I don't know whether I can claim I've had an epiphany; that probably puts too much emphasis on the issue - but tonight I have found myself deep in thought regarding open source software, my job as an open source/open solutions development manager, - and (for want of want of a better phrase), the 'Greater Good.'
I haven't come into programming via a very orthodox route. I didn't program computers as a kid (though I did have a play on a ZX81 some Sunday afternoons if Dad felt like letting me), and I didn't do IT at school past the age of 13. Since the age of about 15, I've wanted to help people; that is, make a difference to them at a personal leve. Unfortunately, I'm massively squemish, so couldn't become a doctor. Therefore I decided to look into psychology. It was only when I started applying to University that I did in fact want to be a psychiatrist, rather than a psychologist, as to do that I'd need to have done biology and chemistry at A-Level, and then a degree in Medicine. (I guess there are no squemish psychiatrists then...)
Despite this, I continued down my path as a psychologist, by studying Psychology at University. However, as I wasn't 100% sure that this was the route for me, I supplemented my course with a Busines degree, coming out with a 2:2 from MMU Cheshire in June 2007. I was fairly disappointed with my grade, to say the least.. but I do have to admit it's an accurate representation of the time I spent studying... unfortunately much of the rest of my time was spent working with computers - or 'faffing' as my flatmate used to say.
Back in 2004, when I started University, by chance I made a good friend in 'Dan.' We shared quite a few interests, including a love of fairly heavy rock & metal, plus we were both 'literate' in IT. There comes a time at University when you've blown your budget, and your waiting for the next payment to hit your account. It happened to us all. The first part of the month is spent with your head over a bin passing stuff from your stomach into the bin, and the second half is spent much the same way, with the fudamental difference that any edible scraps are now going in the opposite direction*.
Well, on one such night, dan came up with the ingenious plan to install Linux on our computers. I had an Acer Aspire Laptop.. 15...someting.. and Dan had his trusty old laptop. I hadn't got a clue what Linux was, but thought I'd go along with it anyway. 18 hours later and Dan had got debian nearly working on _some_ of his hardware.. and I'd managed to install gentoo within the first 30 minutes.. only to find myself at what I now know to be runlevel 3 without any instructions on how to go further. Needless to say, this completely whetted my appetite for 'Open Source' - and I had 'College Linux' installed on my laptop within the next couple of weeks.. after getting through my supply of around 50 CDRs.
College Linux was fantastic... for my first taste of Linux it was just so 'right' for use at University. I can't remember now which exact packages it came with.. but it was usable, had OpenOffice.org 1.3 for wriitng my assignments, and plenty of other programs that I found useful. It was tailor made for what I needed, and managed to get through the rest of my first term using it.
I was so impressed with the software, that I set up a website @ www.whatisfloss.co.uk.. which unfortunately is now no longer maintained.. and redirects to here. However, the initial incarnation of the site was an introduction to Open Source, and my experiences with a few of the more 'targetted' packages, like PSPP (clone of SPSS) categorised in a way that would allow non-geek, non-FLOSS people be able to access them. I had the site running for a just over a year, when I received an email of (someone I now know to be a very good) bloke, saying he liked the site, and wanted to work with me on my 'mission' in the future. Having just been rejected last-minute from an internship, I bit his hand of and responded. "How about I work for you now.." three years later and I've not yet got the sack.
My main 'role' once I joined the company, was to help them manage their marketing. There were a few new products coming out, and with the company being so new, we needed to find a way to push the products out to the masses. We were providing a value-added service to our customers... yet did not at the time have the capacity to raise brand awareness without swamping ourselves with too many clients too fast. However, the guys were obviously fairly clued up on this, as they'd decided to split my job between marketing for a few days, and configuring an 'Open Source Office Server' in the rest of my time. With the experience and advice around me of people who actually knew about programming issues, and could guide me.. my knowledge increased exponentially.. and within a month I was working fulll time on the Office Server.
So that was where I've come from into Open Source Development Management. Let me now tell you where I'd like to go.
This week, Microsoft announced they would slash the price of their software for companies started within the last 3 years with a turnover of less than £1,000,000. It looks like a good deal from an uneducated viewpoint, and if your Directors insist "Let's buy Microsoft as 99.99999% of the Business World use Microsoft", then you're in a happy (if not good) place. This gets me thinking though...
For a short time, it looked like one of my closest friends was to become a Small Business Advisor for a UK Bank... it was a job he thought he'd like - helping Small Businesses get off the ground, and helping them out. It sounded like a pretty good little job. It improved even further when he said 'I might recommend them use stuff like OpenOffice.org to save money.' This is exactly the type of people who would grasp 'Free Software' with open arms should they fully understand it. However, like many complicated technilogies - it currently requires too much 'thinking' before being useful. With Microsoft, someone can go out and get it and worry about 'thinking' later... with Open Source Solutions, people are asked to think first, and plan ahead.. something that far too many people are unwilling to do (Credit Crunch.. anyone??).
However, Open Source software is maturing - and it's now easier to use than ever. With the advent of online applications, people are getting used to 'change.' People who would never moved from MS Word are using Google Docs, and realising that actually they don't need MS Word any more. No longer tied to MS Word, they even search for other Desktop software to use.. and the progress begins. People are buying Mini-Laptops with Linux pre-installed and "loving the Mac-like interface on this!" (as heard in the Carphone Warehouse, Manchester, as a lucky punter played about on Ubunty on the Elonex Webbook.)
This makes me happy. But what would make me happier is that if I could utilise all these tools to make bespoke applications for organisations that require them. There are earthquakes, famines, refugees and wars all over the world at the moment, and whilst I don't even being to pretend that Open Source Software can stop that.. it _can_ be a viable solution for organisations looking to organise their IT in 'the field.' Software is used already for so many complex things, that sometimes it's use for recording simple things, like Medical Information.. refugee numbers .etc may be overlooked.
Nicolas Negroponte broke down barriers by releasing his XO laptop... that hardware in itself would be invaluable in a disaster zone.. a MESH network of beacons reporting on the wellbeing of thousands of people, making sure that help is getting to the right places the fastest. Allowing volunteers to have as much information as possible at their fingertips.. and giving the people who need it the best chance possible for survival.
One of the false 'mantras' of Open Source software is 'Build
it and they will come.' This is not the case, and this is not what I intend to do. What I'd like to do is generate some kind of dialog between the people that would require this software, and we, the Open Source community, that have the time and the expertise to provide it. My reasoning lies in that there may even be just one organisation out there than either reads this, or happens to share my idea that they could help mobilise the Open Source Community to proactively help them. If so.. then I will regard myself as having success. However, I believe there are probably tens, if not hundreds of applications of software that organisations like the Red Cross, MSF, and other charities could think of which would make their charities more efficient and productive. Sure, the disaster-area software may be the most 'romantic' in terms of philosophising, but there's also the administrative software .etc that is invisible behind the scenes.
I'm sure there are more people out there who share my beliefs and opinions, and unless we get together to make this work the benefit to the people who need it most will be delayed.
* this is a slight exaggeration, but I liked the phrase.