http://www.tacticaltech.org
Tactical Technology Collective

Powerful tools for the daily work of NGOs

NGO-in-a-box offers a set of reviewed and selected Free and Open Source
software (F/OSS), tailored to the needs of NGO's. It provides them not
only with software, but also with implementation scenarios and relevant
materials to support this. Its aim is to increase the accessibility of
F/OSS to non-profits in developing and transition countries. The box is
targeted at implementers working with small and medium scale NGOs, IT
intermediaries (eRiders, consultants, trainers, technical supporters),
system administrators of non-profits, and self-taught specialists
helping civil society organizations on a voluntary basis. With this box
they should be ready to promote and implement different F/OSS solutions
for NGOs in their respective situations.

Historically and until a few years ago, NGO's had to rely almost
entirely on 'closed', proprietary software for their organizations. With
the upcoming and increasing popularity of Free and Open Source Software
and especially with the fast development of that software in terms of
usability and quality, this has begun to change in the recent past. Many
nonprofits for a number of good reasons are now considering the "Open
Source" alternative:

Although the true cost of Free Software is a bit more than its initial
purchase price, compared to proprietary software it is still very low.
The free (re-)distribution and upgrades of this software, together with
a often much higher security and stability are two other important
factors. Plus, the open source code (from here the term "Open Source")
permits modifications by everyone who is capable of programming
including the publishing of the changes. Both commercial and academic
sectors have recognized these advantages time ago and are using FS
mostly for their network and web servers. Meanwhile Free Software is
also widely used on individual desktop computers.

With this, Free and Open Source software has become reachable also for
most NGO's which are well-known for their often limited resources in
terms of manpower, time (for trainings) and money (e.g. for technical
support). Meanwhile there is a big variety of Free/Open Source software
available. The landscape is so diverse that overview and orientation
have become central needs - especially for those who have little time
for searching and testing new software.

Whilst existing F/OSS solutions have the potential to offer non-profits
a viable alternative to the proprietary model, there are still a number
of challenges when it comes to practical adaptation. These challenges
can be broken down into those that effect non-profits and those that
specifically effect developing and transition countries. In the case of
developing and transition countries, downloading software from the web
can be at best difficult and at worst impossible due to a lack of
consistent and high speed internet access. When available locally,
off-line distributions and software are often out of date or limited to
specific types.  Besides this, the transfer of new technologies is often
slowed down by lack of local language information and small user
communities. Plus, both documentation and implementation guides are
often not available off-line or in local languages and where
available,they're written in a highly technical language. Generally
speaking, there is a lack of elementary knowledge about methods and
procedures for implementing FOSS. 'Free' (because pirated) versions of
proprietary software often are easily accessible, limiting interest in
FOSS as a solution for NGOs. In the case of non-profits, implementation
and maintenance of Free and Open Source solutions can often need
intermediaries, as the software has not yet reached everywhere the level
offered by proprietary solutions (i.e. ease of installation and inter
compatibility). Non-profits often don't have the budgetary allocations
for technical support and find it difficult to fundraise and justify
such investments - including technical consultancies about which
software would best meet the NGO's needs. Plus, many FOSS solutions
address very technical needs and are often developed by geeks for geeks.
There are real disadvantages here as many NGO's could often benefit a
lot from these solutions, if they only new about their existence.
NGO-in-a-box attempts to provide a solution to some of these issues,
such as physical distribution (e.g. at events like Summer Source) and
access to software and materials, whilst mitigating others, such as
facilitating the software selection process faced by grassroots
intermediaries.

The hope is that NGO-in-a-box can become a vehicle and a channel for
accessing F/OSS much more easily, removing some of the opacity
associated with this and overcoming practical difficulties. Its aim is
to do so through building the tools and skills of grassroots technology
support and connecting them to complimentary initiatives with common
goals.

>From concept to product: Summer Source in Croatia

The first version of NGO-in-a-box was realised in Croatia during the
Summer Source workshop, held in September 2003
<http://www.tacticaltech.org/summersource>. That workshop brought
together F/OSS developers, NGO activists and implementers whose role is
to help NGOs use and benefit from information technologies. On the small
island of Vis, about 3h off the Croatian coast, over 90 people from 35
countries came together for a week of learning and knowledge sharing.

