Jun 11

Open data and Creativity

The Greek mathematician and philosopher Plato, when asked of the Socratic dialogue The Republic, “Will we say of a painter, that he makes something?,” answered “Certainly not, he merely imitates.” Plato did not believe in art as a form of creativity. In fact, many great ancient cultures like Ancient Greece and Ancient India lacked the concept of creativity.

Art was seen as a form of discovery and not creation. It was a common belief that creativity happens to a selected few as a consequence of some form of divine intervention.

Creativity today

The development of the modern concept of creativity and the formation of its modern understanding began during the Renaissance, when creation began to be perceived as having originated from human abilities and efforts rather than as a work of God. By the 18th century and during the Age of Enlightenment, imagination became a key element of human cognitive skills. Creativity as a subject and an inseparable part of human nature began to gain widespread attention in the early 20th century when leading scientists like Henri Poincaré began to discuss their creative process. It was around this time in the early 20th century that the economic views of creativity started emerging. Among pioneers in this was Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian-American economist, who gave the world the economic theory of “Creative Destruction,” as a way in which old ways of doing things are endogenously destroyed and replaced by the new.

Creativity, for the first time began to be viewed as a major driver of a nations economy and an indispensable ingredient to create new technologies and enterprises. Economist Richard Florida, in his splendidly written book, The Rise of the Creative Class, popularized the notion that the regions with 3T’s, namely Technology, Talent, and Tolerance, also have high concentration of creative professionals. In a sentence, creativity became the focal point.

Private enterprises began to find ways to boost creativity of their employees and academic research expanded phenomenally on the subject. The government sector was also not oblivious to the obvious. One of the vital developments in the technology sector in the recent past has been the opening up of data. Open data, as it is termed, is available for everyone to use and republish as they wish without any restrictions from the clutches of patents, copyrights, and any other mechanism of control. Open data gives an autonomy to people with ideas to contribute in a significant manner in various areas of development. These initiatives to open up data fortifies the initiatives to enhance creativity.

How does open data relate to creativity?

Why should more and more open data be available?

How does open data make us more creative?

Following are three perspectives that attempt to answer the aforementioned questions.

Democratization of creativity

It is a universal adage that true development happens when the highest level of technology reaches the lowest level of society. In today’s world, where the Internet has leveled the playing field, opening up resources to all sections of the society can bring about a massive positive change in the world. Open data symbolizes, and at the same time strengthens, the concept of inclusion of citizens in the advancement of our society. It makes people stakeholders in human progression. For instance, my cousin lives is in the Indian city of Kurukshetra and yet can visit the World Bank’s open data website to expand his understanding about the state of education in African schools.

This enhanced level of understanding generates ideas for change. We live in a data economy where engagement between businesses, and between citizens and their governments, is changing. In this new society, access to data leads to more experimentation and innovation at both the individual level and the organizational level. Access to open data provides everyone with the opportunity and level playing field to become a creator. Open data acts as a powerful mechanism to transform ideas into execution.

An emerging ecosystem

In 2013, Google.org, the philanthropic arm of Google, announced major funding for two tech-based projects. These projects are the Sunlight Foundation, which the funds to create standards for open data in all U.S. cities, and mySociety, a charity that builds open source code for local governments. Reflecting a similar pattern, GitHub has taken steps to become more useful for open data based projects. These sort of initiatives have made GitHub an attractive host for municipal data like City of Chicago. Institutes like the Open Data Institute are already organizing the evolution of open data and playing a pioneering role in creation of an open data culture. The formulation of this new ecosystem build upon open data is promising a more creative society, is empowering citizens and making our governments more efficient, and most importantly, more transparent.

The Weather story

Thomas Jefferson made regular weather observations, and as a matter of fact, noted it was 76 degrees while penning the United States Declaration of Independence. The first formal collection of weather data came from super hobbyists, like Jefferson and the Meteorological Society of Palatinate, and made its way to the Smithsonian in 1849. Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first secretary, created a national network of volunteer telegraph operators. In this system each operator would telegraph the wind, rain, and temperature data. This data collection operation was put to halt due to the Civil War. Around the end of the Civil War, American meteorologist, Cleveland Abbe started to talk about data driven probabilities that could be built with the the short period of data beforehand. Based on this, a petition, called “Disaster on the Lakes” was out to the Chicago Academy of Sciences to make a storm warning system around Lake Michigan. Around 1870, Congress passed a joint resolution appropriating a signal service for the U.S. Army, whose job it was to collect weather observations at the military stations in the United States and to let the stations know when the storm was coming.

After a couple of decades of military measurements went by, it was requested that U.S. Congress move the weather service to the Department of Agriculture. It was at this point that industries ranging from transportation, railroad companies, and the agriculture sector began demanding the data of the weather bureau. In a few years, anything that was affected by weather was dependent on the data from theNational Weather Service.

Today, an industry worth US $1.5 billion revolves around weather data. Today, we also have private players and startups that provide an alternative to data from the traditional sources. One insight from this evolution is that data when made open and made accessible empowers individuals and organizations to build innovative products and platforms. It makes them think outside the box and expands the horizons of their creativity.

Open data increases our existing threshold of intelligence and presents to us a picture of the world that we never perceived before.


This article of mine is also published here on Opensource.com.

