Computation For And By The People

For several years now, seemingly unnoticed elsewhere, something impressive has happened in Spain. Spanish local authorities have concentrated on the development of Linux distributions for their citizenry. Instead of waiting for the private sector or private educational institutions to come up with solutions, they took it in their own hands to advance the IT-knowledge of the populace. With the means of the public institutions they facilitated education, safeguarded high quality of distros and documentation, payed developers (not irrelevant), while at the same time they improved the informational infrastructure and brought their citizens in contact with each others via organizing mutual assistance. This happened in the places where the people live and work: in schools, homes for the elderly, businesses, centers for basic and advanced training, libraries, administrations. It is, in a nutshell, computation for the people, by the people.

If we are interested in open software and Linux distributions, we usually face no obstacles to download the distro we like, install it on our machine, and start the work. Several years ago Spain and its autonomous regions faced (and to a degree still face) a somewhat different situation. First of all there wasn’t (and partially still isn’t) a comprehensive infrastructure of landlines for the use of telephone networks. Most people used (and still use) mobile telephones. Where landlines telephones are connected, they are often used by several people; indivdual connectivity is rare and restricted to urban areas. So downloading one’s famous distro may pose a huge problem depending on the area one lives in. Secondly, there is the problem that English (which is the most common of the distro locales) wasn’t and still isn’t very much prevalent in Spain. It may be common in some urban areas, but not in huge parts of Spain. From 2002 on, when the first programs started, there were no Spanish-language distros around that could have been used on a larger scale in education or job-retraining.

Accordingly, trying to enhance the IT-knowledge of the popluace faced two challenges: There was no reliable thorough technical infrastructure for something like downloading a distro; and there were no full-fledged Linux-distros in the Spanish locale. The autonomous regions of Extremadura and Andalucía were the first to draw the consequence to use GNU/Linux-based operating sytems, modify them with regard to language and selection of programs, provide comprehensive documentation in Spanish, and produce CDs to give away for free. [1] At the same time both regions tailored those distros for specific needs, e.g., for administrative purposes in government, libraries, job-training centers, schools, etc. Today Andalucía has a wide network of centers for the public, in which the citizens not only have free access to the Internet, but also may apply to courses in text-processing, web-applications, etc. Much of the training manuals were put online too.

Due to their constant efforts Spain and its autonoumous regions lead today in this kind of citizen-oriented IT-development. It is unrivalled to other parts of Europe or elsewhere and unfortunately rather unheeded as well. I don’t know of any other country that has taken such steps, and I wished we had something comparable in Germany.

The governments of the autonomous regions have used primarily Debian-based Gnome and KDE-desktop environments, reworked them, and shared the improvements “upstream” back to the developers. A short and incomplete lists comprises:

  • Comunidad Autónoma de Extremadura: LinEx
  • Comunidad Autónoma de Andalucía: Guadalinex
  • Provincia de Santa Cruz de Tenerife: Bardinux 
  • Comunidades de Castilla-La Mancha: MoLinux
  • Comunidad de Madrid: MAX
  • Comunitat Valenciana: Lliurex

Besides such government initiated or sponsored endeavours one finds unaffiliated and independently developed distros like Trisquel, Comfusion, Kademar, or distros from Spanish speaking countries in South America like Urli and Tuquito (both Argentina) or Canaima (Venezuela). [2] The latter is a distribution specifically desigend for office use in the national government. Due to my incomplete knowledge I’ll concentrate on the endeavours of the regions of Extremadura and Andalucía.

One of the earliest examples of citizen-orientated Linux-distributions provided by a government of an autonomous region was gnuLinEx (later simply LinEx) from the government of Extremadura in 2002. As early as 2002 the aim was to provide every school and every official institution with a free OS and to actively develop informational infrastructure and education of the citizenry.

In 2006 the government of Extremadura provided not only distributions for average household usage (LinEx 2006), but also for small and medium sized businesses (LinEx-Pyme) with specifc programs for accounting, invoicing, personnel management, inventory control. [3]  Add to this a distribution specifically for primary / secondary education (LinEx Colegios 2010) and for usage in the academia (UEx Linux 2009). 

