March 30, 2006

Penguin Day Seattle employs FOSS for good works

Author: Jay Lyman

Free and open source software can help save the world. That was the point of Seattle's Penguin Day, which brought together nonprofits and FOSS advocates looking to support this other community.

The event, held last weekend, drew organizations from around the country and around the globe, including Maryland, New York, Ohio, Texas, Washington, D.C., Canada, the UK, and Turkey.

There was no shortage of give and take between open source advocates and nonprofit representatives looking for software that is less expensive, more flexible, and closer in line with their community ideology.

While nonprofits can be restrained by the same issues commercial organizations have with legacy investment and pessimism over the utility of FOSS, they are increasingly moving to and succeeding with open source solutions, according to attendees such as Massachusetts Audubon Society Director of IT Louise Grindrod. She told the story of how her organization's static site was recently transformed into a dynamic Web destination using MySQL and PHP.

"I built the dynamic site," she said. "That's when I realized the technology wasn't impossible to master."

Grindrod said her organization is still a Microsoft shop for the rest of its IT, but is looking to move to Linux with the next upgrade in a couple of years. While she conveyed some reluctance to be on the front edge with a FOSS strategy, Grindrod indicated the amount of FOSS used by nonprofits is growing. As an example, she referred to the Nature Conservancy and its use of open source Plone software for content management.

"If they're going to go there, it must mean it's ready," she said.

Content management systems (CMS) such as Plone, Drupal, and Joomla were among the most talked-about FOSS projects at Penguin Day, and seemed to be an ideal place for nonprofits to dip their toes in open source software.

Many of the individuals and groups attending the event, which drew more than 80 people, represented nonprofits that help other nonprofits leverage technology for their efforts toward a cleaner environment, healthier people, disaster relief, and other causes.

"We try to help organizations move from being hamstringed in their technology to using it effectively," said Jenny Council of NetCorps.

Breakouts into smaller groups of five or six people centered on introducing FOSS to the unfamiliar, hardware recycling efforts such as those of FreeGeek, open source CMS options, how open source communities work, and the relationship between users and developers under the FOSS model.

The day also included a "Speed Geek Extravaganza," a speed-dating style introduction to a dozen free, open source, and other projects and programs that hold promise for nonprofits. The projects included Asterisk, MiFos, Drupal, DemocracyInAction, FreeGeek, Citizen Speak, Goodstorm, Metrix, Organizers Database,, CiviCRM, and Social Source Commons, a software directory and commons project of Penguin Day presenter Aspiration.

Another breakout session was focused on different open source CMS options, geographical information systems (GIS) and nonprofit applications of it, and Creative Commons licensing and open information.

There were plenty of discussions of free and open source solutions and strategies for nonprofits. Roshani Kothari, partnership manager of D.C.-based, referred to a number of software projects she has found useful, including Irfanview, a freeware photo editor, Win2PDF shareware, and Civiblog.

"They're free and they do what I need," she said, indicating the free as in beer aspect was often more important than open code for nonprofits. "Out of necessity, because we don't really have the money for these [applications], I'm out there actively looking for them."

Finding FOSS solutions and seeking open source enhancements and features was a recurring theme of the event, and nonprofits were advised to seek help through mailing lists, forums, consultants, and each other.

Kothari also stressed the importance of recognizing FOSS, freeware, and shareware projects that are doing a good job of helping nonprofits do good.

"The nonprofit community and the open source community should recognize these people for the work they're doing," she said. "We need to thank them."

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