Mail Service to the Favelas

Shortly after each pacification of a favela in Rio de Janeiro, representatives of the power and water utilities usually show up to check out the situation, soon followed by workers who begin the task of untangling hacked power lines, sorting out the water system and, of course, figuring out who and how to bill. Another service that might not come to mind as immediately is the postal service. Those narrow alleys and the seemingly haphazard nature of the location and structure of dwellings make mapping out the labyrinthine  system for home delivery incredibly challenging. According to the report below, they’re working on it. I say, more power to them!

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São Paulo School Books Go Open Source

Originally published on

As of June 7, 2011, all of the teaching materials produced by the Municipal Secretary of Education office in São Paulo are available online, for free, under a creative commons non-commercial license. This means that anyone with Internet access and a printer can obtain hard copies (or of course, simply save them to disk as pdf files) of this material and can use it, so long as it is not used commercially. From what I can see, the texts currently available are for Portuguese and Math from grades 1 through 9. Obviously the school system likely obtains its physics, chemistry, history and any other texts from publishing houses.

Beyond being a potential benefit to other school districts in Brazil, I can think of two other communities that can utilize this material.

First, school systems outside of Brazil where Portuguese is spoke. African nations in particular that speak Portuguese could easily download, print and bind (even if only spiral binding) these texts for use. There would be cost involved in the printing, but I have to think it would be less than professional publication of materials in-house.

Second, the Brazilian diaspora can use the Portuguese texts to teach Brazilian children being raised in nations around the world where Portuguese isn’t the primary language.

As for myself, I’m thinking any and all of this material can be useful to my family as we attempt to prepare ourselves for a move back to Brazil. With a daughter in her teens and a son who will likely be entering his teen when we move, the academic challenges they will face may be the biggest hurdle to their transition back to life there.

Click here to check out what’s available, and here as well to see where you can download school lunch manuals from Sao Paulo

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Project Cauã

maddog at DebConf 2010

In July 2010 it was my privilege to attend “Debian Day” at DebConf 2010. This annual conference is held in very diverse places around the world, so it was great to have the chance to be there when it came to New York. “Debian Day” is the day oriented to a wider audience than hardcore techs. The event in general was excellent, but the high point for me was getting to hear Jon “maddog” Hall talk about  Project Cauã.

Project Cauã is an attempt at launching a fully sustainable, environmentally-sound means by which the urban poor of Brazil (and then other countries as well) can support themselves as system administrators. Rather than being job training for a corporate position (of which there are few and for which there is great competition already), this project captures the entrepreneurial spirit of the Brazilian people.
When I lived in Brazil I knew people who made candy at home to sell in the street and even saw a man fixing umbrellas in the street downtown. Brazilians in general are quite creative about dealing with hardship and finding ways to make a living. With Brazil’s emerging role in the global economy, the government’s official support of open source, and the high demand for skilled tech workers, this project makes perfect sense.
As I understand it, the basic idea of Project Cauã is as follows:

  1. Train a person on how to administrate Linux systems and a Wifi network, to the point where he or she can be legally certified, licensed and bonded (this matters a great deal in bureaucracy-heavy Brazil, and I would argue is a vital step in breaking the underlying chain of corruption that exists on all levels in that country).
  2. That person goes to the bank and gets a small business loan to by the hardware, including thin-clients computers that operate on GNU/Linux. These computers, using already-available components, would consume less power by design and be far more environmentally friendly than the usual Windows desktop.
  3. The newly-minted sysadmin takes leases out the hardware and admin services to local users. For example, office buildings in São Paulo are often full of multiple, small companies. A sysadmin could lease services and equipment to users in the building, working from a small office or even the basement. In a residential area the sysadmin would be able to do the same for neighbors.
Figuring in Internet access, payments on the loan and other expenses, “maddog” figures system administrators could make as much as $1800 a month. This might not sound like much to us in the United States, but in Brazil $1000 is about what an entry-level system administrator can expect to make in a company, perhaps as much as $2000 if he or she is particularly skilled.

There is more to this than what I’m describing, but that’s the bare-bones outline. It may seem idealistic, but it’s entirely “doable” and makes a great deal of sense in the context of Brazilian economics and civil society. It should also be obvious how this could serve as a key element in an overall community development strategy. I  believe this is clearly one of the ways open source tech could be used effectively to break the cycle of poverty in a sustainable way in Brazil. 

In the video below, and the ones that follow in the series, maddog explains the need this project aims to meet and how it can be implemented. Perhaps it’s a bit awkward to watch, but it’s a place to start if you want to know more. Be sure to check out the Project Cauã website as well.

Open Source Hardware for the Developing World

You’ve heard about open source software, and maybe even open source hardware, but Open Source Ecology takes it all to a whole new level.

