Thursday, June 14, 2007

Spreading Open Source in Africa

While we're very excited about the global impact of Summer of Code, sadly we only have three students from all of Africa this year, two of whom are studying abroad. We asked for feedback on what we can do to build awareness of the program in Africa, and Wojciech Gryc volunteered to help by letting folks know about SoC during his upcoming trip to Kenya. We had a chance to learn more about Wojciech's work to spread open source in Africa, and we thought you'd enjoy hearing about his efforts there.

Wojciech writes:

As a Summer of Code student working for, my social interests often steer me to a fundamental human problem: can these tools be used to promote international development? Indeed, they can. Half-way through my coding, I am leaving for Nairobi, Kenya to run workshops and tutorials on OpenOffice, Inkscape, and many of the other open source projects being helped through Summer of Code.

And it's amazing how far such workshops can go. In January 2006, Emanuele Lapierre-Fortin and I traveled to Chad to run the first project of this type. We helped Rafigui, Chad's only youth-led newspaper, to turn a set of donated laptops into media centres powered by Linux other open source software. This was done through Five Minutes to Midnight, a media organization I initially started in high school. The workshops were short – only three weeks long – but were enough to allow Rafigui to adopt the software. This summer, they're now running their own set of workshops for other organizations in Chad.

This project continues our earlier work. With a $300 grant, our partner organization, Shining Hope for the Community, purchased a printer; they requested some Ubuntu CDs and used the software to start the only youth-led newspaper in Kibera, Kenya - Africa's largest slum. The youth involved are all highly motivated and interested in improving both their surrounding community and their coding skills. It seems fitting that the software that powers their work was built using a similar mindset.

Even though their are numerous technical challenges, the work is well worth it. By giving people access to computers and training materials, they gain the ability to improve their own communities in a way that fits them through a focused, grass-roots approach. Shining Hope for the Community's newsletter has already been used to spread important health messages by a local clinic. The youth involved are using the skills they've gained to work towards becoming professional journalists. Indeed, some organizations have taken the idea of open source to the next level, developing software for disaster management and reporting of human rights abuses.

So as you code and develop, design and debug, spend a moment thinking of some of the unique and interesting applications your software can have, and some of the unique social problems it could solve.

Our thanks to Wojciech for sharing his story. You can learn more about his trip to Kenya on the Article 13 Initiative site.

If anyone would like to share their story about using open source for social change or philanthropic efforts, post a comment and let us know!


Farhan said...

Great article!
I'm currently collaborating on a few projects which are using open source for social change...

One of them is Grow South Africa which is a portal which is built using Joomla, and will provide a potential framework for all Corporate Social Investment money in South Africa to be matched directly to projects that need the funding.

I'm also working on a community collaboration platform that's being developed using Zope3. The idea behind the project is to surface the collective group wisdom, in order to have the intelligence of many people being collaboratively applied to finding practical solutions to the worlds current challenges... The project
currently only has a placeholder, since we haven't had time to write up more... It's going really well - and if there's anyone else out there interested in collaborating, financing, or tapping into the collective intelligence of groups of people, be sure to sign up to the mailing list, or drop me an email. farhan [aT} billioninayear {dot] com

Matthew Harrison said...

I'd also like to draw some attention to the project I'm working for this summer, OpenMRS. Their mission is to create an open-source medical record system for developing countries.

Leslie Hawthorn said...

@ farhan: Cool, thanks for the heads up!

@ matthew harrison: Did you get a chance to listen to the OpenMRS podcast?

def said...


As a full-time honours student at Stellenbosch University (SA) I can deliver some comments on what is a low participation of South Africans in GSOC.

Some factors:

* Students at our universities usually have holiday from middle June to middle July. Which makes most think that there isn't enough time to take part in GSOC which expects about a 3month USA vacation in the middle of year.
After coming straight out of classes you want a break before the next semester.
Our long holiday is in the summer months of Nov - Jan. Maybe Google can have a "session" during that time?

* There are many talented individuals in our university which could easily make top contributions to any project they choose.

Honours students - have no time for it - there is a year project which has to be done in the holiday.
Undergraduates - See point 1.
Postgraduates - they have the best possibility of participating if they manage their time well that year.



Leslie Hawthorn said...

@ def: Agreed that the current program schedule is sub-optimal for folks in the southern hemisphere, but it's truly impossible to create a timeline that will work well for all.

That said, we have many students in the southern hemisphere participating this year and in years past.

Perhaps there's more to it?

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ReneL said...

Wow, great to hear such a successful story!

I wish that more people who could help African pupils and students to improve their skills would just actually do it.
Every bit can make a difference because it spreads and helps others.

Leslie Hawthorn said...

@ ReneL: Thanks for the kudos, I am sure that Wojciech and his colleagues appreciate them.

If you have any suggestions for outreach, let us know; I would really like to see more students in Africa particpate in Summer of Code next time.

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