The event was held in a converted warehouse, hosted by an organisation called "The Hub" which in itself was quite interesting as it was also an exercise in social innovation: an office space for small organisation with a very strong green ethic.
The day opened in a very relaxed manner, with M6-IT setting up thin clients running Debian/Ubuntu for the NGO people to play with later on. The representatives from the NGOs came from a broad range of backgrounds, from dealing with inner city issues in London to working with medical staff in Kenya or educationalists on Sudan.
Then, to my pleasant surprise, the presentations began with Georg Grieve speaking. He gave an excellent run through of why Free Software aligns with the ethos of NGOs, happy to take a few questions during his presentation.
Next Matthew Edmondson, M6-IT, spoke more specifically about Free Software applications, and talked to a number of issues about the barriers to adoption: social, market and technological.
This generated some lively debate, with some interesting stories about real life encounters, such as with the Visual Basic developer who was a Greenpeace activist.
At this point some of the NGOs started to ask a few questions. (Very
broadly, "why should they care?") This was particularly interesting for me, because while we in the FSFE clearly understand why we care, here was a customer perspective. One indicated that she had Firefox on her computer but still used MSIE.
We managed to avoid burning her at the stake, but it was close.
But did we successfully answer her question? (We'll never know, of course, because we won't know if she'll stop using MSIE and indeed stop using the rest of it). A variety of reasons were proffered, from "standards, interoperability" to "design features" to "because MSIE makes it easier to do bad things your online bank account".
The day broke for lunch (mmm, some very nice pasta) and there was a lot of intermingling. This was a further revelation to me because of the low awareness of the "what is" of Free Software. One attendee was quite frank, he was a Microsoft Windows administrator/provider for a number of very small Charities/Voluntary bodies, with a known set of problems. He was quite disinclined to pick up a new set. Another worked for a large UK charity and was more aware of Free Software but was pushing water uphill internally.
I think my contribution to the day was to persuade them to get hold of some live CDs and see how it went.
The afternoon was to be a hands-on session for the NGOs. I was unable to stay but it looked like it was going to be a good session as the meeting was very animated.
But if there's one thing I couldn't help but take away it's that while
preaching to the choir is relatively easy, this event reflected my experience elsewhere that we still have a tremendous amount of work to do in order to break the internalised belief of the ROTW that their computing experience will be the same with or without Free Software.
We need to work on Benefits, Benefits, Benefits…
Please excuse me for making one negative comment. In my informal chatting with the techies, one thing that came through was the potential for a Free Software marketing event to reveal internicene warfare with the potential consequence to alienate the audience.
I own up, I've been using KDE for ever with no plans on changing. One techie talked to me about Adrian de Groot's KDE 4 presentation the previous night, promplty confessing to having "a few problems" with KDE and wasn't convinced that using C++ was a wise decision. Different approaches, same philosophy, giving us the four freedoms, surely we could avoid even hinting about these "difficulties" in such fora?
I still haven't got my head around why Iceweasel exists (I have heard both that Firefox is and isn't compatible with Debian licensing, but since I don't know anything about Debian, I am an uninformed amateur on the problem. But the day was running both. Firefox has done a really good job in raising awareness of Free Software, people have heard of it. Shouldn't we avoid any opportunity for confusing or alienating the uninformed?
However, I emphasise: M6-IT ran a good workshop, FSFE presented well, I met a lot of interesting people, I was pleased to have gone