Indian social activists leverage free software

New Delhi, May 16 (IANS) Indian voluntary groups are being offered solutions in free software – with training and support thrown in – to give them options to using illegally copied software for their work and campaigns.

A series of workshops are being held across India over the next two years, and each participant organisation will enjoy free software support until 2009.

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The first workshop was held in Lonavala, Maharashtra, and drew participants working on a diverse range of issues from HIV/AIDS to water resource management.

It was based on a series of free software tools dubbed “NGO-in-a-Box”. This is a collection of Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) tools selected to address a range of voluntary organisation’s concern areas – from open publishing to Internet security and privacy.

The NGO-in-a-Box project is an initiative involving technology practitioners in the voluntary sector in Europe, Africa, South America and Asia.

Several sets of software tools are being refined for organisations in India and Southeast Asia, with support from the Dutch development organisation Hivos and Britain-based Tactical Tech Collective.

Greek software guru Simos Xenitellis, based in Britain, was a facilitator at the event. He compared the need for affordable software tools to the need for affordable basic food.

“As it’s important to an economy to make staple foods as cheap as possible and accessible to everyone, in the same way affordable software and information handling tools are essential for the growth of a knowledge-based economy such as India.”

The Goa-based AIDS/HIV support group Positive People’s training officer John Pinheiro puts together training and health awareness programmes for students, teachers, sex workers and HIV positive people. John is acutely aware of the importance of effective Internet usage in organisations like his.

He recalls how his organisation had rented some space on the Internet for about one year but did not put up a website due to lack of skills and knowledge. They later took help from a volunteer who put up a very effective site. However, the tool used for updating the site soon expired and they were no longer able to change it.

Facilitators from Mahiti Infotech in Bangalore, which promotes the use of free software among non-profits, gave a hands-on class on alternative free software for producing effective web pages and collaborative tools.

Amee Mankad of Pravah from Gujarat stressed her experience and successes of water resource mapping using a computer-based graphical information system (GIS).

Gujarat has extremely diverse geology and geo-hydrology, Mankad said. It is impossible to have a uniform policy for water resource management across the state.

Pravah began to address the problem by using existing geological maps of a village and surrounding areas. These maps were enriched by adding the indigenous water source data to them. Hydrologists then crosschecked the maps drawn from traditional knowledge using modern global positioning systems or GPS.

Mandkad’s team then used a suite of software for creating graphical information system to combine data from the indigenous maps and the GPS data. Pravah has managed to produce specific water management plans for 169 villages so far.

Free Software, say its supporters, promotes social and economic growth by allowing inclusive rather than exclusive access to software tools.

The NGO-in-a-Box project is online at and it has a regional, South Asian hub at Another workshop will take place shortly in Karnataka.