Open Source and Open Learning

Years ago when I was at OpenAdvantage, I worked closely with a group called Access To Recycled Technology. Formed by two salt-of-the-earth students called Steve and Vinnie, they secured what they referred to as “access space” in Birmingham. It was basically a decent sized room that they used to fill with old, discarded computers. They would then install Linux on these computers and use them to train people and upskill them in Open Source software and general computing skills. Linux was the perfect choice: it ran well on older hardware, and software such as XFCE managed to squeeze more juice out of those machines.

For many of the people who came to access space, Steve and Vinnie would furnish them with a computer that they could take home to continue to learn and refine their skills. The guys had struck a deal with Birmingham City Council to take a warehouse full of old computers that were destined for the dump. This gave them a stock of computers to give out to the local community, complete with Linux and application software pre-installed. It was perfect for all involved: for the council to dispose of the computers in landfill was expensive, so when Steve and Vinnie came knocking, it was ideal.

I loved the concept of the scheme. It fits the opportunity of Open Source perfectly: old computers re-energised with free software to give away to people who need them. It helps put computers in the hands of people who could not ordinarily afford them, helps encourage learning, and contributes to closing the digital divide. It is also an ideal green-friendly way to deal with the mounds and mounds of computers that are simply not cut-out for Vista.

The opportunity for Open Source in this area is stunning. While at OpenAdvantage I worked with Birmingham City Council to fill a Community Center in Aston (a deprived part of Birmingham) with machines that ran Ubuntu to help train the local community. Courses were given in using the desktop, office productivity, graphics with the GIMP and Blender, web development in HTML and PHP, learning and sharing knowledge with Wikipedia, desktop publishing with Scribus and more. We also worked with the center to run courses designed to excite local young people. Courses were run on podcasting, recording music, editing video and more. The courses helped to get kids off the street and in a computer room, being creative and enjoying the technology. It was great to see their faces when they realised they could take the software home and use it there too, and that they could share it as much as they liked.

Open Source really paves the way to learning. I have met so many people who have had a hugely positive impact on their lives by enabling their creativity with Open Source.

An example of this was a kid known as WeirdHat. Years ago he used Blender to composite him fighting an animated character in lightsaber battle (unfortunately I can’t find the original video to share with you all). He then entered’s fanfilm forum with this video of him having a lightsaber battle with himself. It is stunning. Not only that, but he then went on to animate Colbert with a lightsaber and got featured on the show. He used Blender for it all.

WeirdHat is obviously a talented guy. The free availability of Blender and a stunning community of Blender users helped unlock his creativity. There are thousands of similar stories happening right now: Open Source opening up doors to creativity which are not only rewarding, but career building. Do you folks have any other success stories to share?

But lets get back to the concept of using Linux to recycle computers. While there are many of these schemes around the world, it seems that they are largely uncoordinated. It strikes me that there is oodles of potential in getting these different projects together to share knowledge, best practice and advice. There is also huge potential in working with other user groups such as Ubuntu LoCo Teams and Linux User Groups to help staff the projects, deliver training and install the software on computers.

Speaking personally, I would love to see our worldwide collection of Ubuntu LoCo Teams help to deliver Ubuntu or its derivatives to people on these computers. Are any LoCo teams doing this? If we have a small number of teams doing this, lets get them talking together and see what opportunities flow from it.

  • Johnny Robeson

    very similiar to the freegeek project here in the USA

  • ethana2

    Using Ubuntu to give new life to old hardware is a noble concept, which I’ve practiced very recently myself, but I think there comes a point where recycling should be done by.. recycling. That is to say, I think it’d be very helpful if there was some official guide out there that tells people what to do with hardware; Ubuntu, xubuntu, or send that silicon, gold, and copper in to be made into something that’s truly useful again.

  • andylockran

    There’s a project that a guy I work with is just kicking off to do just that. He’s also working on a framework to allow volunteers to get paid for helping people fix issues/install hardware – all centered around a custom-build of ubuntu. All using recycled computers.

    The recycling companies are really keen to add value, as then they can make more money selling on the machines. Rather than just having spurts of input and output – having people on-site installing Ubuntu will allow them to keep the workforce active for a greater % of time. It’s a win-win situation.

    I think the project is due to launch pretty soon, and will be looking to utilise the ubuntu-uk community as a core for providing support/help to these new users. I look forward to blogging about it, and tracking back to this post, when it ‘goes live.’

  • JoshPanter

    First off, the whole reality of open source being such an empowering catalyst for education, access, and unleashing creative and professional potential in people is simply awesome, and well put in this article. This is one of the reasons I continue to be excited about the open source world. Second, the ability of open source to be “Green” is also pretty darn cool.

