During summer of 2009 I received an invitation to explain how Free Software can help developing countries at SFK09, the first Software Freedom Conference in Kosova. Here is why and how, after SFK09, some people continue to propose “Free as in Freedom” digital technologies as an important tool to solve the serious problem of people in Kosova (or any other country, really).

Free Software for local social and economic development

SFK09 was organized by the NGO called FLOSSK (Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova) under the lead of James Michael Dupont (Mike). Flavia Marzano already wrote about SFK09. Personally speaking, I was impressed by something Mike said during his welcome speech:

_"The purpose of this Conference is to show that it is socially acceptable to work as FLOSS developer and that it's necessary (for the common good of Kosova) to support such developers."_
_"Kosova is unique in Europe because of type and number of languages spoken and of its geography and time zone. (Kosova programmers) can get lots of jobs from Europe, without leaving Kosova. Indians don't speak German."_

Free Software, a great opportunity for young people

A few weeks after SFK09 I asked Mike what promoting FLOSS in Kosova is like and what had got him to start this adventure. He answered: “My motivation for doing this was that discussion about Open Source was completely missing in Kosova. Now I think that we have made some progress. The one thing that makes me happy is that we have reached the young people. I offered a free Linux course. Many came, but only a few finished the course. Those in FLOSSK now are the ones who had the most interest in learning.”

For the record, I was really impressed by the commitment and enthusiasm of the FLOSSK people. Teenagers as young as 15 years old who already speak English quite well and are so interested in FLOSS to work so hard as they did to make SFK09 work well aren’t common at all!

Mike also had to fight an obstacle that many Free Software advocates seem to ignore: “Everything you need to learn Linux is online. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection and… the will to learn how to learn online!” Unfortunately, for most students “all software was just free as in “gratis” anyway, so for them the effort of learning Linux was just a (major) added cost”. (Marco’s note: this is the same attitude of many students all over Europe and North America, isn’t it?)

Beyond SFK09: education…

Building on the SFK09 success, FLOSSK organized another Conference in the Electrotechnick Liceum “Don Bosco” in Prishtina, which was followed by almost 300 Professors, students and guests.

Besides the GNU Project and Linux, the Conference introduced what are probably the most relevant FLOSS/Open Culture projects for teenagers these days: Wikipedia, the Creative Commons and two projects already covered here at Stop! /Zona-M: “One Laptop per Child” and OpenStreetMap.

Reactions to the Conference explain (again, not just for Kosova!) that Free Software… is anything but a matter reserved to ICT specialists. According to FLOSSK member Valdrin Maliqui, Professor Avdullah Jasiqi congratulated the group for their impressive job for such a good cause, since “it really tells how our youth in Kosova is functioning and working in a good reasonable way”. Student’s Council Secretary, Nora Bajrami, confirmed that the Conference was important in order “to learn how everybody can be part of big changes in our future and join this cause without limitations, for a free, open and prosperous world”. Even the Liceum Principal, Don Matteo Di Fiore, found the initiative culturally valid and is happy that the students liked it, because, he says, “besides being a good match with their professional interests, it opened new horizons for them and proved that there is software out there which is very effective and doesn’t force its users to pay high fees or act illegally”. These days the Liceum is evaluating, always with the support of FLOSSK volunteers, how to start courses on Linux and other Free Software.

…and mapping

It has been said that “who controls the maps controls how people see the world”. In Kosova, building digital maps with the wrong software means “to have your work listed as Serbia”. Consequently, FLOSSK has started to collect the data to create up to date, detailed digital maps of Kosova. Once finished, this project may prove that Open Data and Free Software, besides creating local qualified jobs, can also help a community to open up to the world while building its identity.