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"It's just like summer camp. With WiFi. In suburban Bangalore."
Ethan Zuckerman, 10 Feb 05

In a thatched roof pavillion ten kilometers from downtown Bangalore, a hundred geeks are clustered around laptops. There are a few American and European faces, but most of the geeks are from Asia: Indians, Philipinos, Burmese, Thai. While some are editing video, most are wrestling with installations of Ubuntu Linux. At intervals, they break off to play ping pong, shoot some hoops, or play a little cricket, before retiring to the onsite vegetarian dining hall.

No, it's not the latest trend in Indian outsourcing. It's Asia Source.

Held last week, Asia Source was an eight-day conference that brought together 90 IT professionals - all of whom work full-time for NGOs - together in Bangalore for intensive training with top open source specialists from around the world. It's the third in a series of conferences organized by Tactical Technology Collaborative, a British/Polish organization focused on supporting IT usage by civil society organizations. The first was held on a former Yugoslav army base on the Croatian island of Vis; the second, in rural Namibia, featuring open source activists from across the African continent.

The latest in the series is organized in conjunction with Mahiti, a Bangalore-based company that builds open source websites for NGOs. The gang from Mahiti is responsible for locating the lovely venue, the puppet troupe, DJs and band that keep the place jumping in the evenings, and coordinating the logistics of 100-plus participants and observers... which get decidedly more complicated when Nepal closes its borders, stranding Nepali participants.

When not otherwise occupied with having a good time, conference participants are focused on one of three tracks: migration, localization, or publishing. "Migration" is code for "conversion to free and open source software", a cause a number of the participants have taken up with missionary zeal. NGO migration efforts have historically focused on getting organizations to adopt Linux on the desktop. Asia Source is focusing more directly on applications, taking advantage of Firefox, Thunderbird and OpenOffice to help make the case that free and open software is ready for use by NGOs with little access to outside tech support and few internal tech resources.

The campers attending the localization track have another reason for interest in free and open source software: you can translate it. This is a critical advantage for users who speak a language like Khmer, unlikely to be supported in Microsoft Windows any time soon. Without local language tools, access to the Internet requires knowledge of English, a barrier that keeps it out of reach by all other than elite populations. Localization is both as simple and as hard as translating all the messages and menus an application offers into the appropriate language. In the case of OpenOffice, that's roughly 22,000 strings, possibly a solid year's work for a talented translator.

The camp journalists are the Open Content crew. Building a weblog and wiki using Plone, they interview and photograph each of the camp's participants. Videographers shoot most of the sessions, editing them on open source video tools (discovering, in the process, that open source video editing is a task for the very brave and very geeky). The goal is to allow participants to their organizations and set up RSS feeds, content management systems, and other tools to help their groups stay visible on the web.

All the while, a team of geeks burn CDs filled with Linux software, distributing them in a package titled "NGO in a Box". There's a yoga workshop by the well, and the Americans are trying to explain whiffle ball to the Indians, who are explaining how to play pickup cricket with a tennis ball. The diesel generator is creating just enough power to support the Wifi network. And I'm playing pickup basketball with a Pole and an Iranian, narrowly defeating a team from Denmark, the Philipines and Mongolia. And it's easy to think that events like this one build bridges beyond the purely technological.

Asia Source was sponsored by Open Society Institute's Information Program, Hivos and the International Open Source Network. Tactical Tech is already planning Africa Source II, likely to be held in Uganda this summer.

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"The diesel generator is creating just enough power to support the Wifi network."

I hope it was running on biodiesel! :D

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 10 Feb 05

Nice write-up, Ethan. Just a quick clarification:

The diesel generator was powering all computers in camp, not just the wifi network. And Mikhail, no, it wasn't running on biodiesel. Unfortunately.

Posted by: Kiran Jonnalagadda on 13 Feb 05

Biodiesel would have been a good hack, Mikhail. It's always a good reminder for geeks that the first digital divide we need to cross is the power supply...

Posted by: Ethan on 18 Feb 05



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