Tobago has many bright, computer-aware people both in and outside of government. Most of them simply hadn't been exposed to Linux (and FOSS in general). Now they know it exists, and have had an opportunity to meet and exchange business cards with people right there in TT who can help them implement FOSS solutions, and you had better believe that they are going to follow up on that opportunity if only because they, like governments and businesses everywhere, can't afford to watch their IT expenses spiral endlessly into the sky while their budgets either remain stable or decline.

The failure: Involving the local hacker community

Whose failure this was isn't entirely clear. Chris Clarke of the Caribbean Center for Monetary Studies (CCMS) ended up being the primary conference organizer, and CCMS staff made most of the conference arrangements although the local LUG was originally going to have a strong role.

The cost of the conference was $750 TT ($125 U.S.) per person, with university students admitted free. Since $125 U.S. is a considerable amount of money for most ordinary TT workers, hardly any of the independent developers you see at most U.S. IT conferences were there. Owners of small Linux-using businesses (like Internet cafes) couldn't afford to come. Sysadmins personally interested in Linux whose employers do not yet officially support FOSS could not afford the entry fee, and this is a shame since these are the people often responsible for first bringing FOSS into corporate environments.

Not only that, the conference was held in a high-security building that required passage through a metal detector and bag x-ray system to enter. Although the guards seemed to wave virtually anyone through, and the x-ray machine didn't appear to work, it was not exactly in the spirit of "Open Source" to lock up this kind of conference behind a bunch of people carrying Glocks on their belts.

I know I am showing my own prejudices here, but I feel the heart of FOSS as a movement is individual developers and enthusiasts, not corporate management or government ministers.

In this case, though, the local developers and enthusiasts simply weren't organized enough to be a major force in conference organization, so the job was left to more formal bodies. In a way, the fact that this conference happened at all was a tribute to Chris Clarke and his CCMS associates, who did far more work than they originally expected to do, and found that getting sponsorships from major IT companies like Oracle, IBM, and Sun can take nearly forever.

The first time is always a learning experience

This was the inaugural Caribbean Free, Libr� and Open Source Software Conference. The first try. An alpha version. A proof of concept, you might almost say.

One lesson I think the organizers took away was that conference planning must be done far in advance. Indeed, if they want to have a similar event next year, the time to start planning it and lining up support is now.

A second factor, especially on the corporate support front, is that it's a lot easier to get sponsors for an event you've proven you can put on than for the idea of an event that might or might not actually happen. Clarke noted that the fact that this was an "inaugural" event was the biggest barrier he encountered when trying to pitch sponsorships to large companies.

Third, there wasn't enough cooperation between the formal organizations and the informal LUG-type people. Clarke and other suit-wearers said one reason they didn't take the LUG group seriously is that they weren't a chartered non-profit. But this is often the nature of LUGs and ad-hoc Open Source efforts. In the case of the TT LUG, something like this conference could have been used to cement relationships between officialdom and casualdom, you might say, as well as spur LUG participation in general.

Next time around, I'm sure things will go better. They went surprisingly well for a "version one" attempt, especially one organized with comparatively little lead time, on a tiny budget, by just a few dedicated people.


Later this week: How a comparatively small conference like the Caribbean Free, Libr� and Open Source Software Conference can have a huge effect on an entire region.

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