Mar 28

Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads: On Managing Yourself


Managing yourself

Forests have fallen by writing books on topics centered around personal management and self improvement. A significant majority of them, especially the ones with gawky titles do not make much rational sense to me. I believe that one can learn and grow more by reading auto/biographies of business and political leaders than by reading the kind of books that claim to teach an MBA in 10 days. I find them superficial and detached from the realities of life.

Things, however, take a 180 degree turn if two of the world’s most influential management thinkers talk about subjects like “managing yourself”. Management gurus like Clayton M. Christensen and Peter F. Drucker have defined the course of management and invented concepts that have not only pushed forward the boundaries of management theory but have profoundly influenced the way corporations operate, both at the macro and the micro levels.

The book HBR’s 10 must reads: On Managing Yourself, consists of 10 articles by top business thinkers. A quick surf on the names of authors who contributed to this splendid book was enough to fire my curiosity. The insights presented on self improvement and self management by Clayton Christensen and Peter Drucker are especially inspiring and worth sharing. I will discuss Clayton Christensen’s article in this post and Peter Drucker’s definitive article in one of my subsequent posts.

In How will you measure your life? , Clayton beautifully ties the successful principles and models implemented in organizations to the individual development.  He believes that innovation theories and models that help build strong companies can also help people lead better lives. The article uses management practices to answer three questions relevant to (almost) everyone’s life. How can I be happy in my career? How can I be sure that my relationship with my family is an enduring source of happiness? and How can I live my life with integrity?

The great american psychologist, Frederick Herzberg, who gave the world “The dual structure theory”, asserted that money isn’t the most powerful motivational factor in a person’s career. It is primarily the opportunity to grow in responsibility, contribute and be recognized.  I think money is a consequence of these prime motivational factors. People who have the most gratifying carriers are usually the ones who pursue their passions and have a hunger for taking ownership and responsibility. In the words of Clayton, “More and more MBA students come to school thinking that a career in business means buying, selling and investing in companies. Doing deals doesn’t reap the rewards that come from building up people”. These are powerful and thought provoking words.

The organizational theory that answers the second question deals with how strategy for resource allocation is defined and implemented. There are thousands of organizations that mismanage the critical resources at their disposal and shortchange their investments in initiatives that are vital for a long term gain and sustainability of their businesses. The consequence of this mismanagement of resources is usually very different from the strategy the organizational management intends to follow. Likewise, in life too, if there is no sense of purpose or a strategy defined, people will fritter away the limited and critical resources (time and energy) they have at their disposal. The author talks about how, many of his HBS classmates lived fractured personal lives primarily due to a lack of a definite purpose. Like organizations, it is important for individuals to think about a metric by which their lives will be judged.

One of the most reflective sections of this article discusses the authors own experience in cultivating a clear sense purpose in his life. As a Rhodes scholar in Oxford university, Clayton had very demanding academic commitments. Since having a clear sense of purpose was essential for him, he devoted one hour every night reading and thinking about why God put him on Earth. He further discusses, how he was conflicted about weather he could take an hour off from his academic life but instead stuck with it and ultimately figured out the purpose of his life. Based on my limited readings about lives of other great people like Steve Jobs, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, etc, this is not an aberration. People who go on to achieve great feats  align all their activities and short term goals to the ultimate purpose they defined for themselves.

The section that discusses integrity and the related question makes an interesting read as well. The financial theory that states that ignoring the sunk and fixed costs and instead base decisions on marginal costs and marginal revenues when considering alternative investments can have implications for corporations. It many times causes bad decisions. Similarly, this marginal cost doctrine gives birth to  mentality that allures people to do wrong “just this once” . This consequently, can lead people astray. Both in the business world and the personal world of many individuals, disasters happen because of lack of integrity that usually gets ignited by “Just this once”  thought. Justification for dishonesty in all its manifestations lies in the marginal cost economics of “Just this once”. Having principles and sticking to those principles builds conviction and plays a positive role in the long term. In the resounding words of Clayton Christensen, “Its easier to hold to your principles 100 % of the time than it is to hold to them 98 % of the time”.

As someone with a keen interest in management theory, I found this book in general, and the articles by Clayton Christensen and Peter F. Drucker in particular, engaging. The way Clayton connects different dots and relates seemingly unrelated concepts provides a stimulating experience.

Dec 24

Best open education tools and tales in 2014


A great Bengali polymath and noble prize winner in literature, Rabindranath Tagore, once said: “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time”. With changing times, the systems and customs that govern our society should also change. Human beings are intrinsically curious. To quote Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind”. However, there also seems to be another aspect of our human nature that sees systems and customs in a preordained manner. This aspect stifles disruptive innovation, restricts growth in a vertical direction, and fortifies the stubborn staying power of our fixations with these systems and customs.

Our contemporary system of education is the first thought that comes to my mind when I think of an example of such kind of a system. The education system, as it exists in most parts of our world today, is not aligned to our changing times and needs a major overhaul. The old methods and practices are embedded deep inside this system and that calls for fundamental changes in which teaching and learning happens in our society.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of the pioneers in the educational revolution, puts things in perfect perspective in a TED talk when he draws parallels between the contemporary schools and the factory lines during the industrial revolution. Students of same age group are put into batches and assumptions are made about the pace of their leaning and their overall learning behavior. This one-size-fits-all model which defines much of our schooling system today does not fit anymore.

