[Edu-sig] Free Software in Africa

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Wed Jul 23 23:33:44 CEST 2008

Here's another "as it happens" for the archive, taking in a talk on
Creating and Supporting Free Software in Africa by Prof Derek Keats,
University of the Western Cape (UWC), South Africa -- in some ways a
continuation of the previous edu-sig session.  About 20 of us in the

He's a "CIO" and initiated African Virtual Open Initiatives and
Resources (AVOIR).  He'll probably podcast the audio, as he's
recording to his iPod.

Most of the world is not like Stanford.  Let's start with "alarming
perspectives".  Making areal displays with numbers, e.g. numbers per
capita with tertiary education, results in many distorted maps
(worldmapper.org).  Shanty towns around Cape Town is more his school's
focus.  There's a lack of critical mass in many areas, such as
computer science.  How to solve?  Through collaboration (the only
way).  Building new universities and staffing them can't happen
quickly enough.  Free and open source software, applying lessons
learned to building community, infrastructure, is the vision of AVOIR
(pan-African FOSS). AVOIR is "established as a network for capacity
building in  FOSS engineering".

Key links:
Twitter:  dkeats
Facebook:  Derek Keats
email:  dkeats at uwc.ac.za

Phase 1 (2005-2008) has involved networking universities around
Chisimba, a Web 2.0 AJAX application with attendant software (13 nodes
so far).  Kabul Polytechnic is part of the alliance (eQuality
Alliance).  Picture of training workshop in Kabul, re the portal,
eLearning. Georgia Tech another partner... KEWL training in the

We haven't seen the interface yet (we're getting to it), am trying to
visualize what Chisimba looks like (booth 818 here at OSCON).  Word
for "framework" in Malawi.  Chisimba is highly modular, per Debian
community (ala Synaptic), includes a package management system.
Implements MVC.  Yes, there's Python involved, hooked to gstreamer.
Also:  CURL, FFmpeg, Java... lots of toyz, went by pretty fast.

Now Keats is demoing the remote package management component.

You can start a new eLearning environment in just minutes, given
enough bandwidth.  Everything else is component based, e.g. adding a
blog or some other resource is a matter of mouse clicks.  Some
components allow real time audio, shared white board annotation,
filtering.  With cut and paste, you can embed the live component in a
blog, in a moodle or whatever.  www.dkeats.com for more examples.

USAID, Sun Microsystems, Geek Corps are part of the alliance somehow
(USAID focused on animal health).  University of Nairobi, NOLNET in
Namibia are working on implementing AVOIR, as is National University
of Rwanda.  Electronic Thesis and Dissertation system is another of
the components.  Sun is providing hardware in six of the thirteen
partner institutions so far.

Social Content and Networking for Schools connects like 50 schools in
poor areas to create an intranet (not connected to Internet) with
social networking and eLearning.  Social tools help curriculum content
to grow.

Chisimba reminds me of Plone, sort of, but it's built very
specifically for customized eLearning environments.  Sometimes
Chisimba users become potential interns, helping with Chisimba's
development.  Those who've become interns have contributed usable code
without exception.

Realtime podcasting application is a 3-click process.  Start, Stop, Publish.

Bandwidth is the biggest challenge.  Some institutions don't realize
the value of networks.  Culturally, there's often a tendency to
keeping quiet, to be deferential, whereas on the Internet you're
encouraged to be more egalitarian (out of necessity in a lot of ways).
 Salary structures and high turnover are other problems.  People move
on before they have time to become Chisimba developers.

Questions:  what about OLPC (one laptop per child).  Getting computing
resources to students is a good thing, not limited to the XO
initiative.  Providing labs on a massive scale is the only way to
provide a lot of access in many cases, as the students have no access
to laptops.  This is where Sun comes in, in some cases.

Government funding has been problematic in that the South African
department with jurisdiction has had some turnover, some friends have

Why start a new framework?  In part to encourage local participation,
hard to break in to ongoing open source projects in some cases.  A
goal here was to be self-managing, running all aspects, including the
version control, servers.  Sometimes it's just easier to start from
scratch.  AVOIR is about developing competence and confidence among
young African software developers.  It's an exercise in community
building, as well as a project aimed at producing quality software
(they go together).

I asked about fonts, internationalization.  A lot of the languages
just use Latin-1 characters, but in Afghanistan they're working on the
Farsi translation (of Chisimba).  The Chisimba package itself is
sophisticated about language issues, uses UTF-8.

The animal health project has a mobile devices API although Dr. Keats
isn't sure how far they've come along with that.


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