Interview: Bringing a community together with free software

Interview: Bringing a community together with free software


At a recent free software advocacy event I encountered a great example of free software being used in the community. Chris Kilby has been running an IT suite for residents of his local housing estate in Stepney, east London. A suite of desktop PCs running Edubuntu with a Fedora-based server has been built and runs on a shoestring budget. I recently caught up with Chris to ask him more about the project.

FSM: Hi Chris, thanks for agreeing to speak to us. Can you briefly introduce yourself?

CK: For all my working life I've been a techie, either for stage, video or film and I had started to get into computing as I was interested in setting up an industrial edit suite. I've dabbled with computers on a hobby basis but nothing which would warrant me describing myself as having a strong knowledge base for this kind of project.

FSM: Can you explain a bit about the project and how it came to be started?

CK: I suggested at a tenants meeting on our estate that if anyone wanted to start an IT project, I would contribute 6hrs of my time a week. Over 50% of the estate had no web access at that time and the project could be a good way for tenants to come together. What I didn't expect was to find myself the only person from the estate working on the project! People at the meeting immediately started coming up with notions of running training schemes to get people into work etc.

Having attended some of those type of courses I was very wary about this option. Providing good training is never as simple as most folks assume and neither was I trying to create a job for myself. I am partially disabled and was only prepared to make a lightweight commitment. This commitment level and the fact that I was moving towards GNU/Linux at home convinced me that it would be better to have a more adaptable software environment and certainly one that would be more "mischief proof". I had visions of spending all six hours just keeping a Windows network running. I thought that if I used GNU/Linux, I could run older and cheaper machines. I would have the ability to download free software if users wanted to get into other disciplines and most of all I could run it on a "suck it and see" basis. I could build it cheaply and if it bombed I didn't have to account for wedges of cash and write masses of reports.

I have very much tried to put in place something that will be of most use to the most people on the estate.

FSM: You use different GNU/Linux distributions on the server to the desktops. Was there a rationale behind that decision?

CK: Because of the low-spec PCs that we were originally given - and my own limited experience - the choice was between Edubuntu and Zenwalk although other distributions would probably have done the job. I went to visit Age Concern (a UK Charity) for advice and they had put me in touch with Hugh Barnard who had configured their server. His advice was to go with Edubuntu for the desktops and, in the first instance, Fedora for the web-server as he knew that best. I would set up a peer to peer network (a home set-up is about my level) and Hugh would then come and set-up the server for me. We decided to try Dan's Guardian for content filtering and SAMBA for the network so people can bring Windows laptops in. At first I thought that Dan's was too selective. For instance it won't allow access to Tiscali.co.uk (a popular UK ISP) on the preset that we are using. However, the kids that attend are mostly Muslim and some of their parents expressed discomfort about their sons viewing “bra and pantie” photos. So, with that in mind, Dan has got it just about right.

FSM: How did you acquire the space and the hardware?

CK: The estate has a social club and bar and there was a junk room that had been left over from being a kid's playroom; it just needed a splash of paint, blinds and a bit of carpet.

We started with P2s from the junk room of a local housing office, these were added to with half a dozen P3s from the junk room at Age Concern, then we had two tranches of P4s from the junk room at Swan Housing (our landlords, who have been very supportive). The project would run quite happily on P3 with a thin blade server and a bit of jigging - that's the point: virtually the whole project has come out of different people's junk boxes. The web-server came from "BT in the Community" (these are regular awards) and is a Sempron 3000 with 512MB DDR RAM. These boxes are worth about £120 and if you got two and doubled the RAM this would be more than adequate to run 2x5 workstations as thin-clients and the performance would genuinely impress you.

Most of the hardware for the project was donatedMost of the hardware for the project was donated

FSM: So what was the total cost of the project and where did you get the funding?

CK: When the project was 75% up I applied to Tower Hamlets Youth Opportunity Fund and they awarded us a £4,300 grant for the first year, of this £1,300 went on hardware, broadband, a projector, carpeting etc and the remainder is still paying for volunteers expenses and year two's running expenses and this will see me through to the end of that second year. Some builders were on the estate fitting new kitchens and bathrooms and they kindly agreed to build the workstation desktops. This was a great saving.

I should also stress here that I've had two regular and dedicated volunteers and part of the attraction to them was the fact that we were running GNU/Linux and this project certainly couldn't have maintained itself without their time [breaks down weeping].

FSM: What, if anything would you do differently next time?

CK: In an ideal world we would have changed to an Ubuntu server by now. This would make updating much lighter on the web and has been on the "to do list" from day two. However the system has been running fine for just over a year.

Hugh is often out of the country and I need to improve my knowledge base as I would like to try and do the new server myself, with Hugh watching over my shoulder. Hugh is out of the country a fair bit so this is unlikely to happen until I've done some reading. However it really is a low priority compared with other calls on my time.

FSM: How has the project been received by the users?

CK: When we were discussing the project there was a lot of resistance to using GNU/Linux and I fully expected there to be a "we should have used Microsoft" lobby so I kept quiet about the OS and just let people use it. The first time that most users realised anything was unusual was when they came to save Writer documents and had to use a different file extension. To be frank navigating around Ubuntu is more straightforward than Microsoft anyway so "silver surfers" took to it easily. For kids, once they recognised Firefox as a browser most of question time was over. Only one person has ever queried why "the system looks different". One of the real effects of the project is the way different sections of the community are communicating. Those from differing generations and cultures who would possibly usually claim they had no connection are just getting along at the project and helping each other.

FSM: What are the next steps for the project?

CK: We need to get more people used to just dropping in and make it more of a social space. I would also like to get a course running where people could come to learn the basics of business start-up. Setting up in, and running, GNU/Linux is an incredible cash saving and if you consider that you need never budget for software again this might make the difference between trying a business idea and not being prepared to chance your capital. We are also scheduling one-off sessions on multimedia apps and an on-going project on the estate's history. In the long-term I would love for the project to become self-sustaining and to this end I have been lobbying for more of a lab so that we could hire to outside trainers; we are situated at the edge of the City of London and are ideally situated for people interested in short-courses.

FSM: Is the project something that could be easily replicated and if so are resources/documentation available?

CK: The project is easily replicated and the documentation will eventually be on our web-site when the new server is configured. Contact details are on the site and I'd be more than pleased to talk to people or show them around if they wish to visit.

FSM: Finally, how vital do you feel free software has been to this project?

CK: This project just couldn't have happened with Microsoft software. The financial, hardware and time requirements made it very suitable for GNU/Linux.

  • Doing it in GNU/Linux made the learning experience attractive to me and, so far, I'm the only resident maintaining it.
  • There is easily available software to by-pass Microsoft proxy servers and, with kids using the suite, I don't have the time to monitor them. I need a system that I can lock down and trust in.
  • Even to run the system in Windows XP would have required serious fund-raising and with that would have come the need to quantify the project's achievements. This is not that type of project; how do you quantify different age and ethnic groups talking to each other? Part of the attraction for some people is just to come, "footle" and natter.

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Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.