Due to the significance of the education system in our society and the role it plays in defining the future and character of our progeny, it has become a matter of exigent concern for the public sector and a playground for big organizations, startups, and individuals who want to make a difference in this field to conduct their experiments. In many of these experiments, technology in general and open source in particular plays a central role in bringing about the change.

At Opensource.com, our focus on open source and openness in education has been a force in bringing forward the stories of these dynamic individuals and organizations who are using open source technology and methodology to change the landscape of education for the good. And considering the scenario in today’s world where the expected solution has to be robust in quality, low in cost, and should provide a mechanism to include all sections of the society, the open source way makes perfect sense. Through these stories, essays, and articles, we provide two ingredients that are vital for converting any thought into action: 1. Motivation 2. Ignition of curiosity.

We strive to share cutting edge innovations and information that exist in the intersection of open source and education, and we’ve done that this year in 2014, from article to article. Among these reflective articles are: Luis Ibanez’s review of the Raspberry Pi A+ open hardware board, Phil Shiparo’s insights on digital libraries of tomorrow, Nicole Engard’s interview with Charlie Resinger about the tale of Penn Manor’s student-Linux experiments to help them become better problem solvers, Jen Wike Huger’s interview with Ned Batchelder on how Open edX is empowering educators, and Scott Nesbitt’s interview with staff and faculty at the Center of Development of Open Technology (CDOT). In my own fruitful association with Opensource.com this year, my regular readings and ruminations of the articles on the channel inspired me to conduct my own short experiments and share them with the community. Two of these were teaching Linux to my niece in Four Linux distros for kids, and tinkering with open data in Why open data matters in education.

In addition to these stories, check out…

The 5 most read open education stories in 2014

1. Four Linux distros for kids by Aseem Sharma

2. How to teach hacking in school and open up education by Pete Herzog

3. Introduction to Linux course now free, open to all by Amanda McPherson

4. 5 key insights on the transition from Windows to Linux by Robin Isard

5. Raspberry Pi and Coder by Google for beginners and kids by Luis Ibanez

All-time favorite: Three open source school management software programs for teachers and students

This article is written for Opensource.com as part of their annual review process and is published here.

Aug 05

Does having open source experience on your resume really matter?

“Code is the next resume.” These words by Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation tell profoundly about how our technology industry, and the many businesses that depend on it, are transforming. The unprecedented success of open source development methodology in the recent past raises some fundamental questions about the way the businesses are designed, the structure of the teams, and the nature of work in itself.

The hacker culture, which was labelled as rebellious, to the point that it faced public dismissal, disapproval, and indifference a couple of decades ago, has come out from the fringes of society and is now mainstream. Today, open source software owes much to the great minds that constituted that tribe of hacker culture and has become prominent and permeated every aspect of our society. It has, in the contemporary world, become subversive and brought about a radical change in the way software is developed globally, and consequently how businesses are run. From commercial enterprises to non-profit organization and to the public sector, every social structure has reaped the benefit of open source to stay ahead of competition and fuel the engine of innovation.

Software plays a very critical role in today’s economy and the strategic calculations of enterprises. In my last six years of working with open source products at both professional and personal levels, I have observed the reliance of teams, both technical and management, on open source infrastructure. It is clearly discernible in today’s technology teams that doing things the open source way, and the software built from open source methodologies, has a significant footprint.

Asking someone, “Do you have a GitHub profile?” is not an uncommon question that an interviewer may ask a prospective candidate for a development or a technical position. A resume showcasing a candidate’s active engagement in open source projects adds a punch to his profile and provides a lucid picture of her or his skill sets.


In a rapidly changing business environment and job market, why is it important for a person to learn about open source software and get involved in one of its million projects? Why are a lot of businesses emphasizing the benefits of open source software and embedding it as part of their strategy? Why should a job aspirant or an engineer care?

Open source for commercial giants

There was a time when technology giants like IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle were most cautious and to a point, feared the rise of open source. For more than a decade, Microsoft considered the Linux operating system a threat to its share of the market. Today, Microsoft has a portfolio of open source projects and actively participates in the standard setting process in the industry. It is a contributor to Hadoop project and in a recent development, is open sourcing more of its .Net developer framework and programming languages. Likewise, IBM has played a key role in the Linux operating system and has invested massively in its development. Oracle, among its other contributions, today owns MySQL, the second most widely used relational database management system in the world. Not many could believe that an organization built on open source could cross 1 billion in revenue, but Red Hat has proved all the disbelievers wrong.

The implication here is that many of these major players have realized the positive impact that open source projects have on the information technology industry as a whole. They understand that open source has the capability to push forward the horizons of technology. For any job applicant who has committed code to an open source project, it is not only a welcoming news but it opens new doors of opportunities.

Open source on your resume

The job market is not always kind to people looking to start a new chapter in their professional life, whether it is looking for employment right out of school or changing a job, or rejoining the business world. Drawing from my own experience of going through one such phase, I can say that getting actively involved in an open source project improved my chances of finding a job in the technology sector. Open source projects offer an amazing platform where candidates with the right skills can offer their services. They can build on this experience, stay up to the mark on the latest technology trends, and even build an open source consulting brand. The open source software methodology has provided incredible avenues where people can transform themselves from an inactive, unemployed state to a state where they are active contributors. I strongly believe that there is no other methodology that provides better resources than open source to become a successful freelancer.

