August 29, 2006

FOSS facilitates communication for German fair trade co-op

Author: Dmitri Popov

Plattsalat is an organic and fair trade food cooperative in Stuttgart, Germany. Its members run the co-op, paying a monthly fee for the privilege of purchasing goods, making decisions, and participating in the work that goes into keeping a shop like Plattsalat running. But with 250 members, making sure everyone gets their say can get complicated. In order to disseminate information and facilitate communication, Plattsalat set up its own wiki. Board member Thomas Becker says open source software "fits our philosophy, political ideas, and our aims to change the world for the better."

Becker calls Plattsalat a "typical medium-sized German organic shop." The co-op sells meats and vegetables, fruits, coffee, and even decorative bags. "What makes us different is that we put more emphasis on fair-trade products," he says, "from producers that have proper working conditions. And of course, we don't make profits."

Becker says the motivation for the creation of the co-op is to maintain control over the "marketing and buying of our food products." All members are equal, and anyone who wants to help make decisions that drive the daily operation of the shop are welcome to share. Sometimes maintaining that ideal is difficult, Becker says. "The most challenging and exciting question for me was how to maintain and foster the idea of a self-organized entity, where members not only have a theoretical possibility to participate, but they actually take part in the work and use their potential, skills, and know-how."

To help make that privilege a reality, Becker decided to introduce co-op members to the idea of using wiki software as well as other open source tools, such as a message forum and mailing list, to foster participation among members unable to attend face-to-face meetings. The co-op runs three "old computers" with Windows 2000, Office, and a proprietary enterprise resource planning (ERP) package with POS software. Becker says Plattsalat will continue to use Windows for now, until it is able to adapt an open source ERP application to fit its needs.

Becker says one of the biggest challenges he faced in getting the wiki and forum software up and running was the lack of adequate documentation. "As a non-programmer who spent several months on intensive research, I feel that most of the documentation is very technical and seriously lacks a user perspective. It is simply not enough to explain how a feature works. You also have to explain to people what a feature is, what it is for."

He says he has come away from the experience with mixed feelings about the members of the open source community. "Some are great, very open. Some are just techies who are out of touch with the real world. Some seem to be overworked egoists who feel that they are doing more than they should, and [how] dare you ask a stupid question before you have seriously contributed. In general though, it is very positive." He says the presence of the community itself is a "very encouraging development in our society. I just wish that more of its members were able to look beyond their own noses and see the political issues."

Becker sees parallels between Plattsalat and open source software development. "We feel that the fight between commercial software giants and the open source community is more than just a fight. The creativity, the fun, and the products emerging from the open source spirit and way of working are very similar to what is going on in the field of agriculture. Here, patenting and the iron grip of giants like Monsanto, Pioneer, and Novartis, put even more pressure on farmers all over the world."

Becker has some advice for other businesses that might be considering a switch to open source. "You gain more if you share. Copyright, protection, patenting -- forget about it. Share freely what you have, and you will get a lot from others as well. If that's not possible, find [a developer] you can pay, but who you can trust to help you out with decision-making and with installation, learning, and troubleshooting. [With open source,] you will not only save money on software, but also have the possibility to adapt the software to your needs."


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