Today I was at a meeting organized by the OFCOM and the SDC on the subject “ICT 4 D – Information and Communication Technologies For Development”.
OFCOM = Federal Office for Communications, aka. BAKOM/OFCOM/UFCOM SDC = Swiss Agengy for Development and Cooperation, aka. DEZA/DDC/DSC
Marc Furrer (OFCOM) did the opening and welcome, then we saw a video from the SDC about people in Sri Lanka talking about education via community radio, less risk for fishers due to weather report from the Internet, sometimes broadcast via loudspeakers to the entire village, and we saw a young team of people producing TV with a local perspective, including information in two languages and information about the peace process. Nothing surprising in this area.
Later, there was a panel discussion with some questions from the audience at the end.
I was able to mention Free Software. ;) People talked a lot about local content, and so I asked them what the strategy was to ensure local software; to ensure that people can and will contribute software? This fit well with earlier statements made by others that we are talking about poor countries with no existing markets, such that big business will not be interested in the stuff, yet. I then admitted that I was from the Free Software camp, and that I felt this was a valid strategy, and I asked them about their strategy with respect to WSIS. There was no real answer, but one of the panelists later picked up the term Open Source again, and stressed its importance.
In the afternoon, I went to a workshop where one development org explained their plan for train-the-trainers for IT in Bhutan, and there I was able to mentaion Free Software again. ;) The speaker admitted that licensing costs for a school could use up the entire year’s budget, and therefore this was an unresolved issue. Even the orgs’ representatives in Bhutan used pirated software. I then asked him what he would write if he had one or two sentences to himself in the WSIS declaration, and he was unsure, and asked me back. I once again admitted that I was from the Free Software camp, and that I felt this was the answer, and he agreed to that. There was another comment about the importance of private sector-government partnerships, but it contradicted stuff said earlier in the workshop where the speaker said that eventhough they considered asking one of the local people working in a private school to provide support (for pay), they dropped it.
Unfortunately, I did not volunteer to summarize the workshop and it’s “main message” for the clossing session, and the person responsible botched it in my not-so-humble opinion. She stressed the importance of private sector-government partnerships, believed open source software was important because it cost nothing, and believed that we should do away with all licenses. Perhaps it was just a problem of the language, because surprisingly enough, all talks I heard were in English.
Certainly the meme “Open Source” is very strong – when I said something, I never said “Open Source”, I always said “Free Software”, but people always responded using the term “Open Source”. Oh well. That is my private little uphill battle.
At the end, I had one final opportunity to ask a question, and since we had just given lots of messages for the official Swiss delegation to take along to WSIS, I asked whether and how it would be possible to actually join the official Swiss delegation. Marc Furrer said that there are still seats available, and that he’d welcome new people! He told me to contact him, or his secretary, or Chantal Peyer if we wanted to go as part of civil society. I told him that I knew her, and that I’d contact her. This positive reaction surprised me, and contrasts with my dark suspicions when Marc Furrer stressed the side events at the summit in his opening speech. There, I felt like NGOs where being kept separate from the “real” delegations and the “real” events.
I was also able to talk to Chantal Peyer, and she told me that she would like to see a short and concise statement from Wilhelm Tux (the name of the association promoting Free Software in Switzerland) on the exact phrase we would like to see in the final declaration. Other NGOs would then be able to use this as “words from the experts”, and include it in their position papers.
I was also contacted by Hassane Makki of the OFCOM because I had piqued his interest when I had mentioned the multilingual features of my favorite piece of free software, Emacs.
I was also contacted by Loris Vettorel, Marketing & Sales ICT4D Platform, because of the multilingual features of Emacs. When I mentioned these, I said that Emacs had shown me that we could get first bug reports, then suggestions, and finally actual code written by people in so-called developping countries, and as an example I cited Muthukrishnan Ramakrishnan’s contribution to the Malayam language support (I hope I got that right?). Loris Vettorel is looking for concrete projects, big or small, for an exhibition at the summit. Perhaps we can get a machine running Emacs, there, and explain how this piece of free software can be used as a starting point for mulitlingual text editing, programming, etc.