Software Freedom Day Celebrating Fossian

Pokhara´s Khom Raj Sharma is your typical free and open-source software (FOSS) enthusiast: he loves computers, browsing the Internet, and is a self-confessed IT geek.  But he can´t see any of the information displayed on his computer monitor. “Disability is just diversity of the human race,” he said of his profound blindness. Born in a rural village where nobody else was blind, the 28-year-old is a major inspiration today to a niche IT community quietly growing across Nepal in the last 10 years.

First coined globally in the 90s, FOSS promotes the use of computer software that is both free to download and use, and can be modified to suit an individual user´s needs. Unlike expensive market dominators - such as Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Word - these programs have no pricetag or copyright licenses preventing their evolution.

Hempal Shrestha, founder of FOSS Nepal, said its local active fan base is relatively small - in the thousands - and mostly comprised IT professionals, fanatics and students. Those participating unknowingly, however, are innumerable. Mozilla´s web browser and email software, Firefox and Thunderbird, are two widely downloaded examples of FOSS. For Pradeep Mahato, operator of the Bishwanath Institute of Computer (BIC) in Chitwan that opened this year, the founding “flossophy” (philosophy) behind it is “freedom”.

Mahato, who teaches his students at BIC solely in FOSS, said the movement is all about “freedom to use, freedom to share, and freedom to modify”. Of course, for a country like Nepal, where piracy of software and illegal downloading is rampant, the “free” is this statement almost seems like a non-issue.

Yet its followers say FOSS offers an alternative to illegal activity; giving poorer Nepalese access to more programs while encouraging creativity in the IT community. For instance, Mahato uses a version of the FOSS operating system, Linux, on his personal laptop that´s modified to display and navigate purely in Hindi and Nepali.  Sharma also uses Linux, Firefox, and a FOSS screen reader for the visually impaired called Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA).

“FOSS is especially important for the visually impaired in Nepal because most of them are from poor backgrounds,” said Sharma.

“Having access to IT for reading is a big challenge. It´s beyond their expectations. FOSS makes it accessible and affordable for them.”Mahato said other benefits to his 50 students include software that´s free of computer viruses and general cost cutting. “They are always trying to make their custom desktop interface unique from other Linux desktops,” he said of his students.

Yet there are setbacks to FOSS. Many of these programs require training to install and learn, and modifying software is something best left to those with IT skills.Some programs, like Linux affiliated software, are often incompatible with non-FOSS operating systems used widely, like Windows, making file sharing complicated.
Shrestha, Mahato, and Sharma will be just some of those celebrating at IT events held across the world this Saturday for Software Freedom Day.

Yet they said FOSS has a long way to go before it makes it into the mainstream as a common business and personal practice.“The business and government sectors need to be strong. They shouldn´t be using pirated software when they could save so much money with FOSS,” said Shrestha.

Some NGOs, like the United Nations´ Nepalese wing, have been moving towards widespread implementation of this software within their administration.“The first advocates of this need to really put our efforts together and make it happen for a developing country,” said Sharma.

Sharma is today dedicated to teaching other visually impaired Nepalese how to use NVDA via his non-profit Pokhara training centre.“When I went blind, I felt like I was the only person in the world facing that challenge. People were negative because they´d never seen people like me doing these things.“I made a decision to change that. The world is not limited. It is so important to encourage social initiatives that really empower people.”

Published on 2012-09-15 07:00:23(Myrepublica)

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