What is ailing Free Software in Kerala and how it can be fixed

Kerala is one of the few success stories in the adoption of Free Software in the world. The state of Kerala has adopted Free Software at the school level since 2007. For those who know about Kerala, this is no surprise. Kerala is one of the most fertile and prosperous states in India with human development indices matching first world standards. The people have a strong engagement in politics, which is heavily left-leaning, and it is natural for the free software movement to find resonance in this culture.

As a part of its goal to strengthen the free software community and adoption, the Government of Kerala established an International Center for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) in 2008. This week, I was invited to be part of the panel at the Young Professional Meet organized by ICFOSS aimed at young professionals and college students and I had a chance to catch up with a few active members of the FOSS community.

Reality and Perception

After being in the open source domain for so many years, I was always perplexed by the Kerala model. While the state was so ahead of its time in adoption of Free Software, there was little reflection of this in practice. By this I mean blogs, participation on forums, contributions to projects, new projects on GitHub (or other alternatives) and sharing of ideas. This contrast was reaffirmed during my visit to Kerala.

While the “movement” was successful in stopping (or slowing down?) proprietary software from entering the state, there definitely seemed to be something missing.

Sharing and Communicating

Communication is at the heart of building communities that thrive on free and open source software. Jordan Hubbard said in a talk he gave at the ERPNext conference, that he read and replied to thousands of emails every day. Today we have more tools than we need for sharing our thoughts and stories, and we should use all of them.

Sharing and communicating also helps other people emulate you. If you have been successful in using a particular free alternative and you share this information with others, this helps them to also use that alternative. If there were some configuration hacks that you needed to do to get something running, and you write a small post on this, this can help a lot of other people. This creates a virtuous cycle, and this is what Kerala lacks.

Once there is an engaged community, then projects are natural byproduct. We have amazing tools like today that help us share our projects and showcase them. By building tools for the rest of the community, Kerala can be a hub of free and open source software, just like Bangalore is for tech startups. It is also important for the community to connect with the global FOSS community and view this as a global movement, not just a Kerala focused one.

How can we fix this?

Kerala has done the hard work of creating awareness and has a supportive state in which free and open source software can flourish. There are a number of ways I can think this process can accelerated.

  1. Get everyone blogging. Get teachers, students, government officials, activists to use existing platforms like their personal blogs, Facebook, Medium etc to start writing about their FOSS Experience.
  2. Celebrate doers. Remember that doers need encouragement and nudging to share, because they are busy doing. Activists have a day job communicating, so it is important that the doers also to come to light.
  3. Pick a project or start a new one. Identify a promising project and incentivize writing of blogs, fixing issues for that project and make it a showcase for the Kerala FOSS community. The experience from this success will give confidence to the participants to branch off and start their own projects.
  4. Events, hackathons and contests. The state can start asking the community to build some of that software it needs via contests and hackathons. This is a great way to attract new developers to start contributing on FOSS projects.

Conclusion

The Free Software movement in Kerala seems to be undergoing a generational change. The challenge before the new generation is to build on the success of the previous generation and go where they have not been successful, that is in doing projects.

I can easily see the intent is already present and there are some great people whom I met on my trip who have the capability to make this happen. I am very much looking forward to see the FOSS movement in Kerala throw out some interesting projects.

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