Fellowship interview with Enrico Zini

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

(Interview by Stian Rødven Eide.)

Enrico Zini is a long time Fellow of the FSFE and a prominent Debian developer. He has been involved in many different projects relating to Free Software and is deeply concerned about social issues. I had a nice chat with Enrico and asked him about some of his favourite causes.

Stian Rødven Eide: You’re a long time contributor to the Debian project, especially with regards to packages. Can you tell us briefly what your main responsibility in Debian is?

Enrico Zini
Enrico Zini

Enrico Zini: I mainly take care of Debtags, which is the new categorisation system for Debian packages. That is currently my main official responsibility.

SRE: Several of your Free Software projects deal with meteorological data. Is the use of Free Software prominent in meteorological institutions?

Enrico Zini: Meteorological institutions are very diverse, ranging from small regional centres to military centres and national, or even international institutions. The choice of software depends on many factors, sometimes even political ones. This said, I definitely see a growth of Free Software, with many centres starting to publish their own code as Free Software. One very notable one is no less than the ECMWF, which has recently released most of its software under the GPLv3 (note that even if some links mention requiring a £100 handling fee, in most cases the software that you will get is released under a free licence).

The USA are doing it better, thanks to better data access laws that require them to publish most government information into the public domain, and so if you go to NOAA (the US equivalent of ECMWF) you’ll be able to download source code as well as data, often released into the public domain. Also because of this, the USA tends to use free formats like HDF5 or NetCDF, while for example in the EU, in order to decode Meteosat satellite images you still require a nasty wavelet decompression library that is free to download, even in source format, so that you can recompile it in your system, but that has a nasty licence and is heavily patent encumbered.

I do hope that the recent changes in the ECMWF software distribution policies are the first of many steps in the right directions, and that we are going towards a system were EU citizens can access the data that they have already paid to acquire.

SRE: You have been voicing support for women in Debian. Do you feel that the situation for women in Free Software has become better during the last years?

Enrico Zini: I think that there is, at least in some groups, a better mindset: It’s rather hard now to get away with a sexist joke in one of the main Debian mailing lists, and I think that is a good thing. Much more important than that, is that while women have always been part of computer innovation in one way or another, now, even in Free Software projects, we see women taking the lead, like, in the case of Debian, among the Debian KDE developers, or the Debian Game Team. That is very important, because a woman in some gender-nasty society like, say, Italy, can see that yes, it can be done, and can therefore pursue her interests without believing that she is “crazy”, or whatever the gender-nasty society she’s in would like her to believe.

This said, there is still a lot of work to do. Some top-level groups are doing well, and can set an important example, but there are still many smaller, more local group were things are appalling.

SRE: What do you think we can do to make involvement in Free Software projects more attractive for women?

Enrico Zini: Say that for example I’m in an Italian Debian IRC channel and people are going around with sexist jokes and whatnot, I can now say “Stop it, you idiots, what would you think that the Debian KDE people would say, reading what you just typed?”

However, I think that sexism is but one of the many kinds of discrimination that may be going on. It’s definitely one that is clearly visible. But some projects can have, maybe not intentionally, discrimination against people who are not always on IRC, or against people who are not assertive enough on mailing lists, or against people with limited bandwidth, or against non-technical contributors. Even people from a wrong timezone is something that can be discriminated against sometimes. I believe that we should evolve towards a mindset which allows us to make Free Software projects more attractive for women, and also for everyone else that can be a valuable contributor.

SRE: You co-authored a study on the use of Free Software in schools, largely based on experiences from the Keynes High School in Bologna which was an early adopter of Free Software. You were initially a student at the school and have since been involved as an occational teacher, researcher and supporter of the system. Apart from the initial resistance, have there been any major difficulties in the employment of Free Software at the school?

Enrico Zini: By now, the only difficulty left is teachers. Some are motivated to use Free Software, and do great things. But more teachers have been learning to use Microsoft Office, and fear that if they use another environment, their past learning efforts will have been useless (which is false), or that the students will be more confident than the teachers unless the teachers use the suite that they know best (which is also false; there will always be students more confident than the teachers, with ANY software suite). So these fears of not being adequate for teaching end up turning “different software” into a scapegoat. The school had to maintain an extra (costly) Microsoft Office lab exactly to defuse this.