Similarly the government of Andalucía that for a while collaborated with Extremadura developed not only a distro for common usage (Guadalinex), but also specific versions for schools (Guadalinex EDU), nurseries and centers for the eldery people (Guadalinex CDM), for public libraries (Guadalinex Bibliotecas), and specific versions for the Guadalinfo Centers, which provide courses for every citizen and offer free internet access. (Connectivity was and I guess still is a main problem in Spain, because landlines are far less in use than mobiles.)

There are differences in approach. Whereas the governments of Extremadura, Madrid, Castilla-La Mancha, and others restricted themselves more to providing a (web-) place for the access of the distro, help, and documentation, the government of Andalucía seems to have taken the concept of a citizen-oriented distribution much farther: Not only is there a website with all the help, documentation, fores concerning Guadalinex. With Guadalinfo and Andalucía Compromiso Digital the government has provided portals for the exchange between all citizens concerning all aspects of informational education and mutual assistance. It seems that in the earlier approaches a citizen-orientated distribution was an operation system with programs, combined with appropriate documentation and help, all in the Spanish language. The Andalucían approach seems to have been to use such a customized distribution as the foundation or starting point for a portal to bring more people in connection and conversation. Whereas LinEx from Extremadura seems to be more a collection of specific distributions, Guadalinex from Andalucía seems to be a web-based portal for the education of and the exchange between the citizens in which the OS plays just a part.

Regardless how Extremadura and Andalucía may differ in their use of specific customized distributions, some features of the governments’ policies are common and impressive:

Very early in the FLOSS movement they decided to use free and open software to run in public institutions like schools, libraries, homes for the elderly, administrations, public educational institutions, the universities, but also in the business world. [4]

They decided to use a top-down-approach. They institutionalized work-groups to design the distributions, the guidelines for the education, the monitoring, the documentation and the help. Sometimes the actual programming was outsourced to an external but nonetheless local developer. That created more demand for local expertise in information technologies. The long-ranged commitment of the governments secures that documentation and help (be it in person, in fores, or in form of texts) are maintained on a high level of quality and for a long time. The encouragement of mutual help between citizens via web-based platforms fosters a mutual education of the people. 

Developers and designers get paid. This is not trivial. In most projects of the FLOSS movement developers do the work primarily in self-exploitation for little or no thanks. The life-span of a distro equals more or less the breath and enthusiasm of its developer(s). The quality of its parts (programs, documentation) varies with the interests and time the developer(s) can invest. Long-term maintenance is difficult to achieve, to say the least. But under the approach of the governments of the autonomous regions of Spain developers are relieved from the huge pressure of maintaining the whole of a distro for an unlimited time, and they get paid for their work. Not only is this fair. It means that the task of maintenance of programs, repositories, and documentation is under the control of a department that ultimately is responsible for the quality. That makes the maintenance a good deal independent from specific persons and provides for quality over a long time.

Each Spanish Linux distros is the result of a long, constant, and intense collaboration between government employees, users, volunteers, and external software companies. This is what government work should be like – creating and maintaining quality of a common infrastructure, providing help and support, and foster mutual assistance between citizens. True, it was the free and open software that provided the opportunity for such success on the broad scale. But it was the governments of the autonomous regions of Spain that had the insight and put the software into usage that made this potential real – both of the software and the people.

 

[1] As of May 2003 apr. 200.000 CDs of the distro LinEx were distributed (as inserts of newspapers) in Extremadura (another 70.000 were downloaded). http://ur1.ca/2absw – As of 2009 appr. 500.000 CDs of the distro Guadalinex were distributed in Andalucía (another 300.000 are used in schools). http://ur1.ca/2abta These numbers alone show the importance of CDs as carrier of the distro.
[2] A thorough list of spanish Linux distributions is here.
[3] All links to downlaod LinEx-Pyme seem to be deleted or defunct now. It seems as if LinEx-Pyme is no longer maintained. [Added 2010.11.23].
[4] A description of the legal basis and more background information can be found in: Karsten Gerloff, UNU-MERIT, Making public administration’s software public: The Andalusian Software repository (IDABC – European eGovernment Services 2007). Download of the pdf (17 pages) here. | A more recent, thorough post on the various projects of the Government of Extremadura may be found in Guia LinEX: Local eGovernment Services with Open source Platform. | Two pages that list specifically resources for PYMES (small and medium-sized businesses) are: 6 Distribusciones GNU/Linux para PYMES and the software-page OpenPYME.

 

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