Making Change: Poverty 3.0

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The idea seemed so simple, yet so powerful. First, take a bunch of old, decrepit computers nobody else wanted. Install bare bones software–an operating system, a word processing program, email and an Internet browser.

Finally, distribute the computers to low-income people, and fly them across the digital divide.

For Robin Acree, a welfare organizer in central Missouri, the plan sounded perfect. The local university extension offered 14 computers it no longer needed. Acree’s technology provider was willing to handle software installation and training. And her board members all needed computers–most had never owned one.

As if that wasn’t enough to convince her, Acree found herself drawn in by one last detail. The software itself was state of the art, and it would cost nothing. Created by a group of programmers scattered across the world, this kind of software–called “open source” software because the programs can be openly distributed and modified–promised to be more bug- and failure-free, because it was developed and tested by a collective of programmers and users.

In late April, Acree’s New York City-based computer consultants–Dirk Slater and Arif Mamdani, of the Welfare Law Center’s Low Income Networking and Communications (LINC) project–took a trip to Mexico, Missouri, where Acree’s low-income organizing group, Grass Roots Organizing, is based. Out of the 14 donated computers, a hodgepodge of 486s and low-end Pentiums, 10 worked well.

It took two entire days to install the new software. “We fully expected to run into problems,” says Mamdani. That’s the other thing about older machines. You never know exactly what you’re getting. There were a bunch of floppy drives, a couple of CD-ROMs that weren’t working, but the hard drives were all working.”

Once the computers were set up, Mamdani trained Acree and her staff, first as a group and then individually. Three of the board members had some experience with Windows machines, and the other three had little or no experience with computers at all.

There were some quick successes. One board member, a soon as she saw that she had a word processing program, immediately started writing a letter to the governor. “That’s very powerful,” says Acree. “We just gave her a computer that someone else was going to throw away, and look what she can do now.”

Gloria Curtis, another board member from Columbia, Missouri, now uses the internet to research welfare programs in other states. She’s also studying to be a paralegal and is completing all of the course exams online. Other board members now email Acree constantly, setting up meetings and responding to her messages.

But they had some steep learning curves, too. While open source programs are just as functional as Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer, there are small differences–a function may be listed under a different menu, for example, or it may have a slightly different name. Those differences have slowed Acree down. “It’s a hard transition for me right now,” Acree says. “There seem to be extra steps involved that I’m not used to doing. I’m very open-minded bout it, but I still don’t feel right.”

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In 1984, a former MIT computer scientist named Richard Stallman suggested that software would become better if you made the source code accessible to anyone, allowing other programmers a crack at improving it. They might rewrite some of the code, which could make the program run faster or crash less; they might also create entirely new features. In 2000, a small group of nonprofits founded an organization dedicated to promoting and creating open source software: the Nonprofit Open Source Initiative, or NOSI (www.nosi.net).

But while a small number of technology assistance providers in the nonprofit sector are actively promoting the use of open source software, they’re also finding out that the software is still a work in progress. In some cases, the software is very intuitive and user-friendly; but in others, setting up the software and learning to use it can be so difficult it may even impede the work of the organization. Part of the problem is that because the software was developed by individuals, not companies, the documentation and support are often more complicated, or even lacking entirely. So while the organizations are saving money by getting free software, they end up paying consultants to help them set up and customize open source programs.

And while software can be expensive, setup and upkeep are often the more expensive costs in any technology project, says Jason Hutchins, director of business relations for NonprofitSolutions.Net, a technology consultancy for human services and community-based organizations.

Not everything is complicated to set up. Downloading and installing Mozilla, an open source web browser designed by Netscape programmers, is as simple as getting the Netscape browser. But installing and configuring Pagetool, an open source program that allows inexperienced computer users to create and update web pages, or installing the Linux operating system with a desktop interface that looks like Windows, is more complicated.

For nonprofits, the real power of open source, says Hutchins, is in small, free, easy-to-configure office and Web applications. “I’ll go into nonprofits, and they’ll be talking about how they need to buy and customize some large, extensive piece of software to communicate with each other,” Hutchins explains. “And I just say ‘Look, why don’t you just get AOL Instant Messenger.’ I spend an inordinate amount of time going into organizations just pointing out free stuff. It’s probably the first thing I do.”

The other real money-saver, Hutchins says, is open source software for servers–the large computers that host files, web pages, and sometimes software applications. “Most of your big nonprofits here in the city are paying professional hosting services with huge contracts,” he says. “We’re talking $60,000 annually for having multiple servers. For that kind of budget, they could have somebody on staff building and customizing applications with open source.”

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In fact, many human services nonprofits are likely already using some form of open source software, whether they know it or not, and it’s usually on their servers. The most common application is an open source web site server called Apache. According to a survey released in March, 54 percent of all web sites use Apache to serve content.

The second most common use of open source software, says Slater, is installing the Linux operating system on a file server. “It’s not something where I would say to a group, ‘You don’t need my help to do this,'” Slater says. “But actually, I do know a couple of groups, like [Brooklyn-based] Make the Road by Walking, that have had some computing expertise in house, and they’ve been able to set them up themselves.”

It’s much more rare to find examples of open source being used on individual computers. Because of this, the Missouri project was a big trial for Slater and Mamdani. They carefully chose the software: KDE and Gnome, two desktop interfaces that look a lot like Windows; the web browser Mozilla; and two word processing programs, OpenOffice and AbiWord.

Mamdani says he and Slater soon found one challenge they didn’t expect: Retraining experienced users accustomed to using commercial programs. They first had to ask, “How are you used to doing this?” and then had to show the user the new way to do the task. With completely inexperienced users, “the training was easier,” Mamdani says. “There was nothing to relearn.”

For Acree’s group, Slater focused on finding technologies that would enable Acree and her board members to do organizing work. Running open source software on donated computers is a clear winner for any organizing group, Slater says, and last July LINC launched a similar project with New York City low-income membership group Community Voices Heard (CVH).

“I hate this term, but there’s a digital divide on our board–people who have computers, people who don’t have computers,” says Paul Getsos, executive director of CVH. Without the low cost of open source software, says Getsos, CVH couldn’t consider giving computers to all eight of its board members. And in addition to its low cost, the small-scale nature of open source software makes it possible to use donated computers. “If we’re talking about a $1,000 investment,” says Getsos, “it’s much more attractive.”

For CVH, Slater is considering using Pagetool. Available in a Spanish-language version, the program allows organizers to update their web sites themselves. “You can actually get a bit more of your constituency involved in the development of the site itself,” Slater says. “For us, that’s huge.”