October 8, 2007

Talking FOSS at the UN

Author: Lisa Hoover

When Nathan Eckenrode goes to the United Nations in New York City next week to help demonstrate the technology behind open source software, he doesn't really expect to discover the answer to world peace. If he gets a little closer, though, he's all right with that.

Last year the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held a joint meeting to discuss the feasibility of using free and open source software (FOSS) as a means to bolster the growth of technology in developing countries. Delegates were intrigued by the information presented by such notables as the Free Software Foundation's Richard Stallman, Intel's Danese Cooper, and IBM's Bob Sutor, and asked to hear more about the real-world practicality of FOSS.

In response, event organizers at UNITAR put together a one-day seminar scheduled for October 16 that will present case studies of successful FOSS implementations in various environments. Eckenrode is a member of the Ubuntu New York Local Community Team (NyLoCo), and "self-appointed community representative" who organizes group get-togethers and, most recently, a free CD handout in a New York City park. Since he attended last year's conference as an observer, Canonical, creators of the Linux distribution Ubuntu, asked him to help line up business people who use free software in their companies but are not in an IT-related field.

Eckenrode says he feels compelled to encourage the delegates of other countries to explore free software because he believes in its inherent value and limitless possibilities. "One of my first reactions after trying Linux for the first couple months was, 'Wow! this could really help governments and other large organizations minimize the cost of setting up their computer systems.' So I leapt on the first possible opportunity to advocate this shift," he says. "I believe that an organization that is dedicated to international cooperation, social progress, and human rights issues should find that using FOSS will be a great benefit to the entire organization in terms which are not merely economic."

Eckenrode has been working steadily to line up other participants for the conference. "My participation [in past events] has been as an observer and demonstrator of the technology, while making several comments from the floor. After [the last] conference, there was considerable feedback from the audience that indicated 'that a subsequent seminar could be enhanced by appreciating the wisdom of firms who have ventured into using FOSS for non-technological activity, such as running their office or a business.'

"Jane Silber of Canonical contacted [NyLoCo] asking for assistance in locating some firms whose primary business is not IT-related and that have shifted away from using proprietary solutions in the New York area, and who would be willing to share that experience with this conference. As I have been present for other conferences at the UN, I volunteered for the job."

Eckenrode encourages anyone willing to share information at the UN event about how they use open source software in their business to contact him.

Typically, UN meetings are closed to everyone except for UN member state delegations and representatives of registered organizations. This event is open to the public, but Amy Weesner, UNITAR's programme coordinator, says advance registration is required and space is limited. "We are expecting around 50-75 people and have requested a small room to encourage more discussion and interaction among participants and speakers." A link to a live webcast of the event will be provided the day of the seminar, and a post-event archive of the broadcast will be available for download.

Weesner says that despite the fact that speakers like Stallman and Cooper were well-received last year, "This year [the delegates] expressed a wish to hear more from real-world users instead of the technologists and advocates. This year's agenda does not include open source software developers, apart from Chris DiBona, who will be representing the Google case." Other unconfirmed guest speakers include Virgin America, SchoolNet Namibia, and Banco do Brasil.

Weesner credits the success of past seminars with fostering the continuing discussion about bringing FOSS into developing countries. "One of the most positive impacts from last year's meeting was its ability to get people's attention and spark open debate. And while in many ways it is difficult to gauge the real impacts of awareness-building events, we feel that requests for follow-up coupled with specific suggestions for presentations by real-world users means that our audience is paying attention."

"Paying attention" is something that Eckenrode hopes will continue in the long term. "I am not really certain how many other people out there are sympathetic to the causes of both FOSS and the UN," he says, "but I would like for more people to attempt to think about it. To me it seems obvious that the world's largest organization dedicated to international coordination need not be dependent upon a single commercial enterprise in any regard -- but I could have it all wrong."


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