Thursday, September 01, 2005

AFRICA SOURCE II : FOSS Is Coming, So Get Ready

There is a term that is making its way around the knowing of the ICT community and that term is "FOSS," which stands for FREE AND OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE. And while not a lot is known about FOSS in Africa right now, there are those who believe that it will become very important on the Continent in the future.

The belief that FOSS holds particular potential for Africa is because it is believed that NGOs in particular will benefit from the increased development of free and open source software. The reason for this is because NGOs often cannot afford to hire the type of expertise needed to manage the specialized technology in a manner that could bring about the potential benefits. And when you cannot afford to have such expertise on your staff, you have to look for help from the outside.

And that is where FOSS comes in. With free and open source software, computer savvy individuals will constantly be developing the FOSS applications and also localize the solutions needed by NGOs. In addition to NGOs, FOSS is expected to be of great benefit to small businesses and to health service and educational institutions. This highly adaptable software is not expected to have high initial costs, and this is another aspect that will make it attractive to NGOs, and the other markets that do not have large ICT budgets.

The Africans who write source codes face some difficulties that are not encountered as frequently in more developed environments. Sometimes it is even difficult for individuals to get online. But just as importantly, there is currently a less vigorous ICT community with which these "coders" can interact and benefit from the stimulation created by many cross currents of ideas. Nevertheless, there are African coders who, realizing the important potential of FOSS, are forging ahead with the development of free and open source software equal to that in any other communities.

FOSS is will always be a "work in progress" in many instances, and currently there is some debate over methodology and standardization. But there seems to be little doubt among the software developers and knowledgeable NGO types that this is indeed the road to finding the future solutions of many of the NGOs' ICT concerns.

An essay by entitled: " Straight from the Source: Perspectives from the African Free and Open Source Software Movement " discusses this topic in much greater detail, but I wanted to bring to your attention that FOSS is on its way and the NGOs that are seriously concerned with meeting the demands of the future environment of the world of non-profit organizations need to be aware of it. (Click on the link to read the essay in PDF format.)

But FOSS is not completely new. In March of 2004 a conference was held in Okahandja, Namibia regarding the subject. This was the first pan-African Free and Open Source Software developers meeting take place. The conference drew over 60 participants from across the Continent who discussed the matter and engaged in peer learning and skill sharing. The central reason for the conference was to focus on the "practical challenges of realizing FOSS in the African context." It was also hoped that this conference would be the beginning of the building of long-term cooperation between individuals actively engaged in FOSS in Africa.

Tactical Tech, AllAfrica and SchoolNet Namibia organized the conference in Namibia, and support was provided by several other organizations. More about this event can be read at the link below for "Africa Source"

In January 2006 it is anticipated that there will be an "Africa Source II" in Uganda. This second conference will look to further the growth of FOSS expertise among African technical support professionals working in Africa and to "facilitate knowledge sharing and exchange around successful implementation of FOSS."

It is anticipated that the number of African technology support professionals, trainers and consultants working with the non-profit sector that will be brought together by Africa Source II will be as high as 100.

In Uganda, the participants will be experienced in working with NGOs and the various aspects of their operations; and the gathering will have a "workshop vibe" as opposed to a "conference vibe" according to its organizers. They want to "move beyond conceptual discussions of the benefits of FOSS and technology in general, and to test out these ideas and focus on practical skill sharing between technology implementers in the region."

Source events are designed to foster community building and Africa Source II will be no exception. Learning will be an important element of the gathering, but more importantly it is hoped that long-term relationships will be built.

I know that FOSS sounds like something out of a "science fiction" novel to those of us who do not have the expertise in ICT to fully understand at this time how all of this will benefit NGOs in the future. But we have to trust in the experts who do understand this, and support them in their work because we are all on the same team.

More on the 2004 Africa Source Conference can be found here.

And Information on Africa Source II can be found here:

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