On 2 Nov 2007, the Free Software Foundation Europe held an event in London, UK called "Free Software as a Social Innovation" to which I was fortunate to be invited. Run jointly with M6-IT CIC and described as an event to “help people learn more about Free Software and provide opportunities for hands-on experience with the technology”, it was aimed at those in the European not-for-profit and non-governmental sectors (hereafter referred to as the third sector).
Hosted in a relaxed style, far removed from the larger corporate-style events that I have often been to, the event showed me something else. If we are to influence people into considering free software, particularly those in the third sector, then a steadier and more personal approach may be the way to go about it.
The venue helped a great deal. The top floor of a warehouse-type conversion project at the Angel, Islington there was none of your glass and plastic-covered metal here. Bare brick, plaster, huge solid tables and a monster staircase from street level were the order of the day.
The numbers helped as well—just 16 "delegates" (although I’m not sure anyone thought of themselves as that) and a handful of organisers. Instead of rows of theatre style seating we just grabbed a chair and sat where we could see the presentations. The event was also about allowing people to try out free software with, importantly, somebody of greater experience beside them. This process was enabled through the use of a number of thin clients running off an LTSP powered laptop. The hands-on area was in the same room as the talks so we could move straight from group conversations to hands-on testing and demonstration. Usually by sliding our chairs backwards.
There were two main speakers, Georg Greve (founder and president of FSFE) and Matthew Edmonson of M6-IT. Both spoke with depth and conviction on the power of free software as a social innovator and both talks generated significant discussion, often interrupting the main speaker. They also spoke on the apparent similarity between the processes and ethics of the third sector and the Free Software community (such as sharing, collaborative working, openness and public accountability etc.) and they gave a lot of food for thought.
Advocacy without the soap box
For me as a long term free software advocate, particularly within the third sector, the real benefit of the day was to talk to real people with real vision and associated issues and see if we could find a specific way that free software could help them. So much more effective than simply telling them it was a better option.
I spoke to people who worked in education in poorer nations where (to quote) “the only real threat to Microsoft is piracy” and where Internet connectivity is a rarity even in major cities so distribution and updates of free software is limited. We looked at how something along the lines of a Freedom Toaster could enable people to get hold of free software and this could enable them to use computers in their own language. I also spoke to people involved in environmental issues about how free software could assist them in producing quality and cost-effective social networking projects and to service providers looking at collaborative website projects. Along the way I was aware of others demonstrating how a certain free software application could address a specific need in the hands-on area. I noticed how few times the free speech part of free software came up - generally demonstrators focussed on how good this solution was and those listening seemed to respond well.
I often read statements on how the free software community needs to be marketed, get the hearts and minds of those at the top and generally create a big fuss in order to attract attention. I’m not convinced this is the best way to go about it. Has there been big advertising with regards to the use of GNU/Linux since 1991? IBM did some but that was an IBM advert not a GNU/Linux advert, and yet millions of people use it and the number is growing. Has there been a lot of marketing for OpenOffice.org? Yet again millions are downloading it. There was the advert in the New York Times for Firefox 1.0 but I cannot seem find any figures which indicate its influence on the number of downloads—good or bad and still hundreds of millions of downloads have taken place.
As for the traditional wine-and-dine way to the corporate C.E.O.s heart, I’m not sure how well that will work with the third sector (except for the larger organisations who seem to sometimes consider themselves on a level with big corporates) and I’m not sure it’s as effective for the smaller corporations either.
Why and how
Let me ask a question: why do we want people to use free software? You can come up with your own answer but mine is along the lines of: Because it is better in many ways, better use of money, better security, better longevity, less vendor lock-in—better. What I (re)learned at this event was that one of the best ways to show this is to:
- get alongside them
- listen to their vision, dreams,ideas, problems and needs
- address those needs and not your own desire to convert everyone
- show them, don’t tell them
- help them help themselves. Don’t replace dependency upon one vendor with another (you).
In short we need to do it a few organisations at a time. Grand shiny conferences with thousands of visitors will give them a carrier bag full of unread brochures and probably a lot of questions. Run a series of smaller, more intimate, events with similar numbers of geeks and non-geeks (okay, maybe I should say “professionals”) and good hands-on areas and you could have a greater success. Yesm this involves investing time and effort, but people respond to that rather than rhetoric which sounds the same as the corporate sales people (no matter how much more truthful ours is). The end result is very satisfying and if you are talking to those in the third sector, it could be world-changing.
By the way, this is the first post in my Free Software Magazine blog—hope you enjoyed it!
-  Or for those like me in the UK the Voluntary and Community sector
-  I am aware there are some quite reasonable arguments against these which vary from application to application but in general those are my reasons.