September 12, 2005

Software Freedom Day, Florida style

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

BRADENTON, FLORIDA - The Suncoast Linux Users Group (SLUG) in Florida's Tampa Bay region decided to hold not one, but two Software Freedom Day (SFD) events. SLUG is an odd LUG, one you might almost call a Beowulf cluster of LUGs, since it holds meetings in a number of locations instead of in a single central one. This gives the group a slightly anarchic feel, but when it came time to step up to the SFD plate, enough members worked together to distribute more than 250 free software CDs even though local media almost totally ignored the event.I was part of the LUG SFD effort in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, not the "main" event held at the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI). The MOSI group had wireless Internet access and a location that guaranteed plenty of foot traffic, while the Sarasota-area group ended up behind the coffee stand in an uncrowded Books-A-Million store in Bradenton.

Books-A-Million here doesn't have wireless Internet. In fact, it barely has a computer book section, and the non-Windows selection within that tiny computer books section is nearly non-existent. It was not the first choice on anyone's list of locations. But when Joe Brandt, the person who took responsibility for organizing SFD in our part of the world, called around to find a location, its management said "Yes!" while others either didn't return Joe's phone calls or said "No."

You work with what you have. We figured, if we could get event notices into either of the little local daily papers and onto the two cable news channels and one broadcast TV station that serve our area, we'd draw enough of a crowd to make the effort worthwhile. Sadly, despite contacts from at least two LUG members, none of our local news outlets even put out a one-line notice, nor did any call or email us. Apparently Linux is just too advanced and wacky for an area where the median age is well over 50 -- possibly the highest in the US -- and many people are (I hope I'm joking here) just starting to think about upgrading from Windows 95 to Windows 98.

We held an organizational meeting. We sent out our press releases. We asked for and received dozens of CDs from Ubuntu and Novell. We made signs and handouts with the LUG's domain name -- -- on them. And between 9:30 and 10 a.m. on the big day, eight members showed up to help assemble the table and chairs graciously supplied by Books-A-Million's local management (very nice people, I assure you) into some sort of semi-coherent display.

One good thing about spending much of a Saturday -- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- at the Bradenton Books-A-Million is that their Joe Muggs coffee and snack section serves pretty good coffee and snacks. Some here rate it better than the equivalent sections in the tonier Sarasota Borders and Barnes and Noble stores. It is good to see that there is something Bradenton has over Sarasota; in almost every other way Bradenton plays Ft. Worth to Sarasota's Dallas. We don't have as many million-dollar condominiums, as many drug dealers or the world-famous Ringling Museum here. No Sailing Squadron. Heck, Bradenton is so far behind Sarasota (and almost everywhere else) that our local (Manatee County) economic development council doesn't want you to bring your business here unless you use the Internet Explorer Web browser.

But, hey! At least we have a chain bookstore with pretty good coffee and snacks.

And as we drank that coffee and ate those snacks, a steady trickle of the curious stopped by to ask what we were doing and why. Enough of them walked away with either a GNU/Linux CD or a flyer that told them how to get in touch with SLUG or both that the 50+ giveaway CDs we had all ended up in the hands of people who can put them to good use.

We hear the Tampa crowd gave away well over 200 CDs, and ran out of several of the most popular ones. Go, Tampa, go.

Doing it better next time

This was an old-fashioned LUG outreach event, similar in spirit to the installfests commonly held back when Linux was hard enough to install that a majority of new users needed hands-on help to get everything working right. We talk about "The Linux Community" but it often seems that it is composed only of developers and corporate marketers, with little room for ordinary users to participate. Software Freedom Day was a chance for people who are neither developers nor professional Linux evangelists to do their part for "the cause."

Joe Brandt, who organized the Sarasota/Bradenton SFD event, is a perfect example. While he enjoys computers as a hobby, in his day job he works as a boatbuilder for Donzi, a world-renowned manufacturer of extremely loud, high performance motorboats.

He was surprised at the lack of response from local media, but perhaps he should not have been. Many people in the US had pointed out that September 10 was not the best choice for SFD because it would be overshadowed by 9/11 memorial events. (There was also some sort of hurricane thing that took up a lot of news space last week, although SFD organizers could not have predicted that.)

So what can we do? The obvious answer -- at least for our little crowd in Sarasota and Bradenton -- is to do another Software Freedom Day in three or four months.

We don't need an international effort, just a place to set up our laptops and hand out CDs. It doesn't need to be a bookstore. It could be a library, shopping center or any one of 100 other places -- hopefully, this time, one with Internet access.

The main thing is, we had a good time, met some nice people, and introduced Linux and free software to a lot of folks who hadn't heard of either one before. We're already scouting locations for our next Software Freedom Day. And, hopefully, so are members of your local LUG, because this kind of old-fashioned, person-to-person outreach shows that Free Software is a community, not just a way to get software without paying for it.


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