Non-governmental organizations, especially those operating outside of the industrialized world, are rarely in a position to have a sophisticated technology infrastructure. Unless the NGOs in question focus on information technology, chances are the computers and networks they use combine donated hardware, a mix of off-the-shelf commercial software (which may or may not be legally acquired), and far too little time deal with technology hassles. We've pointed, in the past, to the Non-Profit Open Source Initiative -- NOSI -- and its primer on "Choosing and Using Open Source Software" (PDF), but some organizations need more than a list of URLs. That's where the "NGO in a Box" program from the Tactical Technology Collective comes in.
NGO-in-a-Box is a set of specially-selected, high-quality free/open source applications, chosen to meet the needs of NGOs:
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.
The included applications range from the familiar (Firefox and Thunderbird) to the highly specialized (VNC, a tool for managing and controlling remote computers). The first set of NGO-in-a-Box kits, coming out in 2004, were localized for specific regions, but the "Phase II" version of the program seeks to provide tools for specific categories of applications. First up is the Security Edition:
The security version of NGO-in-a-box, developed in parthership with Frontline, is aimed predominantly at human rights, anti-corruption, and womens groups, independent media and journalists. Its purpose is to help these groups, and those who work as trainers and technical support with these groups, to orient themselves with the kinds of security and protection tools they could use and the ability to easily access and try them out. [...] This second version will be a revised set of resources based on feedback, it aims to be more accessible to end-users and to also include more materials and guides along with the tools, this is particularly important in the areas of security.
Due out soon are the "Base Box" (core tools for NGO offices) and the "Advocacy Edition," intended for groups creating audio and video media for political and social activism. Tactical Technology plans to develop an "Open Publishing Edition," for print media activism, as well.
One initially surprising aspect of the NGO-in-a-Box kits is that they do not include Linux; instead, all of the applications on the CDs are for Microsoft Windows. This seems like a philosophical contradiction at first -- after all, if you're promoting F/OSS applications, why not a F/OSS operating system? -- but an aside in the NGO-in-a-Box concept paper (PDF) helps to explain the situation.
The support systems for FOSS solutions are frequently online. Obtaining help on forums and IRC channels is commonly known as the natural and easy way of solving problems with FOSS deployment and usage, as well as downloading updates and new bugfix versions. When using FOSS in a low or no bandwidth environment, users are devoid of this important advantage.
The infrastructure for supporting Windows largely consists of consultants and books, the latter (at least) being arguably more accessible in remote environments than online support. It's a practical decision, not a philosophical one, and while it's unfortunate -- we've argued repeatedly that the long-term developmental advantages of free/open source software, including operating systems, outweigh any initial inconvenience -- it's understandable.