“We champion the use of Creative Commons and open source solutions, and we embrace the right to online privacy, free from surveillance capitalism”
Without diving too deeply into the detail of Creative Commons (CC) or ‘free and open source software’ (FOSS), our ‘championing’ of the sector means that we want to see a world that is more supportive of a digital ‘commons’ that belongs to humanity, rather than the current headlong rush to grab digital assets, often creating huge wealth for the owners of companies, often at the expense of the privacy of individual users.
Without getting into the details of licensing, both FOSS and CC aim to generate public bodies of work (including code or software) that are available to everyone for free, and for any use. Perhaps the best-known example of this type of platform is Wikipedia.
Afallen is particularly interested in how the esoteric concepts that underpin a digital commons are embedded into how we work, and how they can add value for us and for the people and organisations we work with. In this article I will be focusing on FOSS, although CC has many similar benefits associated with it.
There are a number of different themes that are relevant to the perspective of a small business – equally applicable to small charities or not-for-profit organisations.
- Learning and development
Firstly, as a values-based organisation, FOSS is strongly aligned with our corporate objectives of seeing a fairer, more prosperous and more environmentally friendly Wales. In fact, most of the Future Generations Goals are supported by using CC and FOSS products or platforms, in contrast to closed source or proprietary tools (see image).
As an example, most commercial products require an up-front or on-going licence fee to be paid in order to use the software. The software companies are generally based outside Wales, contributing towards economic leakage from Wales. FOSS software can usually be used for free, eliminating the barriers for payment to access it.
FOSS products can be modified or adapted, particularly interesting in Wales where this functionality enables projects to be readily translated into Welsh; I am currently a volunteer translator for a number of open source projects, including Impactasaurus, Zulip, Open Collective and Pixelfed.
FOSS can allow older hardware to run more efficiently, reducing the need for frequent upgrades of computers, and reducing the environmental impact of organisational tech use.
Entering the world of FOSS is to embrace a beautiful ecosystem of people, organisations and technologies that co-exist with the overall purpose of ensuring access to all for the code that is created under the FOSS umbrella.
There are literally millions of people working on FOSS projects globally at this instant; most of the code that you are using to read this blog post, from the operating system to the tech that allows the hardware to operate, will have an open source aspect.
This huge and frenetic mass of activity is constantly propelling different software projects forward, and in ways that are often as advanced as their commercial counterparts. This process creates innovation, which is something that can be highly beneficial to small businesses.
Indeed, many FOSS projects are directed specifically at small businesses. The process of understanding your current organisational needs, and then figuring out how different FOSS components could offer alternative solutions, can result in surprising innovations, to the benefit of your organisation and clients. The ability to modify FOSS projects means that they can be altered for your organisation’s specific needs.
Learning and development
Closely tied to the innovation aspect is the opportunity to learn and develop skills associated with deploying FOSS platforms. As an example, my first experience with FOSS through business was to create a website for RenewableUK Cymru using WordPress. That led on to developing multiple websites for various events, and then onto hosting FOSS polling platforms for an awards programme.
Since leaving RenewableUK Cymru I have branched out further, and am now – despite not being a ‘coder’ – very comfortable deploying FOSS products such as online forums, direct messaging platforms, information repositories and peer-to-peer video calling. The astonishing thing for me is that this stuff is pretty straightforward; if you can copy and paste instructions, you can almost certainly do this yourself. Yet the implications are quite profound for me as an individual, building confidence and capacity that I am now also able to deploy pro-bono for the public sector and charity.
One of the most attractive features – for me anyway – about FOSS is that it is free at the point of use. This can make it a very interesting alternative to commercial applications.
Whilst there is a cost for hosting the software on your own server (I am currently paying about £5/month for each deployment of forum, messaging platform, information repository and website), those costs are generally a small fraction of the costs associated with the commercial equivalents.
For example, Slack, a popular messaging application, costs between £5-£10 per month per user for more than ‘basic’ use. An open source equivalent, Zulip, is totally free if self-hosted. For organisations seeking to reduce their overheads, these cost differentials can be alluring.
Although this component of FOSS is not on the radar for many organisations, the ability to use software without ourselves or our customers being tracked online is an important consideration for Afallen. Many commercial platforms require users to abide by licence agreements that require them to surrender their digital privacy in exchange for the use of the platforms. Such requirements are not generally needed for FOSS software.
As an example, our website is based on WordPress, the most popular and widely used blogging platform. We have eschewed third party add-ons that collect website visitor data, so when you view our website you know that nobody is tracking you. The social media feeds embedded on our website are Pixelfed and the Welsh version of Mastodon called ‘Toot.Wales’. Neither of them embed any tracking software on your browser when you visit.
If you’ve made it to the end of this article, you may still be scratching your head about how to start your FOSS journey. Here are some suggestions:
- Send me a message or give me a ring – I am always happy to chat through ideas
- Search the ‘Alternative to’ website for the software that you’re currently using, and see if there’s a recommended open source equivalent
- If you don’t have the time or inclination yourself, recruit a Digital Degree Apprentice (it could be an existing staff member) to experiment and deploy FOSS assets on your behalf. The current Welsh Government programme, run by UWTSD, is an extremely attractive offer
- Join meetings of the Senedd Cross-Party Group on Digital Rights and Democracy, which often discusses issues around FOSS in Wales