    The Michigan Ubuntu loco had an idea in the works for this, I believe it is waiting for someone to pick up the reins and actually lead it. I would love to put in some man-hours to a project like this, especially with cities like Detroit and Flint so close to us that could certainly benefit from such an endeavorer. I do know also, that the Free-geek project is moving in near us, but a coordinated effort from the Ubuntu community at large could have a profoundly positive impact. I cannot say enough positive remarks on this subject.

  • jono

    Wow, sounds fantastic, Andy. Do let me know more when it is launched. :)

  • jono

    Indeed. I very nearly mentioned that in my post alongside Seeds For Change, AccessSpace and a few others. There are some great initiatives going on around the world. :)

  • jono

    Josh, this sounds fantastic!!

    It would be excellent if the Michigan team got something like this up and running. I wonder what other LoCo teams are doing similar work too. Do you know of any?

  • Greg

    A project like this was always in the back of my mind when reviving the Michigan LoCo. And now with FreeGeek coming in there may be an already in place system to plug into soon. I think it would be cool for the Michigan LoCo folks to have a group outing at FreeGeek to volunteer once a month or something when it opens.

    Regarding other LoCos doing this: I seem to remember the Arizona team having such a project. I can’t find the wiki page anymore though.

  • Jesper Jarlskvo

    Very interesting project, indeed. It’s nice to see people helping the community, not just the Linux-one, but also the one they live in. It’s kinda similar to the Danish Fair Danmark, who collects computers, erases the contents on the hard-disks, salvages useful parts, installs Linux and ships the machines to poor countries. Right now they have a project set up with an organisation in Malawi, that will take care of distributing the computers to schools and the likes. Sponsorship comes from other humanitarian organisations, and from the companies who sponsor with machine, and the money needed to ship them. The companies then receives a mark for getting rid of used equipment in an environment-friendly way :-)

  • Odysseus Flappington

    One thing that would really make a HUGE difference to recycling organisations who are trying to get Linux on refurbished computers into the hands of more disadvantaged people would be discounted support from Canonical.

    The biggest deal-breaker for people who want a free computer is the fact that they have absolutely no Linux experience. I know of a couple of computer recycling organisations who would love to do this, but just can’t afford to provide support to those people.

    If Canonical could offer a discounted desktop support contract for refurbished machines, then this could very well compete with the refurbished Windows 2000 licenses Microsoft sell to these types of organisations at ridiculously low prices.

  • Jesper Jarlskov

    But couldn’t most of that support be taken care of by the community in general, via. the forum and the normal ways, where most other people get their support?

  • Jayne The Great!

    Steve and Vinnie? Do you ever hear off those two now? :-) I remember helping those two install a flavour of Linux on an old computer (forget which flavour now though, d’oh!) to use as a server for a charity. I haven’t heard off them for a while. That was a brilliant initiative too! :-)

  • JGJones

    When I worked for a charity, with aging servers that was spending most of their time in “downtime” (running Windows NT4 and 2000) to the point that most offices was just using a peer to peer network…

    I installed Ubuntu onto those servers for basic file serving. Charity get the bonus of getting their servers back in action and is also reliable at no cost.

    Linux isn’t just great for recycling…it’s a huge advantage for all charities looking to save money without the “Microsoft Tax” – likewise with office suites such as OpenOffice and so on.

    It doesn’t just end there…for example…if the charity want Exchange features in emails, they can always look at excellent alternatives such as Zimbra (Open Source Edition) – which is a powerful email server/suite in its own right.

    A good suggestion would be to ask those LoCo if they can provide help toward all those small and even medium-sized charities – ie making them aware of OpenOffice for office works, free accounting software for book-keeping and so on.

  • Mackenzie

    The Washington, DC LoCo Team has been doing this for years. There are a number of low-income housing areas in Northern Virginia with computer labs set up by the DC LoCo using recycled equipment. We’ve also got a lab in the Cleveland Park Library with 3 Ubuntu computers. Kevin Cole (our leader) helps random folks use those computers on Saturdays, and there have been a few GIMP classes there.

    Back when it was active, the Northeastern US LoCo Team’s former leader, Jozef, got his workplace to donate the dozen computers they were replacing to the School Without Walls in Washington, DC. I installed Edubuntu on all of them.

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  • Keithpeter

    Nice stuff. I live ‘up the hill’ in Bordesley Green so I know the territory these people were working in. Not much disposable income, so a free/old pc with secure software would have been a real bonus.

    The large FE college where I work is fertile ground for open source -we already use Moodle as our VLE. Its easier to get OS server side taken seriously than client side at present, although the GIMP and Audacity are useful cross platform client side apps.

