October 16, 2003

University students in Mexico promote free software

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

The Congreso Software Libre y Nuevas Tecnologias was held last week in Villahermosa under the auspices of Universidad del Valle de Mexico (UVM). It was a student production, with mostly students in attendance. It was straight-up free software advocacy from start to finish. The state of Tabasco, in southern Mexico, is not exactly a computer science research hotbed, and "Linux" isn't exactly a household word there. Yet.

The biggest employer in town is Pemex, Mexico's government-owned oil company. Villahermosa is its center of operations. This means there is more money in Villahermosa than in many Mexican cities. While there is certainly plenty of poverty, there is also an overlay of money that happily supports BMW and Lexus dealerships and many restaurants and hotels that charge New York-like prices. Prodigy.mx has billboards all over the place advertising Internet access and a computer for about $30 per month.

Windows is nearly universal in Villahermosa. There is hardly any sign of Mac life. And there is little publically visible Linux action, although there are obviously enough people interested in free software -- particularly Linux -- to put on a free software conference. There is also a local Linux Users Group that gets between 20 and 30 people at most meetings and tutorial session and claims a total membership of about 400.

Getting attention for free software

If you're a student someplace like Villahermosa, and you fall in love with free software ideals, it's a logical step to try to set up a convention of some sort to introduce others to those ideals. You invite a few out-of-town 'celebrity' speakers and use them to attract local media attention. (I was interviewed by 3 newspapers and 2 TV stations.) You introduce your conference attendees to as many of your speakers as you can, and encourage the speakers to mix with the attendees and answer their questions. (Often, these casual meetings are more valuable than the presentations themselves.) And just the act of getting 600+ current and potential free software enthusiasts together in one room can help them make future contacts, which can be just as important as what they learn during the conference.

One-third of the attendees were women

Mexico has a strong tradition of women studying math. Fellow CongresoSYT speaker Fernando Magariños Lamas (AKA "La Mancha," and one of Mexico's leading free software luminaries) says that when he went to college, years ago, there were more often twice as many women as men in his math classes, so he's not surprised that the current college generation of Mexican women is drawn to computer science.

Viridiana, a Congreso attendee (and UVM student) said she is learning about new IT directions "because it's interesting to work with computers and make software. It's a challenge for the women to be competitive with men.

Another UVM student, Mary, says she's interested in computers because they're "fun" but also because there are "more opportunities [for women] in a tech career than in other areas."

Elizabeth, who has returned to college to study computer science after more than 15 years of working on political campaigns, got interested in open source specifically to make honest voting machines instead of corruptible ones running proprietary software. She claimed plenty of first-hand knowledge about "corruption in the vote-counting here," and said she wanted to use open source to help wipe it out. A worthy goal!

Several males thought that at least some of the women taking computer courses at UVM, as well as some of the women at the conference who weren't studying IT-related fields, got involved in computers (and free software) because it helped them meet men -- and not just any men, but smart men with good career prospects. Several women also alluded to this possibility in describing their reasons for participation.

Most of the conference organizers were female, too. "We took over after the men botched things," said one of the organizers -- who asked not to be identified in this article because one of the men from whom the women took over was her boyfriend.

In any case, the high percentage of female participants was a welcome surprise. U.S. college student geeks who feel women don't find them attractive because of their computer obsession may want to consider learning Spanish and moving to Mexico to complete their educations. (Tuitions are lower there, too.)

Don't sell Mexico short when it comes to IT

The largest university in Mexico, UNAM, is a major, international-class research center, and one of the areas where it is strongest is big-time Unix computing. Gnome founder Miguel de Icaza is a product of UNAM, and he is just one of many computer science innovators the school has produced over the last few decades.

Mexico is also becoming strong in life sciences research. One of the conference speakers, a research physician who has worked on the Human Genome Project in both the U.S. and Mexico during his long career, spoke vehemently about how the U.S. has cut research funding back so much, and has placed such strong restrictions on stem cell investigations and other research directions that don't match the religious preconceptions of some U.S. politicians, that Mexico may soon have more, and more effective, life sciences research than the U.S. He said another factor was "greed." To him, it seems that "pharmaceutical and bioloogical researchers in the U.S. are now only interested in research that will make billions of dollars. That is not how it should be. In Mexico, medicine is still about saving lives. That is why I moved back here, and why other dedicated researchers are moving here."

Money isn't everything

While the topic of my presentation was "Making Money with Free Software," and it was well-attended, at least as many conference participants were interested in using customizable, freely-distributable software for social good as were interested in using it to make money.