Open source for good

History tells us that the big picture has always mattered in open source. Linux, a revolutionary operating system, was built and developed by enthusiast hackers sharing their work and collaborating over the Internet. Today, Linux is ubiquitous and used by NASA, major banks, and projects like One Laptop per child. Additionally, OpenStack is disrupting the cloud computing market and has industry leaders like Red Hat, IBM, and Rackspace as its top contributors. Likewise, there are a significant number of open source projects that are transforming our society and business world for the good. The best thing about these massive projects is that they welcome anyone with the skills and will to become part of the community.

This article of mine is also published here on Opensource.com, a publication by Red Hat Inc. and was listed on OSFA.

Apr 04

School of open: making world a more creative and educated place

Every generation since the beginning of human existence has passed its value system, principles, methodologies, and skill sets on to the next generation. This passing on of information and culture has been followed by the development of a systematic approach to learning techniques. Formal structures were created throughout the world to learn and apply these skill sets. During the middle ages, the monasteries of the church became the nucleus of education and literacy. Ireland, during those times, was known as a country of saints and scholars. During the Islamic Golden age, in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom was established and became the intellectual hub. Similar institutions of great nature and vision were established in other parts of the globe as well.

In India, the establishment of universities like Nalanda, Ujjain, and Vikramshila have played a significant role in development of higher education. One type of school that laid the backbone of Indian education structure and still rules the psych of an Indian student was “Gurukula,” which is a word formed from the Sanskrit words “Guru” meaning master and “Kula” meaning extended family. In this case, education was imparted for free and students paid the teacher back in some form after the studies were completed.

Though these great institutions added immense value in the evolution of modern societies, education was still restricted to the elite class in most cases. Universal access to knowledge is a historical problem and inclusion has enormous relevance in today’s world. An old adage says that a developed society is the one where the highest level of technology touches the lowest level of society. An organization who is putting this vital imperative into action is the School of Open, an initiative by P2PU and Creative Commons that is making world more creative, open and educated.

The benefits of open

The School of Open is a learning environment that focuses on increasing our understanding of openness and how it fosters creativity and education in our digital age. The School of Open leverages the strengths of community and open source software to increase awareness about an “open” world and the benefits it brings.

This volunteer run global community develops and runs online courses, offline workshops, and training programs in topics such as creative commons, open research, sharing creative works, and more. The school offers a wide range of courses created by experts and users that cover everything from foundations to advanced topics in open models. The courses can be taken on your own or facilitated by an instructor, and they run for a set length of time (weeks). Some of the courses in the facilitated category include Copyright for Educators, Creative Commons for K-12 Educators, An Introductory Course on Open Science, and (my favorite) Writing Wikipedia Articles: The Basics and Beyond. I signed up for it and was glad the materials were comprehensive. The course covers the values of Wikipedia, wiki markup code, how to evaluate the quality of Wikipedia articles, and the art of creating an article on the site.

I strongly believe that in today’s world, creativity gets a boost through participation. The School of Open gives us an opportunity to learn about a topic with other users who share similar interests. A case in context is the course titled “Teach someone something with open content”. The course helps one to learn how to find and recognize open content, that is Creative commons licensed video’s, images, articles, etc, in one’s area of interest and start discussions revolving around the topics. People with an expertise in an area can collect resources and assist participants who have questions in the same area. People who are interested in a field can also chose topics in the field and trigger discussions around the same. The topics can be be anything ranging from history of tanks to intricacies of Linux kernel. At the end of the day, it is education made more open, interesting and participatory.

In his provocative book, Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity, Lawrence Lessig, one of the most influential thinkers in the Internet era, provides a strong argument as to how free culture supports and protects innovators. He states that free culture is not a culture without property, just as the free market is not a market in which everything is free. Free culture, like the one exemplified by the School of Open, ensures that innovators and their creative community remains free from what is called as a “permission culture” and maintains a process of creating more innovators, helping people to be more creative, producing better research and giving back.

Inclusion is a key focus of universal access to education, and I strongly believe that creativity and learning are the fundamental rights of every human being. Every human, irrespective of her/his economical status or level of intellect should be given an opportunity to grow. The School of Open is one such organization that helps promote that ideal.

Feb 08

Three key events that scaled up Linux for large enterprises

Friday evening can be a very busy time in Citibank’s Changi Business  Park, Singapore office. Hundreds of mission critical applications hit  the production servers, security patches are applied to servers, hundreds of professionals including developers,  systems engineers, Linux guru’s and management professionals spend the  whole night on the conference calls ensuring the smooth functioning of  servers at this financial giant. The applications that get life over the weekend have monitory value and therefore require robust servers to  host them. These servers need to maximize the utilization of the  applications and should have the stability to run for a longer period of  time without a reboot. These servers should also have the capability to  be scaled up as the infrastructure grows. Bottom line, these enterprise  level boxes need to be tough.

Thanks to people like Richard Stallman, Bob Young and Linux Travolds,  companies like Red Hat and Canonical and foundations like The Linux  foundation for creating and supporting the Linux operating system. The  muscle that today’s data centers have is built over Linux. The operating  has taken the whole computing world by storm. I would actually go a bit  further and say that (and it could be statistically and logically proved as well)  that the rate at which the information is growing, enterprises would not  have survived without the power of Linux. Microsoft windows server cannot support large scale enterprises with  the same efficiency, accuracy and reliability relative to the Linux based servers.