    Now, I have a chance to get some online community building done with the teenagers in my College. Any suggestions?

  • jono

    Great stuff, Mackenzie!

    Is this a formalised scheme or does it happen as and when computers are available and people need them?

    Also, did your document any best practice about how to do this work?

  • jono

    I would recommend by first organising some meetings. At each meeting have a feature such as a talk, tutorial or something else. I am sure this will be of interest to the teenagers. You should also ask them if they want to be involved and help give talks and tutorials.

    Keep me posted on how you get on. :)

  • Keithpeter

    Yup – we have student council members and I’m hoping to interest them in having a Moodle ‘course’ where they can get messages from their ‘constituents’ and perhaps run surveys (no name, no packdrill) on matters of concern in their lives at College. If it starts to take off, I’ll update here.

  • dan trevino

    We’ve got two projects tangentially related to the loco team here in Florida.

    One formerly active member started Free Geek Central Florida ( ), and just recently, a new loco member started QuinnCo Inc ( ). Free Geek needs no introduction, but QuinnCo might. In their own words:

    “Our goal is to provide special computers to kids with special needs. We take donated computers and load them up with free education games that teach kids computer skills, literacy skills, and math skills.”

    The customized OS they distribute with PCs is based on Xubuntu.

    The LoCo team has been working recently to help in whatever way possible (support,marketing,whatever). One team member was able to provide ISO hosting. And we’re trying to work to get them a booth near us at the Florida Linux Show in Orlando (October).

    More coming from Florida! Dan

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  • Mackenzie

    When the labs were setup for the housing projects, I wasn’t with the LoCo yet, so I’m not sure, but I think it was just “hey we have computers, let’s do something with them.” For the School Without Walls computers, what happened was Jozef contacted me over UbuntuForums and asked if I could come to the office where he works to clear the drives and install Edubuntu and find a school that could use them. School Without Walls is only a couple blocks from my apartment and didn’t look like it was in very good shape, so I figured they could use free stuff.

    As to the library lab and classes…those sort of fell into place. One of the guys, Sanjay, is the one who came up with the classes idea, so he’s organized those. I think he’s also how we ended up with a lab there that Kevin runs. At first I volunteered to teach the GIMP classes, but I had to back out when school got too intense. I don’t know who teaches them now.

  • andylockran

    Keithpeter. I’d recommend looking at elgg if you’re wanting an out of the box solution – or if you’re more technically minded (and like django/python) then pinax could be the thing for you ( Let me know how you get on (I’m an expat Brum!)

  • Keithpeter

    Hello Andy

    Yup, I’m pushing for ELGG but a start with Moodle will help reassure people that the students can focus and work within sensible rules that they negotiate themselves (so we can remove the ‘rules’ built into the software through permissions and roles).

  • Odysseus Flappington

    Actually, this biggest problem for these people is actually getting online.

    “Disadvantaged people” often live in areas which dont have broadband.

    Have you ever set-up a dial-up modem in Linux? It’s not easy hey.

    Additionally, these “disadvantaged people” that I speak of are people that are often extremely non-technical. They get support from friends and family who all know windows 2000/xp, you can’t give them a machine with linux and say well, support’s not our problem.

    A pirated copy of XP will be on there within the day.

    Once they’re online, then they would actually settle in very quickly. Kids, especially, their heads are like sponges. But most of the time, the support required to get the machine set-up and online is something that charities can’t afford.

  • Antonio Roberts

    Is that community space still in Aston? I live near there and have unfortunately never herad of it. Also, was there any documentation of it?

    I’m trying to start something similar and it’d be great to hear more of your experiences!

  • Antonio Roberts

    I use GIMP, Inkscape and Blender quite a bit. I find them very useful but totally agree that it’s hard to get others using them, especially when they’re used to Adobe/proprietary software.

    I think to get their interest you should definitely show some more famous examples e.g. Blender was used for Spiderman films and many electronic artists and musicians use Pure:Data, Supercollider and others.

  • InfectedWithDrew

    I am a new member of the New York LoCo and I forwarded this post to our mailing list.

    I’m very interested in setting Ubuntu up on junk computers. I installed it on a fiend’s family’s failing computers that ran XP and were inundated with viruses, and I know that most regular Americans live under such conditions. It would be nice to see some of the more competent and courageous ones taking the plunge and trying Ubuntu.

  • jono

    I can’t remember the name of the center now (it was a long time ago), and I have no idea if it is still there.

    Unfortunately, there is no documentation from the work. When I get some time, I might try and write something up from what I remember.

  • jaduncan

    OLPC. All day every day. Although I’ve often thought that Ubuntu should offer hosting space for Ubuntu related projects like OSS charities and outreach.

    Are there any plans for that?