Alternative computing

Why pay thousands to restrictive software companies when open source programmes are free, easy to us

This week, the Greens have joined together with Friends of the Earth, New Internationalist, People and Planet and the Free Software Foundation to call on other social and activist groups to reject Microsoft's Vista operating system and encourage the use of free software.

Free and open source software (FOSS) is written by teams of developers from different companies and organisations, and can be used and shared by anybody. The 'source code', which make the program work, is made available to all users to copy and rewrite, unlike conventional software, where only the copyright holders can make changes or legally distribute copies – usually for amounts of money that bear no relation to the cost of making and distributing a disc.

The main benefits of FOSS to a small organisation are, of course, cost and independence. Most of the software is free, and often it is very easy to use. It almost always works well with other programs and doesn't try to make you buy a whole package of related products.

With free software and some second-hand or refurbished hardware, an NGO or small business can start up an office with a couple of hundred pounds, rather than spending tens of thousands on new hardware and the vast range of software licences you need in order to do the most basic office tasks. Microsoft or Mac operating systems, along with Microsoft Office and Acrobat Professional for making pdfs, don't come cheap, even with non-profit discounts.

Professional support for non-profit free software is growing fast, with groups such Tactical Tech and Women's Net producing a collection of peer-reviewed software tools that do everything an organisation needs to get itself going, all bundled up as 'NGO In a Box'. Other tools such as the free 'relationship management' tool CiviCRM (which will keep track of your members, volunteers and donors all in one place) are helping NGOs to free themselves from the tyranny of the, frankly awful to use, Microsoft Access.

“This all sounds lovely,” I can hear you thinking. “But why is the Green Party getting involved? Surely this doesn't have a lot to do with the environment?”

Well, it does and it doesn't. Specifically on Vista, when it launched this year we alerted the world to the wasteful attitude to hardware Microsoft's new operating system was foisting on its customers. The demands of the new system meant that many components in the computers of early adopters would be unable to cope, so potentially millions of perfectly good sound and video cards could be dumped in the bin as a result of the switch. We went so far as to call it a 'landfill nightmare' and I said that “future archaeologists would be able to identify a 'Vista upgrade layer' in our landfill sites." OK that was an exaggeration, although not much of one.

But apart from the environmental benefits of free software in avoiding the throwaway festival that comes with a Microsoft upgrade, there are philosophical reasons for the Green Party's affinity with free and open source.

Greens are often thought of as being against globalisation in all its forms. However, globalisation of shared information is a good thing, especially if it means small and local economies can share the benefits of collaboration and become independent of multinational corporations. If you think this sounds idealistic, take a look at Brazil, where they are saving vast sums of money by using Linux to bring computing to the favelas, or the One Laptop Per Child project, which is using open source software to drive a very cheap and simple computer that will be distributed to children throughout the developing world.

We first adopted policies in favour of FOSS in 2005 and have been gradually moving our office systems to open source solutions since. We now use Linux for our web server and website and a range of open source programs in the office. Along with signing up to the Free Software Foundation's call for more NGOs to take advantage of the benefits, we're extending this call to government too.

Think about it. The problem of designing a computer system to run a library or make hospital appointments is roughly the same everywhere in the world. With every government hiring IT companies to create separate, proprietary systems, a lot of private profit is created. However, the governments will not own the source code at the end of the process and the companies can charge the same to each government they sell their software to. It's the same kind of deal as Microsoft charging hundreds of pounds for an MS Office licence and making astronomical profits, because the cost to them each time the software is installed is – literally – nothing.

Under an open source model, governments instead collaborate with each other and pay IT companies to develop open source systems. This means the problem can be solved once and then implemented everywhere without charging taxpayers again and again for the same thing. Upgrades and further developments can be funded and carried out collaboratively too, and this can lead to enormous savings overall. Health sector projects are already underway, such as the Open Health Information Project led by Oregon State University. Getting the UK government to embrace this new approach could bring huge benefits to this country, given the billions being put into public sector IT at the moment.

Using more FOSS in government could do more than save money and development time, it could also free us from having to get involved with companies like Lockheed Martin, who are now in the final round of selection to run the 2011 Census (as I have blogged about before).

The Census Alert campaign would be completely unnecessary if the government was able to take and adapt a free, open-source census-gathering system, developed collaboratively and openly with other governments, with data security and privacy in mind. Instead, unless the campaign succeeds (which it might – we now have Campaign Against the Arms Trade and several MPs supporting the campaign) it is likely we will have to put up with the black-box, proprietary software provided by Lockheed, plus their assurances our personal details will be safe. I know which model I would rather trust.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.