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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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