At this event, the first version of 'NGO-in-a-box was set up as a very
simple proof of concept box, providing 'homemade' burns of various F/OSS
distributions, tools and resources in a cardboard box, accompanied with
an explanation. A small factory of CD burners was set up on the Island.
Participants requests were collected and bespoke boxes were created for
each of them to take home. Details of this collection can be found at
http://www.tacticaltech.org/ngoinabox/original. The content of the first
NGO in a box was driven by the demand of participants at Summer Source,
each reflecting their different countries and working contexts. The
resulting set of CD's included major Linux distributions, software
brought by participants themselves (e.g. Martus, Dynebolic), software
downloaded on request, like CMS applications and security packages, plus
various forms of documentation and materials created during the
workshop.

In the follow up to the workshop, participants consistently stated that
this 'take-home' was one of the most useful and practical things they
took away with them from the event. On the Summer Source discussion list
and in the summaries of activities post-camp, colleagues from Brazil to
Belarus reported how useful this resource was when they returned home,
They reinforced the need for a continuation of such an initiative, in
particular the reasons were:

* they could carry it with them to NGOs and copy when necessary;

* all of the tools were used before by peers from the known community of
the workshop;

* for the participants it was an updated collection of tools in one
place that could be applied to different circumstances as a product and
thus allowed to promote FOSS within the groups they work with.

The feedback on this first version of NGO-in-a-box and subsequent
discussions in the field showed the need for a simple/low-tech procedure
that will help implementers, developers and activists from countries
without efficient IT infrastructure to implement and adapt F/OSS
solutions locally. It also re-emphasised the need for easy access to
tools, materials and methodologies for people to find and use in their
day to day work.

A versatile tool, growing with the feedback of its users: NGO-in-a-Box
at Africa Source

The second release of NGO-in-a-box was compiled during Africa Source;
the African F/OSS developers meeting, in Namibia, mid-March 2004
<http://www.tacticaltech.org/africasource>.

As in the Summer Source version, a variety of distributions and software
solutions were selected. The range was intended to provide grassroots
intermediaries in Africa with a selection of tools which meet the needs
of non-profits they work with; from working with refurbished computers
to newly donated equipment and from handling streaming media use to
using F/OSS over Windows.

The developers present at the first Africa Source event in Namibia acted
as a review and development community for a second, African version of
NGO-in-a-box. Refining the selection and adapting it will meet African
needs and priorities.

What does NGO-in-a-box contain?

A general description of the contents is here A detailed description of
the applications is here

Future plan and developments

In its current phase, NGO-in-a-box is an event-driven product, oriented
to a focused community. Its value is in its role as a vehicle for access
and peer recommendation, its content adapting to user needs in each
version. In order for this to work as a concept outside of 'Source
events' the issue of how to disseminate boxes and how to maintain its
adaptive quality is a central one. In order to continue answering the
needs of NGO based IT implementers and NGO activists, one solution would
be to take advantage of the do-it-yourself (DIY) nature in which it has
evolved and to continue its development in the grassroots environment.

Through establishing a community of regional point people who would
drive the growth of the resource, it may be possible to not only
maintain its flexibility and continious reinvention, but also to
overcome physical distribution challenges. These local 'distribution
points' may be internet training/access centers, eRider projects or
other established non-profit technology support providers.

The idea would be to use the regional nature of these 'nodes' to
localise the box and provide language and context specific materials and
resources. At the same time, if these regional nodes of the NGO-in-a-box
community could be connected they could act as a review and
recommendation group, sharing experiences and knowledge on using and
developing the boxes and providing each other with relevant NGO case
studies.

The key to achieving this would be in developing and maintaining a well
established network of locally based partners. Some questions which
remain are, would the draw for this community be enough for sustained
involvement? And how could the box develop in the future to become more
NGO specific, providing solutions for activities such as security
monitoring, advocacy, organising and campaigning.

For more information or in order to obtain a copy of NGO-in-a-box,
please contact us at [EMAIL PROTECTED]

Tactical Technology Collective  2004 | Site by Floatleft

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Frederick Noronha (FN)                    Nr Convent Saligao 403511 GoaIndia
Freelance Journalist                      P: 832-2409490 M: 9822122436
http://fn.swiki.net                       http://fn-floss.notlong.com
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http://goabooks.swiki.net * Reviews of books on Goa... and more



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