July 27, 2004

Geeks, nonprofits parlay community at Penguin Day

Author: Jay Lyman

A couple of days before software movers and shakers got together to talk about changing industry with open source at OSCON, geeks and do-gooders and do-gooder geeks gathered to talk about changing the world with open source at the second Penguin Day event held in Portland last weekend.

The intent of the event, hosted by a group of Portland computer reuse raiders known as FreeGeek, was to find how nonprofits such as Multiple Sclerosis Society, Child Aid, Water Watch, and others can benefit from open source software and how the programming community and provider community can join their efforts, which are similar in ethos and economy.

The day-long event -- attended by more than 50 nonprofits, consultants, nonprofits that help nonprofits and the FreeGeek gang -- was highlighted by rows of old Compaq computers with Dell monitors, a good groove from facilitator Glenn "Gunner" Gunn of Aspiration, constant reference to the Penguin Day Wiki, good vegetarian eats, and some minds seriously open to open source.

"There are obstacles to be overcome, education that is needed, software to be written," said event main co-organizer David Pool at the outset. "What's it going to take to make open source happen for nonprofits?"

Good question. Those at Penguin Day, and perhaps their managers -- and more importantly their benefactors -- came closer to answering it after the friendly, feel-good event.

Saving the world, not IT, is non-profits' focus

In addition to the same kinds of obstacles standing in the way of more corporate and consumer open source use -- perceived lack of support, uncertainty about updating and upgrading, or legacy lock-in -- nonprofits are typically forced to function strictly to fulfill their nonprofit mission. In other words, they're busy bridging the digital divide, testing the quality of local waters, educating and exposing disadvantaged youth to technology and other arts, and offering help to those with physical and mental disabilities.

And while corporations have experienced downsizing and IT budget crunching, nonprofits are often forced to look to a single staff member, someone's wife, son, uncle or other connected individual to shepherd their IT, which has grown more complex not only from licensing but also from regulatory measures on data such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

However, open source groups such as FreeGeek and their supporters have stepped up to the nonprofit plate by tapping local expertise that, according to FreeGeek director Ron Braithwaite, comes and goes, but keeps on flowing. The group's Collaborative Technologies program matches nonprofits with reclaimed hardware -- the Portland center takes in 30 to 40 computers for reuse or recycling every day -- and open source solutions, even providing professional consulting and support that is paid for by nonprofits that can afford it, while groups without funding get reduced or waived fees.

There are a number of open source for nonprofit success stories, even cases of reused software that is revived from the dead and retooled for a nonprofit, and then tweaked for other, similar nonprofits. The movement appears to be gaining significant momentum as the worlds of nonprofits and nonproprietary mesh together naturally.

Proprietary prices drop as donations

However, there may be nowhere that proprietary software is priced to compete with free and open software as aggressively as in the realm of nonprofits. And as some nonprofit leaders at Penguin Day pointed out, the ease of use and familiarity of "run of the mill" software such as Microsoft Office, make proprietary an attractive choice.

In addition, because of the way they are funded, nonprofits may often be chained to proprietary software, as their grants and donations dictate specific purchases and goals, including upgrades of proprietary software.

Nevertheless, nonprofits that have seen proprietary software deals dangled, then pulled, or found that they cannot share their computing resources freely with constituents or the community because of licensing issues, are anxious to find other solutions.

Marie Deatherage, program and communications officer for the Meyer Memorial Trust -- a local benefactor for nonprofits looking for IT equipment and support -- explained that a simple look at the numbers made it clear that open source was an opportunity for nonprofits. MMT asked two groups that were in the process of receiving aid to consider open source. One did and one did not, Detherage said. The organization that did, Homestreet, is now almost 90 percent done with the project and has a new solution that may end up helping an array of other groups that provide services to mental health patients, according to Homestreet Group Information Supervisor Amy Price. Price now sings the praises of open source and the program that helped bring it into her group. Detherage declined to name the group that did not look at open source, but it seemed safe to assume it does not have a similar success story to tell.

Training, trust, taking the jump

A recurring issue for nonprofits poised or pushing for open source was training and support, and it seems that nonprofits are a prime example of open source helping open source. For example, one attendee suggested that open source training and support for nonprofits should be, you guessed it, open source.

That makes sense, but there were also calls for more specific training and support, such as documentation and the ability to bring a database into a new environment.

There was also talk about mixed environments, and the need for reassurance for nonprofits that they will be able to support Windows boxes and applications alongside Linux and open source.

Attendees fantasized about replacing the expensive, cumbersome fundraising/accounting application Raiser's Edge with an open source alternative. Although it may be a software package with all of the bells and whistles, use of Raiser's Edge rarely goes beyond 8 to 10 percent of the software's capabilities and certainly does not warrant the cost, which can put pressure on nonprofit programs, according to Penguin Day People. Still, a lack of alternatives combined with resistance to change keep Raiser's Edge popular with nonprofits.

Catie Coman, executive director of Child Aid, a nonprofit that works with groups in Latin America to improve health and conditions for children there, said open source may not be facing the same institutionalized resistance abroad.

"The die is not set for Microsoft in Guatemala yet," said Coman, who is looking to put computers in libraries there.

In the end, the event was about nonprofits and the community geeks that make things happen getting together and doing what they do already -- with one another in mind. Meyer Memorial Trust's Deatherage explained that it would be easier to go looking for open source support from foundations such as hers if nonprofits made such moves in groups.

The point was also made that with open source, the benefits only begin with the initial nonprofit, who serves as a leader in the nonprofit realm by creating and contributing solutions that may help benefit other, similar nonprofits and their causes.


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