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 Theforce.net’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.

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