What made Linux the backbone of data centers? What increased its  adoption among enterprises? What made an operating system that was “made  by engineers for the engineers” incredibly powerful that it is now used  from desktops to data centers and everything in between? I have an  active interest in business and technology history and drawing from this  interest, I deduce three vital events that played an important role  in scaling up Linux and that can answer the aforementioned questions:

Helsinki, Boston, Internet and the year 1991: Linux, as an operating system evolved from a Kernel created by Linus  Travold, a student at that time at University of Helsinki. Linus was  using an operating system called Minix and suggested changes to Andrew  Tanenbaum, the creater of Minix. Andrew rejected the suggestions and as a  result, Linus created his own Kernel. The take here was that Linus took  into account the suggestions of users for improvement of the Kernel.  Years before, the idea of involving users to improve the software was  being pioneered by Richard stallman, one of the top software  philosophers in the world. Stallman left MIT, Boston where he was  working at that time and founded GNU with a goal of producing free  software. Free, here was in terms of freedom and not zero cost. In the  year 1991, the conducive conditions existed that would create Linux and  start its spread. Linus in Helsinki had the Kernel but no shell,  Libraries, compiler. Stallman, in Boston had necessary programs that  could be wrapped around an operating system. With the distance involved,  the only way to get the Linus program together with the GNU programs  was internet. The growth of internet from that point played a major role  in adoption of Linux. In the words of Richard Stallman: “The Internet  would also be crucial in Linux’s subsequent development as the means of  coordinating the work of all the developers that have made Linux into  what it is today.”

IBM and Linux become friends in 1998: When Linux was still within hacker fringes of the Internet, IBM had no  interest in investing in a new operating system. Although it was a risky  proposition for the king of proprietary software offerings, Linux had  one attraction. It could prove competitive for Microsoft. Around  1998, IBM started researching Linux and got involved with the open  source community. A successful stint with Apache project was encouraging enough for the company to put their dollars in Linux. The big blue knew that Linux was getting popularity  not only among the computer science students but also for a lot of  businesses. From getting involved in the community to helping improve  the operating system security through code testing, defect management  and even open sourcing some of its own code, the software giant today  spends more than $100 million annually on Linux development. This  adoption and involvement of IBM in Linux encouraged a lot of big  businesses to formulate their Linux strategies.

Red Hat disrupts technology industry in 2001: Red Hat Linux, at one point, was just a desktop application until Red  Hat forked into RHEL and Fedora. Paul Cormier, in 2001, re-examined the  business model to pitch Red Hat Linux to big businesses. The task at  hand was to adhere to the open source principles and at the same time  scale up to compete with Microsoft’s and Oracle’s of the world. The  solution was keep the source code free but compile the bits and bytes to  enterprise class. The result was Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Red Hat’s enterprise offerings now have diversified which includes Red Hat Satellite that have  added immense value to large enterprises in terms of speed, reliability  and scalability.

This article of mine is also published here on opensource.com and was listed on Hacker News, a social media news website by Ycombinator.

Jan 12

Four Linux Distros for Kids

I can see the brightness of curiosity in my 6 years old niece Shuchi’s eyes when she explores a mobile phone or manipulates the idiot box with its remote control or becomes creatively destructive with any other electronic device. She, like a lot of kids her age, love experimenting.

This curiosity reaches its peak when she sits in front of my laptop or her father’s laptop. A lot of times, however, I observe that she is lost in complicated applications that are suitable only to adults. An operating system that an adult uses and the system running it can look like a beast to a lot of kids. These  applications are beyond the comprehension of very young kids and do not provide an ideal (and playful) introduction to computers. Futher, adults’ laptops and tablets do not serve as a good learning environment for any kid (younger or older) who is just onboarding into the world of computing. Besides, letting a kid run wild on a computer with an online connection can be daunting for the parents.

As a big kid myself, and an open source software enthusiast for over 4 years now, I like exploring and experimenting with different software solutions. Pertaining to the problem of finding and setting up an ideal system for my young niece, I found that the open source Linux community has created specialized operating systems and environments for kids. Plus, setting up these systems is a breeze.

Why should kids learn Linux

I have reached a conclusive opinion at this point in my life that children should be exposed to the power of Linux early on. Two of the reasons are…

For the future of computing

I recently read the article, A year of Linux desktop at Westcliff High School, which is an excellent piece by Stu Jarvis in which Malcolm Moore replies to a question by stating, “Here is a survey that reports in 2000, 97% of computing devices had Windows installed, but now with tablets and phones, etc., Windows is only on 20% of computing devices, and in the world of big iron, Linux reigns supreme. We specialize in science and engineering and want our students to go on to do great things like start the next Google or collapse the universe at CERN. In those environments, they will certainly need to know Linux.”

Linux runs some of the most complex infrastructures in the world. For anyone even remotely interested in a career in technology, learning Linux will be a definite asset. Besides that, the adoption of Linux is massive and ubiquitous. Consider this:

  • Linux powers international space stations
  • Linux powers the technology in new cars like Tesla and Cadillac
  • Linux powers air traffic control systems
  • Google, Facebook, Twitter, all use Linux
  • 9 out of 10 supercomputers in the world run on Linux

There is a rational reason that initiatives like One Laptop per Child, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful programs today that is working to bridge the digital divide, use Linux based systems.

