Why NGOs and Unions Should Use OpenSource



February 22, 2006

The following was adapted from a workshop lead by Mike Gifford on why NGOs should be interested in Open Source:

Practical reasons why NGOs and the organizations that work with them should use Free/Libre Open Source Software

  • Viruses - Any other OS than Windows will have fewer problems with viruses.
  • Stability - GNU/Linux is a very stable Operating System, and Mac's stability has increased considerably with OS X which is based on Free Software.
  • Cost - No license fees (up front or annual), no mandatory upgrades (you can choose to upgrade or not), and no external costs to try out or customize the code to meet your needs.
  • Fast Bug Fixes - On active projects, the bug-fixing turnaround time is usually measured within weeks, not months or years.
  • No License Administration - no need to track license agreements.
  • Fewer Legal Headaches - SCO's case is atypical and there are very few lawyers involved with Open Source litigation, which is not the case with the "software manufacturing" model.
  • Customizable - Easier to modify to best suit the needs of your organization.
  • Technical Support - Often available for free (if one knows where to look). Communities of support often provide better answers than conventional support lines.
  • Getting Better All The Time - Open source tools are becoming easier to use and the more time and effort is put into them, the better they become.

Ethical reasons for using Free/Libre Open Source Software (OSS)

a) Community Software

  • If an organization is facing a problem, it is likely that other organizations are facing the same problem. By sharing their solution, they are enabling other like-minded organizations to avoid said problem. The more we share our solutions the better we will be able to handle future problems.
  • The OSS movement also emphasizes co-operative problem-solving and freely-given assistance among participants: no one is left alone to deal with an issue if they ask for help, and the help offered is free or affordable. While it is true that OSS is not entirely free -- everyone in our capitalist society has to make money to eat -- it means tools and knowledge are freely shared, and one only pays for actual work done on one's own behalf, as when a client pays a developer to install, customize and prepare software for their use.
  • There is a personal & organizational responsibility to contribute back to a community of users and developers from which you have benefited. Bug reports, user feedback, requests for enhancements are valuable and there are lots of ways for people of all technical abilities to participate.

b) Cooperation

  • Cooperation is a critical part of any successful social justice movement. There's only so much time and it is irresponsible to waste time re-creating the wheel and fighting turf battles. NGOs need to work together to develop tools which meet their needs. Open Source licensing is the strongest way to ensure that these tools remain free and accessible.
  • The open source movement springs from the idea that individuals, freely co-operating, can do a better job of creating what they need than large monopolies driven entirely by shareholder profit. This is fundamental to every social justice philosophy from anarchism to communism.

c) Accessibility/Equality

  • The OSS movement promotes two related ideas: anyone who has the knowledge can do the job and knowledge should be freely available to all who want it. In the Information Age, it is critical that technology be affordable and decentralized.

d) Think Globally, Act Locally

  • The OSS movement is an example of thinking globally and acting locally. The movement depends on the Internet to allow programmers to easily communicate and cooperate, but each programmer involved is addressing local issues. A large part of what makes OSS a success is the amount of effort put into localization. OSS acknowledges users' rights to control of his/her tools and environment.
  • Corporations often seek to dominate a marketplace and Microsoft is an excellent example of a corporation which has worked hard to eliminate its competition in a strategic effort to gain an effective monopoly. Monopolies are unsustainable and outright dangerous when they are only accountable to their share holders/owners.

e) Knowledge Creation/Ownership

  • While the issues of copyright and royalty payments are being widely discussed, a more fundamental concern in software development is the protection of the right to freely create and distribute applications and ideas. This right is currently threatened by corporate efforts to restrict development and communication.
  • Many NGOs are concerned about intellectual property issues, such as those surrounding Genetically Modified Organisms(GMOs). There are important links between the battle over the patenting of life and the battle over the patenting of ideas.

f) Demand-side development

  • OSS products succeed or fail entirely on their own merits -- there is no PR department trying to convince passive consumers to upgrade. The development and spread of OSS is almost entirely dependent upon the needs of the end-users. This means that consumer demand drives OSS development, rather than shareholder expectations.
  • While "software manufacturing" is focused on vendors and business models out of the manufacturing sector, OSS spans all sectors of the economy and can include many more business models. This makes OSS inherently more flexible and resilient than "software manufacturing."

g) Better than pirating

  • Pirated software still helps commercial software gain a dominant place in the market place. It is far worse for a company that you choose an alternative product than if you just use an illegally copied version of their product. At the same time, OSS allows users to freely copy and distribute software without breaking the law.



About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.