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Soweto's OSS hackers attract attention

By   |  March 22, 2006

The CSIR Open Source Centre plans to open a satellite centre in Soweto in May this year to expose untapped ICT skills and research potential in the township just south of Johannesburg.

OpenProject focus area leader at the Open Source Centre, Ntsika Msimang, who will manage the new centre, says South Africans are talented enough to develop world class products. “This ‘scarce skills’ talk is nothing but a fallacy,” says Msimang. “The problem is that the country has not put them to use.”

“When we ran an OSS workshop in August 2005 in Soweto we were shocked to find out how much ICT talent was just lying dormant,” he says.

“There was a young man, who lives in Pimville [a suburb in Soweto] and works for one of the four big banks, who had been communicating, via e-mail, with Linus Torvalds on a Linux bug he discovered and was trying to fix,” says Msimang.

“When he projected the Linux source code on the screen and a good number of people in the room could tell what the ‘gibberish’ on the screen was doing, we knew we had to come to Soweto and leverage that talent.”

Manager of the CSIR Open Source Centre, Nhlanhla Mabaso, says he spotted a “Richard Stallman in dreadlocks” at the workshop.

“If we really want open source to be accessible to people — high calibre, talented people — we’d like to make it available for them to make that contribution from where they stay,” says Mabaso.

“We are hoping that through this we’ll be able to move into that other paradigm, where as we do things, we’ll do them with the involvement of people in the area,” says Mabaso.

It’s a move away from the idea of research from the ivory tower of academia, says Mabaso, “where we sit here and make all the wonderful decisions and come up with nice case studies with lessons that [we] could’ve learned if we were there in the first place”.

One of the key focus areas of the centre will be testing the effectiveness of wireless mesh networks in improving Internet connectivity in Soweto. The project will also test the Internet as a service delivery channel in e-Government initiatives, says Msimang. “To avoid confrontation with regulators, we will be operating on a license free frequency band,” he says.

Mbaso says Sowetan locals have already built a wireless mesh network — an ingenious solution for those desperate for broadband in the ADSL-deprived area. “They have managed to bounce off signals from the training colleges around them and are passing them onto other areas,” says Mabaso.

The centre also plans to employ developers who will develop open source smart card technology, build customised open source distributions for scientists, and write computer-based training software for OpenOffice and Linux.

The centre will be based at the computer training facility at the National Institute for Crime Prevention and Reintegration of Offenders (Nicro), and has already built a number of links with local businesses and organisations in the area.

Although a launch date has not been set, Mabaso and Msimang say it’s likely to take place during John “Maddog” Hall’s visit to the country in May. Says Msimang: “He expressed that he wanted to visit the Soweto center during his visit.”

Comments

2 Responses to “Soweto's OSS hackers attract attention”

  1. Anon
    April 7th, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    Great project and time FLOSS initiatives are taken to the communities. However, we should never forget that institutions of higher learning have a critical role to play in research and in skills development. It is not that we have to move away from the \”Ivory Towers of Academia\”, but that that we should find more and more creative and innovatvie ways of engaging the HEIs and the communities. It is not a case of either/or, but rather both/and in creative partnerships that can leverage the richness of diverse perspectives.

  2. Neo Masilo
    June 22nd, 2006 @ 12:00 am

    I am the Managing Director of Grape Projects an a small IT hardware company based in Soweto Pimville and would like to invite all parties interested in spreading/ educating the society of the Open Source framework in Soweto.

    Contact No.s (011)933 4961

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