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Creating & Supporting Free Software in Africa: the African Virtual Open Initiatives & Resources (AVOIR) experience

Emerging Topics
Location: D137 Level: Novice

The African Virtual Open Initiatives and Resources (AVOIR) project is a collaborative effort among several African higher education institutions to support capacity building in Free and Open Source software engineering. The main core activity of capacity building is undertaken through software design, development, deployment and support.

AVOIR has four areas against which participation in the network is assessed: collaborating, developing, implementing and connecting. Collaboration involves participating in the shared activities of the network, which mostly happen online, supplemented by three developer workshops and one board workshop to date. Developing involves writing code according to shared coding practices that lead to the creation of modular software. Participants are responsible for implementing the software produced by the network, so most have implemented the KEWL.NextGen e-learning platform, and others are implementing other tools such as community forums, committee administration system, electronic thesis and dissertation system, alumni portal, and others. AVOIR encourages connecting with and establishing partnerships with local business, government and educational organizations, and the creation of local business opportunities. It is in the process of assisting nodes to develop business plans that move them towards sustainable activities. In 2008, several AVOIR partners will be collaborating in the joint offering of a Masters in Free and Open Source Software.

There is a project board, chaired by the author, with representation from all of the partners. While the developers have had three workshops, the board met for the first and only time physically in November 2006. Most of the board work is done via our mailing list and website.

The core product of the project is the Chisimba PHP5 application development framework and suite of applications. To the best of our knowledge, Chisimba is the first web and distributed application development framework in PHP5 that provides a fully online installation and update system based on principles similar to the Debian apt system. A minimal download of the base system is required, following which other system types can be created online using a simple, web-based graphical user interface. A complete e-learning system can be built in less than 5 minutes. A blogging server with open APIs takes less than 3 minutes to set up, and a content management system can also be set up in less than 3 minutes. Chisimba modules can be created rapidly, taking advantage of the functionality that is already present in the framework and its associated modules.

Less than three years in existence, AVOIR has had significant achievements, and provides a good example of what we can achieve in Africa when we collaborate and work together to build communities within the spirit and practice of Free Software. However, it has some special challenges that relate to a combination of cultural effects, the status of higher education in Africa, critical skills shortages in the private sector, and the limited experience with Free Software practices in the participating institutions. It has proven difficult to get developers outside of South Africa to participate in the mailing list and other collaborative activities that support their work. With some notable exceptions, there is still a tendency to focus more on the implementation cornerstone, rather on the key areas of collaborating, developing and connecting. As a consequence, activities to foster further strengthening the community are being undertaken, and are discussed in the presentation.

AVOIR website: http://avoir.uwc.ac.za

Photo of Derek Keats

Derek Keats

The University of the Western Cape

Derek Keats is Executive Director of Information & Communication Services at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) in South Africa, and has a mandate to use information and communications technologies to strengthen UWC as a national institution of higher education in a global context. He is a biologist with strong interests in using technology to improve teaching and learning, to enable higher education in the developing world to respond to the challenges of globalization, and to promote sustainable development while maintaining the quality of the environment.

OSCON 2008