Thursday, November 02, 2006

The technological bee in my bonnet

Computers have played a big part in my working life for the past twenty years, as church organisations have been less and less capable of affording administrative help. It’s as much a hindrance as a help really, if things go wrong, or the work load builds up. Being a priest is about working with people, not about machine minding, or organising working with people, except that in our present culture, the two have become hard to separate, and the tasks harder to share out.

That said, I have been much entertained, out of work hours, not by computer games but by following the developments in technology and its social use. I discovered early on that I wasn’t much good at programming, but at least I understand how things work. I can troubleshoot computers, take the lid off and tinker with insides, like many blokes do with cars. In my wife’s eyes, I blur boundaries between work and leisure in a unhealthy way; i.e. it takes up too much of my spare time.

For the past seven years years, I have followed very closely the rise of the free Linux operating system, and Open Source Software, learning to use it, unaided, not without difficulty, but with growing commitment. Now I run a Linux system alongside my standard Microsoft PC for variety and interest. I follow most discussions in the tech journals and blogs (Curious? Try for starters) about the merits and de-merits of contrasting software cultures, and how they can be used to make the world a better place.

Following the recent Cardiff Vision Board conference presentation about new technology applications in local government services, I felt emboldened to write to Crispin O'Connell, Cardiff's head of ICT and ask about Cardiff’s attitude to Open Source Software. It was a small attempt at advocacy, putting down in writing some of the issues which matter to me about the world I'm part of. The collaborative enterprises which make up the Open Source community represent one of the most significant social projects of modern times, not recognised or valued nearly enough. It’s another kind of good news I want to promote. It may not seem so religious, but the movement is about people freely forging creative working alliances for the common good. There are people of faith (and of no faith at all) participating. The substance of what I wrote, minus some of the specific questions I wanted to raise is what follows..

“Much of our city’s current successful social innovation is driven by and rests upon new information technology. Economic development relies as much on appropriate electronic infrastructure as it does roads and other transport systems. Delivery of information services technology represents a huge investment in hardware, software and trained personnel. Notice is being taken in the heartland of the computer industry in Silicon Valley (CA) and elsewhere about the environmental impact of the multiplication of computer ‘server farms’, consuming huge amounts of energy, and the disposal of redundant hardware.
The need to upgrade to more power-consuming systems is driven by the industry’s business ambitions. New software is designed around state-of-the art hardware which needs to be purchased, rendering perfectly serviceable equipment redundant. Replacement costs become a significant drain on information service budgets, as well as adding to environmental hazards implicit in disposing of old equipment. We have no more than the beginnings of safe recycling procedures for old electronic equipment. The volume of computer hardware needing recycling grows with each major innovation in what computing can deliver. Might it be possible to slow down the rate at which equipment is dumped if some of it could be re-used to good effect?
There is an international movement of academics, technology professionals, and volunteers dedicated to creating, maintaining and promoting reliable software, free to users, not dependent for its effectiveness on having the latest, fastest equipment to run on. Partners in this enterprise, spanning over seventy countries, develop and maintain software and provide web-based user support which costs little to access. Open Source Software (OSS) and Operating Systems – notably Linux – is already deployed to maintain server infrastructures in government, scientific, military and educational settings around the world, because of its proven stability and reliability, and high levels of security. By design, it is nowhere near as vulnerable as many comparable commercial and domestic products. It doesn’t benefit from huge advertising budgets, but commends itself by results. OSS is available for only the cost of an internet download and a blank CD, it can be freely distributed without requirement to pay licensing costs. In the past two years, the adoption of free operating systems and software has started to make an impact on the desktop computer market as well as server infrastructure.
In Europe, the government of Munich and the state of Extremadura are in the process of moving all their computer operations to free OSS. Some departments of Bristol city have switched, also some local government departments in the North West. Altogether a dozen European Community members including Britain are adopting OSS in some government operations, also more than dozen national governments in developing countries, including China, not only because of savings on licenses, but also because it is possible to re-use older serviceable equipment with relative ease, thus expanding computer resources at a lower capital cost.
One high profile OSS related project currently publicised is the ‘One Laptop per Child’ initiative of American entrepreneur, Nicholas Negroponte, now moving towards production of a robust simple laptop, driven by solar or hand cranked power, costing $100-150. It has wireless network capability and can easily be used in collaborative projects at school as well as in the home. The laptop is driven by a Linux operating system and loaded with good free educational software. The Brazilian and Nigerian governments have each placed initial orders for a million. Another major achievement of the Open Source community is to secure international consensus on a non-proprietary file format for many kinds of documents. Called the Open Document format (ODF), files of this type are readable by different brands of software, so that no document is unreadable when switched from one kind of machine to another, as was once commonplace. It’s digital photographic equivalent is the JPEG file. Some states in USA and Australia are now adopting ODF file formats for all future official documents, and implementing a conversion process for all archived documents, to ensure everything in the public domain remains readable in future and thus compliant with freedom of information legislation.
The adoption of Open Source software solutions promises large cost savings, longer life for hardware, lower total cost of ownership. From the user’s viewpoint OSS programs are as friendly in action as commercial software, so there’s no reason why conversion to OSS and re-training users should be a major burden. One criticism of OSS is the lack of driver software for scanners, printers etc, because major manufacturers have been reluctant to write additional software for an emerging minoriy market. The Open Source development community, however has its own engineers producing free equivalent drivers. Some big manufacturers are changing their policies and now producing extra drivers for their machines – HP, Samsung, Epson – adapting their products to diversifying markets.
A thorough investigation of the benefits and problems of adopting Open Source software could well be of strategic benefit to this city. Open Source developers have the freedom to use derived products for commercial benefit, so there is a lucrative crossover between voluntary and commercial sectors. Establishing, promoting Cardiff as an Open Source friendly city could enhance its attractiveness to outside investment, particularly from Asia, which is innovating at great speed through OSS. A policy of OSS adoption in local government and especially in schools could be economically advantageous.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to be overcome is the conviction that standard commercial products must be best, because it is conveniently marketed and consumed, but real value is proved in action. Nobody can be unaware of the expensive, time wasting struggle of computer users, everywhere to secure their systems, free of viruses and ad-ware. Open Source software, by design, minimises vulnerability to attack. It’s not just costly Apple products that have this benefit, but also free Open Source Software.”

Just a day after sending this, I was delighted to receive quite an informative and personal response from Mr O'Connell. Heavens, he could have been patronising or defensive, but he was neither. He just told it as it was, as much as he could to an inquisitive stranger. Without much external publicity, it appears OSS solutions are being deployed where it is found to be worthwhile to do so in the City's computer arsenal. Advocacy of OSS in educational use (my particular obsession, of which more anon), he revealed, even has its own homepage on the Local Education Authority’s website (which to my shame, I had visited without noticing). This was one small fact I hadn’t come across in any computer journal article about Educational uses I’ve read in recent times. Talk about keeping your light under a bushel. Advances are being made in local government, albeit in a discreet way

But what about the Church? Diocesan and Provincial administration centres. How much money are they saving / spending on deployment of OSS software solutions? Is there any adoption? Do they know what I'm talking about here? Llandaff Diocesan Secretary says that he reads this blog. Well, here's a test .... Looking forward to hearing from you, Peter!

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