For customization and variety

Learning at an early age can be best enhanced in an environment that encourages exploration. There is no other operating system that offers such variety and autonomy to customize the system based on specific needs like Linux. Like toys and clothes for kids, the Linux community has developed specific operating systems that can offer them a fun learning environment. I believe that to boost curiosity in kids, it is important to create a set up that gives them a feeling of wonder.

Programs to teach kids Linux

There are many different varieties of environments that the Linux community has designed for the children, and I haven’t yet explored them all, but of the ones I did, you should be able to find a great solution for teaching a kid you know about Linux and computing.



Qimo for kids is a Ubuntu-based distribution designed specifically for children. The operating system comes pre-installed with a lot of educational applications for children ages 3 years and older. It comes with GCompris, a perfect suite for children aged 3 to 10 years. It consists of over 100 educational games that teaches basic computer use, reading, art history, telling time, and drawing pictures, as well as Childs Play, a collection of memory-building games.

One of the things I like best about this distribution is that it uses XFCE desktop , which is a lightweight desktop that can be installed on older machines. The hardware requirements are low and it is absurdly easy to repurpose an old laptop or a desktop system. We had an old PC at home, and Qimo resurrected it. This operating system was my choice for my niece because of its simple child friendly cartoon desktop and assortment of educational applications.



Sugar was designed for the One Laptop per Child program. It is an easy to use and kid-friendly operating system. Children who love exploring will figure out things quickly in this environment, even if they cannot read or write yet.

From Sugar Labs:

Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. The Sugar interface, in its departure from the desktop metaphor for computing, is the first serious attempt to create a user interface that is based on both cognitive and social constructivism: learners should engage in authentic exploration and collaboration. It is based on three very simple principles about what makes us human.



From Ubermix founder, Jim Klein, in an Opensource.com interview:

Ubermix comes pre-loaded with a number of applications for education, productivity, design, programming, Internet, and multimedia construction. Education oriented applications like Celestia, Stellarium, Scratch, VirtualLab Microscope, Geogebra, iGNUit, and Klavaro, as well as educational games like TuxMath, TuxTyping, gMult, and Numpty Physics all bring with them plenty of opportunities to learn.

Internet applications we all know and love, like Firefox, Thunderbird, Chrome, Google Earth, and Skype are all there. Common productivity apps like LibreOffice, NitroTasks, Planner Project Management, VYM (View Your Mind), and Zim Desktop Wiki are too. Kids interested in design will find the GIMP, Inkscape, Scribus, Dia, Agave, and even TuxPaint for the younger ones. And apps like Audacity, Openshot, Pencil, and ffDiaporama help round out the media offerings. These, and many more, make Ubermix a powerful launchpad for student creativity and learning.



Formally the Ubuntu Education Edition, Edubuntu was developed in collaboration with educators and teachers. It embeds a variety of educational programs and a suitable learning environment. An advantage to it is access to the Ubuntu software repository. The education community has extensively used this operating system in schools and organizations to provide an enriched learning environment for their students. It’s a great operating system to teach older children about Linux; it can have a steeper learning curve in comparison to Qimo and Sugar.

This article of mine was originally published here on opensource.com

Jan 02

Open Source as an alternative to proprietary for small businesses

Is it safe to use? What alternatives do I have? Is it easy to install? These were some of the questions that Amandeep, a New Delhi based owner of a small scale clothing company threw on me when I pitched a few open source solutions that could make his day to day operations efficient. As someone without any I.T knowledge and exposure (but a sharp business sense), these were brilliant and relevant questions. These questions are not restricted to Amandeep but transcend beyond that and reflects apprehensions of a significant number of small scale business owners, especially in India. My interactions, however, shows that a lot of these businesses are constantly looking to grow, enhance their productivity and most importantly save costs.

Approximately 7500 miles away from Amandeep in New Delhi lives Nabeel Hussain. Nabeel is a new product development and digital marketing specialist actively engaged in Waterloo, one of the top entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world. As an entrepreneur, he is always faced with the challenge of managing limited resources while building traction. He has a plethora of technology solutions at his disposal and the technical know how to utilize these solutions. Additionally, whenever required, he has a robust support system to advise and guide him to the best available solution that fits his needs. For Nabeel, open source solutions provide an inexpensive alternative for crafting early stage prototypes for his ideas and validating them with customers. From using WordPress and its library of plugins, to venturing into openshift origin, and Joomla, he has the knowledge to make use of top notch technology to reduce risk, manager resources, and build traction for his venture.

These two different scenarios indicate a categorical gap in the knowledge of entrepreneurs when it comes to adopting open source solutions. Although there is some geographic gap between the entrepreneurs in the developed and the developing world, as well as a gap that spawns from business exposure/experience, the problem is wider than that. There is a difference in productivity and efficiency between entrepreneurs who utilize open source solutions and those who do not. The situation becomes clear when we look at those small scale business owners who are technology pros versus those who are not.

A significant number of businesses, in India in particular and in the developing world in general, are of a mom-and-pop business nature. Based on my recent interactions with these small scale business owners, I see widespread misconceptions pertaining to open source software. The questions that Amandeep from New Delhi asked me are critical in nature. In order for small scale businesses to adopt open source solutions, it is vital to address these misconceptions.

Is open source software really safe?