While big-time Mexican businesses are as rapacious as big-time businesses anywhere, members of the growing IT subset of Mexico's growing entrepreneurial and skilled worker class seem to think more of how their work can benefit society as a whole than do many of their counterparts in the U.S., a country where greed seems to have become a virtue instead of being despised as one of the seven deadly sins.

There is a 'quaint' Mexico of donkey-leading peasants, to be sure, but there is also a modern Mexico of intense research activity, and with the lack of emphasis on immediate financial return from that research, Mexico may easily surpass the U.S. in at least several important research areas before long.

Free software dovetails neatly with this ambition, because it helps bring down the cost of research computerization and drops software development costs to the point where the researcher's's time is often the only measurable expense. In a country where money is scarce compared to the U.S., the idea of a smart person with a used computer (and no software investment) being able to compete evenly with corporate-paid programmers in "more advanced" nations is both compelling and revolutionary.

There is simply nothing proprietary software vendors can do or say that can remove this aspect of free software's attraction to socially-concious, computer-hip Mexicans. As seems to be de rigeur at University or government-sponsored free software expositions these day, there was a Microsoft rep who engaged in a debate with a free software advocate, in this case with La Mancha, who is so close in spirit to Richard M. Stallman that Stallman once spent a whole month at his house. But La Mancha is a quiet, calm person who makes his points with a smile. Put him on a stage with a fast-moving, obviously type-A Microsoft guy wearing a tie (La Mancha is a jeans and t-shirt person), and even if the Microsoft guy had a useful platform to espouse, La Mancha is the person you'd rather follow.

I will not report on the content of this debate. It was the same stuff you've heard and read elsewhere a million times. If your income is dependent on software royalties, it was The Devil taking the form of a mild-mannered, bearded person being cast down by a Bearer of the True Faith. If you are on the side of sharing and generosity, it was The Devil in the form of a corporate representative (of a gringo corporation, no less) selling cultural imperialism and greed. Some prefer one software direction, some prefer the other. In this case, most of the audience had not heard this debate before, so it was worth having.

I rather pitied the Microsoft guy at the end, as he walked off alone while La Mancha was surrounded by supporters, but one assumes Microsoft pays their marketing shock troops well enough to overcome such indignities.

Techies and non-techies

One hard part of putting on a free software conference is anticipating the technical knowledge level your audience is likely to have. This conference was pitched primarily to people who had never used Linux or free software, so instead of a deep tutorial on how to build large-scale clusters, there was a description of how clustering works and the advantages it offers.

There were a few hard-core tech sessions on Perl and PostGres and the like for the hard-core tech people who came, and these are good to have at this kind of conference because in a small, out-of-the-way city like Villahermosa, this kind of information -- not to mention a chance to talk one-on-one with leading developers -- is hard to come by.

But the main thing here was introducing about 600 people, mostly college students, to the concepts behind free software, along with technological advances in other areas such as medical research and robotics, so they can get fired up about these ideas, see how they can affect their own lives and offer career opportunities, and generally spur them to go get more information and open their minds to thoughts they might not get through their normal college classes.

Quite a few professors also came, as did a smattering of local businesspeople. But a last-minute change in the conference address cut attendance down to less than half of what was anticipated.

Tropical Storm Larry was to blame for this. Just a few days before the conference, hundreds of residents of Tabasco, the state in which Villahermosa is located, were flooded out of their homes. While the city itself sustained no storm damage, it was where many refugees were sent, and one of the buildings used to house those refugees was the one where the Congreso Software Libre y Nuevas Tecnologias was originally supposed to be held.

Worse, local TV stations and newspapers that had promised to write advance stories about this first-ever local event had all their reporters scurrying around collecting storm damage news, so pre-conference media publicity was negligible.

In a way, it was a wonder that this conference happened at all. While it was less organized than most I've attended, the volunteers who put it together deserve major credit for driving forward as well as they did, considering the circumstances.

The funny thing is, the organizers themselves probably learned more from this conference than any of the attendees. They were all students who were doing this sort of thing for the first time. Not many people are truly adept at putting together technology conferences. Now there are 20 or 30 college students in the Mexican state of Tabasco who do know how to do it through hard experience, and who are likely to use this experience to put on similar conferences either in Villahermosa, where they are going to school, or in their home towns and cities after they graduate.

There is more to the free software movement than just writing code. There is also documentation, bug testing, and general evangalism. Conference organization is one of the strongest evangelism methods there is. And we need more people in the free software movement like the UVM students who put together Villahermosa's first-ever free software conference, especially if they're willing to repeat the experience, either under corporate auspieces or as volunteers working with local Linux Users' Groups and similar organizations.


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