Free Software solutions to Balkan problems


As I’ve explained in “Touring the Balkans to promote Free Software”, I’ve recently attended a conference in Albania (FreeSB) and one in Kosovo, (SFK10). Both conferences were about Free/Open Source Software (FOSS), which can play a crucial role in the cultural, educational, economic and social development of any emerging country. In this page I describe three talks from those conferences that help to prove this point.

A presentation at FreeSB, for example, proved to me something I said last year: the greatness of FOSS is that it solves the problems that you actually have. Instead of using popular products like Moodle), the University of Vlora (UniVlora), has built its own FOSS application to manage all courses, called SIUV (Sistemi Informativ i Universitetit te Vlores). On one hand, SIUV proves again how easy it is to build your own solutions through FOSS libraries, compilers etc… even if you have a small budget and relatively little experience with FOSS.

Above all, SIUV was developed because, as explained by Ervin Ruci, local needs were quite different from those of “first world” Universities. SIUV was introduced about one year ago as part of UniVlora’s effort to “detach itself from traditional methodology. For Univlora, Moodle was simply too difficult and too different from local procedures, traditions and needs to be useful.

SIUV’s job isn’t simply to handle class schedule and registrations. It also has to assist students (and teachers) in the cultural transition to a new way of work. The concept that a student decides (within certain limits) which classes to attend is relatively new here: “it was hard to teach (how to choose courses with SIUV) to students accustomed to the old system, where the government decided which courses they would follow from day one to graduation”. SIUV 2 also was the occasion for many students to “learn the meaning of course prerequisites”. To make this change less intimidating and counfusing, SIUF developers are building an interface which is “visually similar to already familiar environments, like Facebook”.

The next version of the software, SIUV 3, should empower users, that is allow them to define new rules, roles and functions. It should also support online courses and simplify as much as possible general paperwork and payment of fees. Full replacement of such procedures isn’t an option because payments via Paypal or credit card aren’t possible yet in Albania: the online infrastructure simply isn’t available and very few people have credit cards anyway, since they’re too expensive.

Free Software and more in Macedonia

At SFK10 I also heard a talk from Free Software Macedonia (FSM), the only NGO in that country devoted to promote Free Software. FSM works both with government institutions and private organizations and also promotes Open Standards, Free Culture and knowledge sharing.

In the last year FSM worked mostly on Free Software issues (but a festival of CC licensed movies should take place later this year). They run Ubuntu First Aid weekly meetings, Ruby or Python meetups and more at the Kika hacklab. They organize about 2 activities/year outside of Skopje to spread FOSS across the country and are in contact with similar organizations in the area like Hacklab in Mama in Zagreb, Croatia or razmenaveŇ°tina in Belgrade, Serbia. At an higher level, FSM is working with the Methamorphosis Foundation and the Macedonian Ministry of Information Society to draft a national policy for FOSS, similar to those of Croatia and Slovenia. Finally, FSM follows all deployments of FOSS in public schools, to maximize their possibilities of success.

Free Software beyond computers

Systems like RapidSMS are used in countries like Malawi for literacy courses, healthcare support and nutritional monitoring. Prabhas Pokharel, an UNICEF officer, explained at SFK10 that countries like Kosovo are “prime terrain for this technology”, because they have a very young population, lots of mobile subscribers but lack of other infrastructures. As an example, Pokharel mentioned that there is a certain number of Kosovo children under 18 who were not regularly registered at their birth but “to make people count you have to be able to count people first, and monitor that they’re properly fed, get vaccines and so on”. The message here is that, using open technologies, you can build effective tools for social development in any place, spending much less than you would expect.

The recurring pattern

A common characteristic of these three stories is that they are all about high-tech, customized, local solutions and activities (even if they all rely on international cooperation!) to actual local problems that:

  • apparently would have nothing to do with software
  • are real, urgent problems. Not the problems that some software salesman wants you to believe you have, just because his product happens to solve that same problem!
  • (above all) are possible only with FOSS!
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