December 28, 2000

Charities: Jack's Annual List

Author: JT Smith

- by Jack Bryar -

Before the Andover network began to transmogrify itself into a Linux and Open Source
resource
center, I had a tradition. I usually ended the year with a
screed
urging people to contribute their end-of-year bonus to any number of
tech-related
charities I had researched and deemed worthy.This year is a little different. For one thing, the entire Linux
community
is largely centered around hacker donations of time and expertise to
build
the next big software thing. Go to a site like our own
SourceForge and virtually
everything
you see is the result of donations of time and expertise by thousands of

volunteer developers. Why urge charitable contributions on a community
that's
built around a volunteer ethos?

The problem is that it isn't enough. One of the problems with the
explosion
of Linux onto the scene is that the number of software projects
proposed
far exceeds the number of potential developers capable of doing the
work--
or interested in doing the work. As a consequence, many worthy projects
that
need to be built or fixed or finished are left uncompleted. Many recent
Linux
software projects seem to be stuck in permanent beta purgatory. They are

studded with bugs that are extremely well documented but which never get

fixed. The reason? Not all worthy projects are intellectually
interesting.
And bug fixing is just as tedious and boring in volunteer environments
as
it is in corporate ones.

The community needs to realize that there is going to be some important
work
that can't be managed on a volunteer basis. This problem isn't unique to
the
Open Source community. But it is the reason why most non-profits have
some
paid staff members. And it's the reason that members of the Open Source
community
need to consider increasing their financial support as well as donating
their
time.

Take the issue of adaptive technology for the blind. It costs a fortune... and it sucks. The Open Source community could
provide
a solution, but could volunteers alone sustain such an effort?

High tech has not been friendly to the handicapped, particularly the
stuff
on personal computers. Most programs are difficult to navigate for the blind. Even
basic
tasks, such as installing software, can't be done without assistance
from
a sighted person. Such technical barriers go a long way towards
explaining
why, even in an era of full employment, the unemployment rate is so high

among handicapped workers. Even today, nearly 70% of the blind remain
effectively
unemployed.

According to developer

JP Schnapper-Casteras, much adaptive technology is both
"prohibitively
expensive" and poorly designed. Software and systems needed to assist a
blind
computer user can easily triple the cost of ownership. While there have
been
attempts to adapt Linux to the visually handicapped (BLINUX comes to
mind),
Schnapper-Casteras thinks the time is right for a more comprehensive
solution.
JP has been trying to coordinate the development of a complete Linux
distribution
designed around the needs of the visually handicapped, that could lower
the
costs of custom software and adaptive equipment. The project, called
"Ocularis,"
will involve a mix of current, free Linux software, mixed with new code,

to develop a consistent "Audio User Interface (AUI)." The idea behind
this
proposed distribution is to make the system easier to install and use, and
to
execute on low-end adaptive equipment.

Is this a worthy cause? I think it is. Curtis Chung, the Technology
Director
of the National Federation of the Blind, worries that Linux doesn't have

sufficient acceptance in the workplace to be a solution compared to
Windows.
But Windows we can't fix -- Linux we can. And the lower costs associated

(at least in theory) with a Linux-based solution may help lower the
barriers
to employment for many.

Can for-profit firms get into the act? Maybe. But if developing Linux
for the sighted is a loss-leader for Linux-centric developers, it is
pretty unlikely that anyone is going to make money on Linux for the
blind.

Can such a project be sustained by volunteer efforts? That's more of an
issue.
If you want to help by writing code you could
register with
SourceForge
and let Ocularis and other worthy projects know of your
interests
and skill set. You can also
email the Ocularis
Project

directly.
Technical and non-technical help is welcome.

However, I suspect that more than volunteerism will be needed here.
This
worthy project is not going to be all that interesting from a
developer's
point of view. And the most motivated would-be users don't have access.
It
could be time for a donation of m-o-n-e-y.

Schnapper-Casteras is organizing a Linux Accessibility Conference this
March
22-23 in Los Angeles. I understand he's still looking for sponsors and
volunteer
assistance. That will require your checkbook. And if you want to make a
more
significant contribution to financing (gasp) paid
developers,
to do some of the necessary grunt work to develop the distribution ---
that
would also require writing a check.

A good distribution won't solve a lot of the problems associated with
handicapped
access. Over at Slashdot last year, Chung
discussed
the
challenges
faced by visually impaired people trying to operate in a
high
tech environment. He suggested that new technologies, such as the Web,
were
creating as many barriers as they removed. Unfortunately for the
handicapped,
many Web sites are not well put together, and don't consider the
handicapped.
Chung says that, even with adaptive technology, overbuilt or badly
designed
sites are hard to navigate, "because the format is too complex or
because
of the exclusive use of unlabeled graphics or image maps to get to
various
places on the web site."

In Peabody, Massachusetts, the Center for
Applied
Special Technology
, or CAST, has tried to sensitize Web developers
about
the need to make their designs handicapped-accessible. A couple of years

back, they developed a Web site called
Bobby . Bobby is a proofing
system
to help page developers to anticipate whether web pages are
handicapped-accessible,
even with adaptive tools. Sadly, our own SourceForge home page is

nearly impossible for the handicapped to navigate
, according to
Bobby.
Even the Ocularis page

has some problems.

CAST is another worthy program worth supporting, and they, too would
love
it if you contacted
them
. And I'm sure they wouldn't mind it if you sent them a little
cash.

Happy Holidays.

- Jack, Kathleen, Justine, Alexandra & Sam Bryar

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