But the Keynes experience hasn’t finished. For example, recently they have started bringing new life to the older labs with little investment thanks to LTSP setups, and when other schools with small budgets heard of this, they asked the Keynes technicians to help them to do the same. And so now we have several primary schools and junior high schools scattered on the Bologna countryside that are running Free Software and are very happy with their old labs of Pentium II machines that become modern workstations with a mere 4 or €5,000 investment on a new beefed up LTSP server. This really shows the promises of Free Software actually happening: Once you take skilled people and you put them in control of the technology, problems get solved.

SRE: What is your advice to teachers and system administrators wanting to expand the use of Free Software at local schools and universities?

Enrico Zini: My main advice is to find other teachers and system administrators who have already done it, and get in touch. The thing that helps the most is to know that you are not alone. You can then share your problems, and especially solutions. Make a private announcement mailing list and get everyone to commit to posting there all the problems that they manage to solve, all the cool things that they manage to get done. That way, if others have a similar problem, they’ll know who to ask. I say “private” because sometimes to do cool things you need naughty thinking, and you don’t want people not to say that they’ve done something good because they fear that it’ll be indexed by Google. Or even better; if people are lazy with writing, organise regular meetings with other likely minded teachers or sysadmins over a beer, or wine, or whatever sounds nice.

SRE: You have been participating in several European Social Forums and even initiated the Bologna Free Software Forum. Do you see a link between this kind of social space and the way Free Software communities work in general?

Enrico Zini: I certainly see a link, because both Free Software communities and Social Forums have blurred boundaries. In Debian we have people working in corporations, maybe some in military environments, and we have political activists, anarchists, and we have deeply religious people. All these people work together in Debian, even if maybe they would never get along in real life. But this shows that there is already space for people from Social Forums in the Free Software communities, and by my own experience, this space isn’t empty, that is, there is already an overlap. Who is to say that someone in the Debian Security Team couldn’t have built up their know-how by taking care of security for mail severs used by political activists, for example?

A bigger problem that I see at the moment, at least in some groups that I know in Italy, is the problem of having Social Forum environments grow a better understanding of the Internet. The people from an example imaginary “League of Organic Farmers”, would have enough work to do than also having to learn to tell normal email from spam or phishing, for example, or plan a migration to free software. Activists tend to live their life busy at the edge of burn out, and this normally undermines the adoption of new technology, or free software, of new communication techniques – which is a shame.

SRE: What do you think Free Software methods and mentality can teach us about social and political interaction?

Enrico Zini: I think that they teach us to keep in mind what’s our goal. Eventually software has to solve a problem, so if you just spend your time overengineering something that doesn’t work, you won’t become a successful Free Software developer. Social and political interaction has, in my experience, a tendency to create systems whose goal becomes overengineering itself, where discussions about a social issue eventually fade in favour of discussions about the group itself, or become nothing more than discussions, discussions, and preaching to the choir. Just like in Debian we have activists and corporations working together, in the Genoa 2001 protest I recall groups of anarchists as well as groups of boy scouts taking part to the protest, because they both wanted the same: I’d like to see that happen again. This cooperation is still alive in the Free Software world, and maybe it can serve to inspire.

SRE: One of the projects stemming from the Bologna Free Software Forum is Comodino, which advocates Critical Consumption of IT. This involves thinking in terms of sustainability and ethics when considering IT purchases, which of course are strong arguments for choosing Free Software. How has the project been going so far?

Enrico Zini: The project is still alive, and it is doing its job. We probably have obtained only a limited cultural change with regards to technology among our users, mainly because the maintenance of the server has kept up busy enough to be able to run other initiatives. However, we are hosting 50 websites and countless mailing lists, giving several groups a chance to have a presence online, without commercials in their mailing lists, with access to the list archives and with all those unwritten benefits of having the system managed by people who’d like you to succeed in your social goal rather than just get your money and minimise the trouble. We are also doing streaming for a real radio and some web radios.

SRE: So it’s primarily about providing services for social projects?

Enrico Zini: Yes. In the end, it’s a Xen box with a DNS, Postfix, the Sympa mailing list software, and a LAMP DomU hosting lots of little PostNuke clones, or whatever other horrific PHP wreckage people like to set up these days. But it humbly does the trick for many small groups.

Many thanks to Enrico for providing his insight on these issues. You can read more about him on his website enricozini.org