October 6, 2006

High-tech social enterprise reaps free software's benefits

Author: Michael Stutz

Benetech is a non-profit corporation whose mission is to use technology to improve the world. The organization's varied projects toward doing so include reading tools for the blind, landmine detection hardware, and a software system to document human rights violations. To help them in their work, the organization's 30 employees worldwide, from Bangkok to Africa to the US West Coast, depend upon free software -- but not exclusively.

"Essentially, we help other human rights teams worldwide to do their work," explains CTO Dr. Patrick Ball, who is no stranger to free software -- he uses Linux and open source software extensively at Benetech, and points out its successes and failings.

Free inside and out

Aside from the landmine detection project -- which Ball explains is more or less just hardware -- their projects are all powered by free software, with a little "quasi-free" software thrown in. Ball explains: "We use Java -- I think the Open Source Initiative would say it was OK, but I think Richard Stallman wouldn't really think so. Someday there may be a Java VM that is perfectly free, whether it comes from Sun or the FSF or someone else -- and yes, we would switch; we prefer that everything be freer. My hope is that they [Sun] just do it. That would be the easiest way."

In-house, the organization uses free software for much of its day-to-day operations -- including on the desktop.

"We use lots of different RPM and Debian variants," Ball says. "Our servers are based on Fedora Core. It moves fast enough that we could get the application stacks that we wanted. It supports SE [Security-Enhanced] Linux, which makes a lot of sense to us. For years we've done work on setting up secure spaces on servers to avoid cracks" -- with reporting on human rights abuses, security is a major issue -- "and SE Linux makes that a lot easier."

Ball says that Fedora Core works well for the organization. "We can compile from tarballs if we have to, but we prefer someone else do it."

Ball's personal desktop is a Gentoo Linux box. "I've used Gentoo for years, because it was a lot of fun and it taught me a lot about how to administer a machine," he says, noting its unique choose-and-compile-everything philosophy. But he also says that you're not caught out on a limb when you use it -- the people who use and support and develop it are there to help you.

"The community is really strong and they're responsive at different levels," he says. "Other [free software communities] are responsive maybe at the newbie level or way out at the expert level, whereas Gentoo is there across all levels -- they don't flame you with Eric Raymond's URL and tell you to get lost."

While Benetech had previously chosen Red Hat and Gentoo for its desktops, today they're all running Ubuntu. Ball cited Ubuntu's ease of setup and installation as the reason for the switch. "If you have to roll out 10 or 15 machines, Gentoo's [inconvenient]. Most of our machines are Kubuntu, but there are a couple of GNOME people in our organization."

Ball's job is to make these desktops work together seamlessly, regardless of their distribution or operating system. "I'm the CTO, so I promote desktop heterogeneity," Ball says. "We have Mac users and Linux users and the idea I'm going for is, 'It doesn't matter what desktop you use.'" Ball says that the desktop is basically irrelevant in 2006 anyway, because when it comes down to it, "Everybody uses Firefox. That's the key piece -- if there's one ubiquitous piece of free software out there, it's Firefox."

Free software's shortcomings

When asked where free software might be failing organizations such as his, and where proprietary software might have the upper hand, Ball answers in a flash: Outlook and Word.

"I don't think we're at the place to replace Outlook," he says. "I watch people who know what they're doing with Outlook, and it's doing a lot of work for them. Same with Word. For all the people who hate it," he adds with an understanding laugh, "it's a really powerful tool.

"I use Emacs for a lot of stuff and I love Emacs and so do our systems people -- but my CFO uses [Word and Outlook] and I'm not going to tell her to use Emacs diary mode."

Surprisingly, another free software package that doesn't work for Benetech right now is OpenOffice.org. Ball says, "I really like OpenOffice[.org] and the way it works, but the change tracking sucks. So that's the end of it right there. It's over."

But, he says, he's open to looking at a switch to OpenOffice.org in the future. "I'm not saying that we aren't going to do that -- we might -- but that will happen very [cautiously and carefully]," he says. "I'm not gonna say, 'Nobody use Word.' They would have my job in a picosecond after that."

Finally, Ball says that free software hasn't been able to help them with Benetech's statistical computation needs. Currently, Benetech uses a proprietary statistical language rather than R, the GNU Project's free implementation of Bell Laboratories' S language for statistics.

"Why doesn't it do what every other Unix tool in the world does?" Ball asks in exasperation. "Why doesn't it read a text file, process a textfile, and write a textfile?"

Additionally, R is built for a different kind of user, says Ball. A numerically-focused computer scientist, coming from something like the proprietary Matlab software, would understand the R paradigm immediately. But for those like Ball and his team, who are coming from a social sciences perspective, "R is a huge conceptual jump" to make. "So we're still using proprietary statistical software. [Because] it's gotta work."

A pragmatic balance

So while free software has greatly aided Benetech, and Ball clearly believes in it, Benetech isn't entirely devoid of proprietary software. "We're really principled, but we're pragmatic," he says.

"Our partners all run Windows, with a tiny smattering of Macs," says Ball. "We have to live in the real world and we have to solve real social problems. Displacing proprietary software is not our mission, it's not our goal. Our goals are to promote literacy, to document human rights violations, to detect landmines."

If, during the course of this work, Benetech can use more free software, and promote it out in the greater world -- then, Ball says, "Score! It's all the better. We definitely prefer using free software, but when it comes down to it, it's gotta work."

Click Here!