The question arises from the basic process that is followed to write code using open source way. If any hacker can read your code, then why can’t they use the knowledge to their personal benefit? Most of those sorts of malicious attempts fail because there are a lot of committed people looking over the source code, finding problems, and fixing them. More eyes tame bugs quickly. And security by obscurity is no security at all. What strikes me at this point of time are the words of security expert Bruce Schneier, “Public security is always more secure than proprietary security…For us, open source isn’t just a business model; it’s smart engineering practice.”

Developing code in an open source fashion is an expression of a technique. Software, in our world, should be treated as a service which can be customized based on the specific needs of a user, rather than merely as a product.

I know a lot of people involved at different levels of open source projects. All of them are driven by their commitment to reach technical and professional excellence, and to add to the existing body of technology knowledge. The entire ecosystem of open source is built on that commitment. The Linux operating system, for example, with its proven track record of stability and security, forms the backbone of complex infrastructures and data centers world over. The same benefits that help Linux and other open source tools succeed at the enterprise level can be reaped by small businesses, too.

A couple of months back, I read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. An otherwise helpful and insightful book, the author seems to host a thought process that open source is contrary to the developers’ right to make a profit. A lot of people who think that way do not see the forest for the trees. They see free software, they see Linux, but they miss the multi-billion dollar ecosystem that surrounds open source. Its true that Brian Behlendorf, the person who orchestrated Apache web server, did not make a dime off it, but the immense value that this server has added to the economy and the legions of small to medium size businesses that use this infrastructure is an important contribution. Free software developed by a community is not tantamount to insecurity.

Are there quality alternatives available?

Gone are the days when open source was produced only by the engineers, for the engineers. From word processing to calendar applications to servers and to setting up telephone communication networks, small businesses can benefit hugely from open source solutions. Let us take the example of word processing, an activity that almost all small businesses, irrespective of their field, carry out.

Microsoft Word is the premium software in the area but it is cluttered with features that a lot of small businesses won’t ever use. The bloating of Microsoft Word has cost its simplicity. There are easy to use, simple, free, and open source word processors available out their. A few of these that I have been using (and suggesting to small businesses) as an alternative to Microsoft Word are:

  1. Apache Open Office: This software primarily consists of six tools for managing office tasks, namely: Writer as a word processor, Calc as a spreadsheet tool, Impress for multimedia presentations, Draw for diagrams and 3D applications, Base as a database tool, and Math for creating mathematical equations.
  2. AbiWord: Developed in 1998 with the help of gtkmm, this open source word processor includes both simple word processing features to sophisticated features like multiple views, page columns, and grammar checking.
  3. LibreOffice:This is my favorite and always at the top of my recommendation list for anyone looking for a free and efficient word processing suite. Although the features are similiar to those of ApacheOpen Office, LibreOffice is better when it comes to community support.

There are dozens of other excellent alternative solutions to proprietary software and thousands of open source projects that can serve small businesses. It can sometimes be difficult to select the software which best matches specific needs, but there are plenty of people globally willing to help you make those decisions and help take small businesses down the path to an open and productive future.

This article of mine was originally published here on opensource.com

Sep 08

Open source to bridge the digital divide

I vividly remember my first experience using the Internet in 2000. The amount of information I was hit with by typing my first search term, university, was far beyond my wildest imaginations. This plethora of knowledge filled my mind with wonder, excitement, and enlightenment. I suddenly had the power to read, analyze, and learn about anything and anyone. The knowledge created by some of the greatest minds in the history of mankind was at my disposal, free of cost and just one single click away. I felt empowered.

Fast forward to June 2012. I met a village boy, Rajan, at a local orphanage in my hometown of Amritsar, Punjab. Rajan was dynamic in his conversations and I am sure that given the right facilities, had the potential to live a far better life than he was living. I am not naturally more talented than Rajan, but I had all of the resources available to raise my standard of living that my friend did not. I was born in an economically well off and highly educated Indian family. Is success then only a matter of fate? Is it only dependent on which family a person is born into? Isn’t the world losing talent and passion of those millions who, if given the gift of knowledge can make a positive impact in our world?

This case of massive disparity transcends Rajan and engulfs millions all across the developing countries. According to Linux4Africa, an initiative to bridge the digital divide, in Germany, there are 600 computers per 1000 persons. In Mozambique, Southeast Africa there are 6. I strongly believe that human progress is not possible without access to and use of information. Inclusion and collaboration are not abstract concepts in business and society. No individual can create a meaningful life without having an exposure to the digital world. The situation reminds me of a famous adage that a society becomes developed when the highest level of technology touches the lowest section of society.

Establishing cost effective infrastructure, primarily providing access to the Internet is part of the solution to bridge what experts call the digital divide. The digital divide is undoubtedly a monstrous problem that humanity faces today and it becomes critical to find mechanisms that provide cost effective solutions to this gigantic issue. There have been laudable initiatives and experiments in this direction, some of the most notable being the establishment of the The World Summit on the Information Society and the recently launched campaign by Mark Zuckerberg, Internet.org.

How the digital world works

Connecting the world is the first quintessential step towards digital literacy for everyone, however, the solution does not stop there. Filling the digital divide gives birth to the problem of the knowledge divide. Giving a child access to Facebook or Twitter is useless until the child knows how the digital world actually works. Until someone knows how to use information wisely to her benefit and the benefit of those around her, the initiatives and efforts to just provide Internet access are futile. Providing Internet access and filling in the knowledge gap have to go hand in hand to alleviate the standards of living of millions of people who need it the most.