Marcin Jakubowski founded Open Source Ecology after some misadventures in farming. He had completed a PhD in fusion energy when he came to the realization that he was “useless.” Now, I would debate that conclusion, given that one benefit of population and civilization is that it frees us to specialize. In any event, this sense of uselessness compeled Jakubaowski to move to Missouri and take up farming.

I grew up on a farm in Missouri, and I know just how specialized and deep the knowledge required is to just break even. It isn’t for me. Apparenly, Mr. Jakubowski also found it difficult. His main problem, aside from inadequate agricultural skill set, was the cost of repairing or replacing his machinery. So, he started working on diy machinery that would allow basic farming to go on at relatively low cost.

This search for a more sustainable model of farming led to Open Source Ecology and its current project, the “Global Village Construction Set.”

These 50 or so “open source” machines are built with materials that can be sourced locally in most places around the world and are open to adaptation. What they have so far is published in an online wiki.

This reminded me strongly of William Kamkwamba. When he was a young man, William found a guide to building a windmill in a sparce library supplied by the U.S. government in his native Malawi. He built a windmill.

How much could be done by people like William in developing nations around the world with “open source” hardware? It seems to me that this is a far better form of “open source” for rural areas with limited or no access to “the grid.” After all, what good is a laptop, even one that can be solar powered, to a young person 100s of miles from any major city?

It makes more sense to put information like what Open Source Ecology is coming up with into the able hands of people in rural areas of developing nations, and leave the software and system administration (as in Project Cauã) to their urban kin.

In other words, open source software and administration makes sense for city-dwellers, and open source hardware for people in scattered villages around the globe.

What do you think?

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An Interview with Richard Stallman

The interview above with Richard Stallman was conducted by Russia Today. Mr. Stallman is considered the father of free software activism and is founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation.

He comes off in the video as more than a little paranoid, but he’s truly a genius in his field, and his commitment to human rights with respect to privacy and software is admirable, in my opinion. I also tend to agree with his stance on ending software patents.

On human rights, he believes strongly, even dogmatically, that software must be free. He means not only open source, but truly free. So when he says he’s not concerned with “innovation,” he is not saying explicitly that he doesn’t believe in innovation as such. Rather, this simply isn’t his area of interest. At the same time,  his animosity towards any whiff of proprietary limitations on software can bring us to a point of no or limited innovation. If companies and individuals who develop software have no means to profit directly from their work, what will drive innovation?  Altruism and the “human spirit”?

Still, I see free and open source software as vitally important, particularly for the developing world where resources can be scarce. Not having to pay licensing fees or utilize unsecured pirated software can be big advantages. For this reason I’m very concerned about the patent situation.

Patents are being granted for software with little review, and what review takes place is apparently largely done by bureaucrats with limited or no knowledge of how software actually works. It’s a deeply flawed system that leaves open doors for patent trolls and struggling larger software companies to maintain patent portfolios as a sort of cash cow.

Give Stallman’s interview a listen and let me know your thoughts.

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HTML5 Live New York 2011

On November 1st of this year I had the pleasure of taking a day off work to attend the HTML5 Live Conference in New York. HTML is the standard markup language for web pages, in case you didn’t know, and HTML5 represents the most recent update of the language specifications. As such, I assume that we’ll eventually stop calling it HTML5 and simply refer to it as “HTML.”

There were developer and architect tracks available, and attendees could go to talks in either or both tracks. The only talk I attended in the developer track was the one by James Pearce entitlted: “A snapshot of the mobile HTML5 revolution.” This was by far my favorite talk of the day, both because of the subject matter (I’m a firm believer in the future of mobile development) and the clarity of the presentation. As someone relatively new to development in general and to mobile development in particular, his talk explained a great deal for me. The following are the slides from that presentation:

Being able to develop mobile apps using HTML5 has the potential for speeding up the entire mobile development process enormously, and could very well make it more accessible in general. “Write once, run anywhere” was a slogan created by Sun Microsystems to promote the Java language, but I really believe HTML5 could realize that promise more fully.

HTML5 is certainly far more accessible that any “real” programming languages I’ve seen, and I think that it together with CSS, Javascript and PHP can be very useful in youth-focused vocational programs. Anyone reading this blog for very long will realize that one of my special interests is in seeing open source solutions taught and applied in Brazil both to provide greater opportunities to young people as well as contribute something useful for communities and society in general.

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When We Stand Together

The band Nickelback puzzles me. They release amazing songs that inspire, like “If Today Was Your Last Day,” and also morally bankrupt songs like “Bottoms Up” (and others with titles too offensive to mention here).

To add to my puzzlement, this excellent new song, “When We Stand Together”: 

Maybe they do the inspirational songs to balance out the questionable. Or, perhaps they really mean the good and don’t think personal morality factors into the collective life of society. I don’t know, but I enjoy songs like the one above.