[bksvol-discuss] found this article on the parent site of bookshare
- From: Elizabeth and Burton <thoth93@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- To: bksvol-discuss@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Mon, 23 Oct 2006 22:59:06 -0400
This article talks about how the organization apparently uses free
software. Thought it might be of interest.
Friday October 06, 2006 (08:01 PM GMT)
Benetech is a non-profit corporation whose
is to use technology to improve the world. The organization's varied projects toward
doing so include
reading tools for the blind
landmine detection hardware
a software system to document human rights violations
. To help them in their work, the organization's 30 employees worldwide, from Bangkok
to Africa to the US West Coast, depend upon free software -- but not exclusively.
"Essentially, we help other human rights teams worldwide to do their work," explains
CTO Dr. Patrick Ball, who is no stranger to free software -- he uses Linux and open
source software extensively at Benetech, and points out its successes and failings.
Free inside and out
Aside from the landmine detection project -- which Ball explains is more or less
just hardware -- their projects are all powered by free software, with a little "quasi-free"
software thrown in. Ball explains: "We use Java -- I think the
Open Source Initiative
would say it was OK, but I think Richard Stallman
wouldn't really think so
. Someday there may
be a Java VM that is perfectly free, whether it comes from Sun or the FSF or someone
else -- and yes, we would switch; we prefer that everything be freer. My hope is
that they [Sun] just do it. That would be the easiest way."
In-house, the organization uses free software for much of its day-to-day operations
-- including on the desktop.
"We use lots of different RPM and Debian variants," Ball says. "Our servers are based
on Fedora Core. It moves fast enough that we could get the
that we wanted. It supports
SE [Security-Enhanced] Linux
, which makes a lot of sense to us. For years we've done work on setting up secure
spaces on servers to avoid cracks" -- with reporting on human rights abuses, security
is a major issue -- "and SE Linux makes that a lot easier."
Ball says that Fedora Core works well for the organization. "We can compile from
tarballs if we have to, but we prefer someone else do it."
Ball's personal desktop is a Gentoo Linux box. "I've used Gentoo for years, because
it was a lot of fun and it taught me a lot about how to administer a machine," he
says, noting its unique
. But he also says that you're not caught out on a limb when you use it -- the people
who use and support and develop it are there to help you.
"The community is really strong and they're responsive at different levels," he says.
"Other [free software communities] are responsive maybe at the newbie level or way
out at the expert level, whereas Gentoo is there across all levels -- they don't
flame you with
Eric Raymond's URL
and tell you to get lost."
While Benetech had previously chosen Red Hat and Gentoo for its desktops, today they're
all running Ubuntu. Ball cited Ubuntu's ease of setup and installation as the reason
for the switch. "If you have to roll out 10 or 15 machines, Gentoo's [inconvenient].
Most of our machines are Kubuntu, but there are a couple of GNOME people in our organization."
Ball's job is to make these desktops work together seamlessly, regardless of their
distribution or operating system. "I'm the CTO, so I promote desktop heterogeneity,"
Ball says. "We have Mac users and Linux users and the idea I'm going for is, 'It
doesn't matter what desktop you use.'" Ball says that the desktop is basically irrelevant
in 2006 anyway, because when it comes down to it, "Everybody uses Firefox. That's
the key piece -- if there's one ubiquitous piece of free software out there, it's
Free software's shortcomings
When asked where free software might be failing organizations such as his, and where
proprietary software might have the upper hand, Ball answers in a flash: Outlook
"I don't think we're at the place to replace Outlook," he says. "I watch people who
know what they're doing with Outlook, and it's doing a
of work for them. Same with Word. For all the people who hate it," he adds with
an understanding laugh, "it's a really powerful tool.
"I use Emacs for a lot of stuff and I love Emacs and so do our systems people --
but my CFO uses [Word and Outlook] and I'm not going to tell her to use
Emacs diary mode
Surprisingly, another free software package that doesn't work for Benetech right
. Ball says, "I really like OpenOffice[.org] and the way it works, but the change
tracking sucks. So that's the end of it right there. It's over."
But, he says, he's open to looking at a switch to OpenOffice.org in the future. "I'm
not saying that we aren't going to do that -- we might -- but that will happen very
[cautiously and carefully]," he says. "I'm not gonna say, 'Nobody use Word.' They
would have my job in a
picosecond after that."
Finally, Ball says that free software hasn't been able to help them with Benetech's
statistical computation needs. Currently, Benetech uses a proprietary statistical
language rather than
, the GNU Project's free implementation of Bell Laboratories' S language for statistics.
"Why doesn't it do what every other Unix tool in the world does?" Ball asks in exasperation.
"Why doesn't it read a text file, process a textfile, and write a textfile?"
Additionally, R is built for a different kind of user, says Ball. A numerically-focused
computer scientist, coming from something like the proprietary Matlab software, would
understand the R paradigm immediately. But for those like Ball and his team, who
are coming from a social sciences perspective, "R is a huge conceptual jump" to make.
"So we're still using proprietary statistical software. [Because] it's gotta work."
A pragmatic balance
So while free software has greatly aided Benetech, and Ball clearly believes in it,
Benetech isn't entirely devoid of proprietary software. "We're really principled,
but we're pragmatic," he says.
"Our partners all run Windows, with a tiny smattering of Macs," says Ball. "We have
to live in the real world and we have to solve real social problems. Displacing proprietary
software is not our mission, it's not our goal. Our goals are to promote literacy,
to document human rights violations, to detect landmines."
If, during the course of this work, Benetech can use more free software, and promote
it out in the greater world -- then, Ball says, "Score! It's all the better. We definitely
using free software, but when it comes down to it, it's gotta work."
I also found this note about
Here are just a few of the ideas Benetech is exploring: Literacy/Assistive Technology Audio books via cell phones and iPods for people with disabilities Inexpensive screen reader for the blind and illiterate Adult literacy solutions for teaching people how to read around the world Cheap, open-content books available globally for the poor Cell phone as a universal piece of adaptive technology for all disabilities Standard cell phone as a talking locator for the blind Human Rights Expanding human rights technology tools into new social justice areas
I am interested to note that many of these ideas have to do with blind people. I somehow do not feel like I am sharing here but like Jim is "giving" us something. Perhaps I am too cynical or tired right now.
I want to volunteer and contribute not be given gadgets somebody else thinks I want. I want to help design things for me and others like me and be part of what is going on not the recipiant of it.
To unsubscribe from this list send a blank Email to bksvol-discuss-request@xxxxxxxxxxxxx put the word 'unsubscribe' by itself in the subject line. To get a list of available commands, put the word 'help' by itself in the subject line.
- [bksvol-discuss] World Of Information Available With EMC Captiva QuickScanPro
- From: Shelley L. Rhodes
- [bksvol-discuss] World Of Information Available With EMC Captiva QuickScanPro
Other related posts:
- » [bksvol-discuss] found this article on the parent site of bookshare