The open source methodology of executing projects offers a potential solution to the aforementioned problems. There have been a few great experiments and initiatives that have seen success in providing cutting edge infrastructure and knowledge in rural areas at a cost effective manner. A few pioneering initiatives are:

  • The School Sector Reform Plan
  • Open Learning Exchange (OLE) in Nepal
  • One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)
  • Implementation of Ubuntu to provide a solid solution to the problem of connectivity in rural India by the social enterprise Airjaldi

Both the digital divide and the knowledge divide can be resolved by imbibing the aspects of open source. The foundations on which open source software works can be implemented to permeate the digitization to the lowest parts of the society. Three of my thoughts on how the efforts to address these problems can be made more effective and why open source matters to that end are:

The challenge grant model

I recently finished a great book by John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, in which he discusses his innovative method of involving communities to create libraries. The same approach can be experimented to fix the digital divide problem. The idea is to see which communities are motivated enough to bring knowledge to their doorsteps. Once these communities are detected, local leaders can be involved in taking the ownership. This community based approach creates stronger partnerships between social enterprises, public sector, and most importantly the beneficiaries of the solution. Involving the local people of a city to help create an infrastructure makes those people stakeholders in the entire solution.


Participation is the spinal cord of open source software. The usage of open source software in bridging the digital divide will remove the barriers to participation. To understand how the technology works, it is vital to have access to it and the freedom to explore it. Using free operating systems, like Ubuntu and Fedora, and open software, like XJounal and Kojo, can empower people without restrictions.


The successful use of the Ubuntu on workstations by Airjaldi exemplifies the importance of using open source software. Airjaldi is able to provide superior network solutions to rural parts of India in very cost effective manner. At places where establishing infrastructure is an issue and affordability is low, open source software becomes the only solution to connect the people.

To put the power of information in the hands of those who need it the most requires low cost yet sophisticated solutions. It requires the support of new approaches, like open source.


This article of mine is also published here at opensource.com

Jul 05

Book Review: Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft


Here is the story of a man who has one of the most unusual business careers in the last century. Software, music, space,  sports or the complex (and exciting) world of human brain, Paul Allen has made a mark and a lasting contribution in each of these fields. Idea man is a point-blank memoir of terrifying lows and triumphant highs of one of the most influential person in the world who has helped transform the way we live. In his well written and polished book,  Paul gives a detailed account of his successes and failures (and the lessons learned along the way) that resulted from a life full of passion and curiosity. Here are my two cents on the same:

Winning Points:

Microsoft, Bill gates and the business of software: The first part of the book covers details about Paul Allen’s intricate relationship with Bill Gates and the early days of Microsoft. It is a gripping account of two high school friends who went on to become billionaire founders of one of the powerhouses of the corporate world. Their early days at Lakeside, their restlessness to hunt new ideas, their love for computers , their struggle to come up with  BASIC programming language interpreter for Altair 8800, the fascinating story of scaling up Microsoft from a fledgling start-up to a software behemoth, their disagreements on various issues pertinent to their partnership , all of it is extremely engaging and can keep you awake until 3 AM (I suggest picking up the book on a weekend).  With Paul Allen with his industry changing ideas and visions and Bill gates with his business acumen and his “pitiless” execution abilities,  it was among the strongest and the most formidable business partnerships of all times.  Contrary to many media reports, the book takes a neutral stand on Bill Gates and discusses his relationship with both Gates and Microsoft objectively. The section of the book dedicated to the challenges Microsoft was engulfed with for more than a decade from the lawsuits to the brutal competition it faced in the internet and social space from Google, Apple and Facebook forms an interesting read. Allen further provides insights of how these challenges led to the breathtaking fall of the Goliath from grace.

The pursuit of passions: In the first few sections of the book, Paul Allen discuses his wide variety of childhood interests and passions. Paul left Microsoft before it went public and in a short period of time, his stock options turned him into one of the richest persons alive. As was noted by his attorney shortly after the IPO: “This wealth should enable you to do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it…”  This wealth enabled Paul to make investments worth billions of dollars in every field he was passionate about. Ho soon bought NBA’s Portland Trailblazers, Seattle Seahawks, got involved with SpaceShipOne project (the first privately funded spacecraft) and invested billions in America online and Ticketmaster. The most notable of all his ventures is the Allen institute of Brain Science. Through its brain Atlas and mapping, the institute has pushed forward humanity by enabling scientists and researchers all over the world in their projects. Much of the data and the research is open to the academic community worldwide. Although this second part of the book is less interesting and engaging than the first, it provides some insights into the world of sports, entertainment and science. Allen has been particularly open minded in accepting his various flaws in these plethora of investments.

Loosing point:

The biggest and the grandest success that Paul Allen had can be categorically attributed to Microsoft, the company he co founded, and his association with Bill Gates.  Albeit he made huge investments and lived a lavish life of a business mogul thereafter, he never had that amount and scale of success. His visions and ideas have transformed industries but majority of those ideas worked and were best realized while he was with Microsoft.  Maybe, execution was never his strength, at least relative to his co-founder at Microsoft.

Final take:

Highly recommended. Not only Paul Allen provides an unclouded description of Microsoft’s early days, this business book is full of forward looking approach and what the technology has in store for our society. One last section is dedicated to the field of Artificial intelligence and the challenges faced in that area.  Anyone interested in history of technology or software will find the book perceptive. For others, there are rich details of many interesting things.


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