SA goes for software freedom

22 August 2005

South Africa is committed to using open-source software in government departments, with officials and software specialists meeting this week to thrash out a formal plan for its adoption.

Open source software (OSS) is computer code developed by a global community of volunteers and freely available for use, modification and distribution – unlike more widely known “closed source” proprietary software.

The Open Source Task Force Conference, being held in Johannesburg on Monday and Tuesday, aims to develop a framework for OSS adoption. Task team conveners Go Open Source say the plans devised at the conference will be presented to President Thabo Mbeki later this year during his international advisory commission.

According to Mark Shuttleworth, South African internet billionaire, afronaut and OSS champion, open source will allow South Africa to develop its own technology skills – instead of relying on expensive imports.

“Companies and countries that embrace open source can improve their efficiency and competitiveness,” Shuttleworth told Business Day. “It drives skills creation, which is a fundamental challenge facing every country.”

In developed countries, the private sector drives the use of OSS to replace more expensive and less flexible branded software, Shuttleworth said. But in less developed countries the government must lead by using open source to educate young people and deliver services more efficiently.

Government use of OSS
Many government departments already use open source to some degree for data processing and information management, according to Business Day.

This includes the new anticorruption information management system for the Department of Public Services and Administration. In a rural healthcare project, clinics book appointments with specialists at regional hospitals using cellphone messaging.

The South African government is the country’s biggest spender on information technology, reports Business Day. It spend millions every year on software for almost 400 000 PCs.

The State Information Technology Agency’s policy is to use open source wherever it proves more cost-effective or more adaptable than proprietary packages. It introduced the policy in 2003 after receiving a R485-million bill from Microsoft for three-year licences for 100 000 operating systems, desktop suites and internet technologies.

Officials attending the Go Open Source conference will be urged to draw up plans to turn talk into action.

“I hope we will emerge with an action plan for each government department,” Shuttleworth told Business Day.

The conference will also be attended by firms able to offer technical support. Hewlett-Packard project director for emerging markets Clive Smith says only free-to-adapt OSS will allow the creation of lower cost, local language and customised systems.

Software Freedom Day
Meanwhile, the worldwide Software Freedom Day is to be celebrated on 10 September 2005, with the Go Open Source campaign coordinating a number of events across South Africa.

There will be “installfests”, where members of the public can bring their computers and get help installing and using Linux and open source software. Each event is to be hosted by local Linux User Groups, with Go Open Source providing additional support.

“We have around 200 registered teams this year from all over the world,” says Henrik Nilsen Omma, president of the non-profit Software Freedom International, official organisers of the event.

The biggest change from last year, says Omma, is the sponsorship of Canonical, who are shipping about 15 000 CDs to teams worldwide. The custom-made CD will include a Live Linux image and Windows open source software.

“In 2004 the pioneering teams put in a great effort in burning all their own CDs, which was great, but this year we look forward to a more uniform and professional CD to give to the public.”

“We are pleased to have a wide distribution of teams,” Omma says. “The interest from the African continent has also been impressive this year.”

African countries taking part include Benin, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Events
In Johannesburg, LinuxChix Africa will celebrate Software Freedom Day at Wits University with presentations by guest speakers, an installfest and OSS handouts. There will also be quizzes and games, a poetry session, a dance performance, and even a play performed by students titled “Imagine a Future Without Linux”.

In Pretoria, the Innovation Hub will offer guest speakers, an installfest and free CD handouts.

In Potchefstroom, the Open Cafe will offer free internet access, Linux installs, OSS and a bring-and-braai. The cafe will also screen RevolutionOS, the award-winning documentary about the open source movement, and launch a new Creative Commons multimedia room.

In Durban, Free Culture South Africa is hosting a public lecture and FOSS exhibition at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The lecture will be given by OpenOffice.org South Africa founder Craig Adams and the exhibition will include posters, flyers and software handouts.

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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