Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands – NGO Interview
Following on from the last blog post with interviewing NGOs, the next interview is with Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands, Jan Stedehhouder and I spoke with Paul Roeland regarding his work with Milieudefensie as an NGO who uses Open Source in an every day working environment.
Czajkowski so the mission behind your organisation?
Our mission is to improve the environment and create a sustainable future. We aim to do that by involving as many people as we can, as we believe people are our most important ally. Milieudefensie is part of an international network called Friends of the Earth. Within that network, we place great value on empowering people in the so-called ‘third world’ and bridging gaps in knowledge and power the issue of using Open source was actually first brought up in the international network. The sister organisations in for instance Latin America are quite aware of the importance of OS of course, it was also important for us that we could save a lot of money. Money that is brought in by our members, and that we rather spend on actions than on software licenses it’s always difficult to give an exact number. We do know that for the last 6 years, we have every year decreased the IT budget. We’ve estimated that we have saved about 30-50.000 a year, but please don’t pin us on the exact number. Perhaps a more useful metric: we also manage to serve 150 users with a 3-people IT department, whereas before we needed 4 people to service 50 people.
Jan Stedehouder ” Looking forward to an update on the open source strategy of Milieudefensie. Two years ago Arjen Kamphuis explained something about it and explained some issues with migrating to open source across the board”
We decided a couple of years ago (about five) to work as much as possible with Open Source for multiple reasons: security, costs, but also ideological it would be a balance between open source desktops and web based applications, some of which proprietary. in principle we wanted a completely open desktop, but it would have to remain workable and (certainly at that time) there were no open source options for some of our most crucial applications: finances, bookkeeping, donor/customer relations.
One of the bottle-necks was the financial administration and the time frame in which it needed to be implemented there are several problems with financial software: it’s not as ‘sexy’ for geeks to develop 🙂 There are dependant on a lot of external factors: banks, accountants and of course it has to work perfectly. We can survive a few days of non-working website, but we can’t afford to not be able to access our bank accounts for about 80-90 % of our staff, we have already transferred them onto Ubuntu desktops.
Jan Stedehouder ” If I remember correctly there were some ideas about approaching the government with various other non-profit organizations in order to tailor made open source ERP software for the Dutch situation, that’s a lot already. Perhaps, you can explain which staff members/functions migrated first and so on? “
Yes, that was the plan. But it proved to be difficult to get all the non-profits in line. Some of them had just invested large (and I mean LARGE) amounts of money in a new proprietary system, and first need to earn that money back, so to speak. So it’s a huge lock in vendor. We started (after the IT department) with a few departments doing mostly communications and research. “Knowledge workers”, so to speak.
Some, back ground into the Milieudefensie Friends of the Earth Netherlands, the first people were our campaigners. They mainly rely on email, web and wordprocessing to get their job done, so that was relatively easy. A big help was also that we implemented a very good open source CMS for our website (Plone). That meant that they could update the website from their browser, eliminating Adobe/Macromedia software. The Plone site started 4 years ago, and a few months later we migrated the first 20 people. here were some hiccups then, but these people were volunteers,and knew there would be some rough edges. At that time, about 110 people working on this.
Jan Stedehouder ” How would characterize the volunteer group? Why did they volunteer?”
They were mainly the younger people, who had some computer experience. And some of them had been exposed to open-source activists 🙂 at the time, there was an active group in Amsterdam called “ASCII”. They ran a volunteer-run internet cafe.
Jan Stedehouder “Can you tell a bit more about the experiences, good and bad, of this first group and how did it influence the migration of the second group?
We did have regular surveys to ask the first group about their experiences all in all, as we also expected, they had no problem at all using browsers and email. In fact, they loved that part, since it was much more stable than the previous Microsoft programs. There were issues using Openoffice. Word Processing was not the main problem. Of course, sometimes there were cases where interoperability was difficult but not much worse than between different versions of Word. The main problem is spreadsheets.
Some people have amazingly complex spreadsheets, and they do not work. Not all functions are compatible and Calc is definitely weaker in the area of PivotTables (or DataPilot, as Calc calls it). Some of the more complicated spreadsheets are now re-implemented as Intranet solutions. The data is in Postgres or MySQL and we have started using Pentaho to do complex reports although it still doesn’t create as pretty graphs as Excel does. That is actually the only thing Microsoft Office is good at. Excel is the only good program in the whole suite. It makes it very easy for end-users to make pretty graphs well, actually, yes they are. Sometimes we have rather dry measurements on air pollution. But project those on a map, and suddenly it all makes sense.
We’ve resorted also to use Google Maps now. Not exactly open source, to say the least, but it works…. The reason for not using Open Street maps is again, prettiness is an issue if you want to present it to the general public…
We did learn some stuff from the first group that were valuable: make sure that fonts, templates, logo’s and the like are available as Openoffice templates always make sure that there are different people in your pilot group we first made the mistake of assuming that people only do simple stuff in Office) never underestimate the amazing things that secretaries do,creating mail merge letters and such stuff that we geeks never do.
Jan Stedehouder “How long before the pilot group was expanded?”
About six to nine months. We took some time out to actually watch over people’s shoulders to see what they do in Office, and how they do it (or failed to do it) in Openoffice. Some of the issues were easy to solve once we did that for instance, train people to use style-sheets instead of manually formatting stuff but also we made detailed bug reports to the Openoffice site, saying how their mail merge wizard used impossibly geeky language. The OS is actually secondary, once you put the menu bar on the bottom instead of the top 🙂
We did want to stress the fact that we were using something different we used the “Max Havelaar” analogy. Saying that Milieudefensie, being what we are, wouldn’t tolerate anything but Fairtrade coffee in our cantina so why should we put up with anything else on our desktops? People seemed to get that point quite easily.
Czajkowski Can I ask what made you chose Ubuntu as your choice for this project?
Well, we started out before using Debian on our servers so it was a logical step from that we did tests to determine if we would use Gnome or KDE and KDE lost, big time, I’m afraid to say. It was just way too configurable. Too many options the servers are still using Debian. We probably also won’t change that anytime soon the reason is that it’s much easier (still) to find documentation, how to’s etc on using Debian.
Czajkowski How do you find the documentation for ubuntu? language/use ?
For desktops, Ubuntu is way superior in terms of finding help the ubuntu documentation, forums, mailing lists are great, and friendly for servers, the requirements are a bit different. Stability is key.
Jan Stedehouder I’d like to go back to the desktop. You started with a pilot of 20, and now you have 90 desktops. How did it scale? What new issues came up?
it scaled quite well. We are using a centralized setup. All users are in LDAP, and we use remote-mounted home-dirs so that people can login on any computer in the building. Some issues came up as new Ubuntu releases came out. All in all it took about 2 – 2.5 years. That was not so much a technical issue, but more a capacity problem we only switched a new department when we had time to assist them personally during the first few days and some departments took more time than others. It took us a while, for instance, to get Multimedia right we decided to be pragmatic, and also give out ‘tainted’ code like mp3, flash, Acrobat reader, mplayer, VLC not to forget Skype. Closed source, but it is used a lot to contact our sister organisations in Indonesia and other countries. I mean, you can ramble about Ogg Theora all you want, but if people can’t see our own videos on youtube, they will rebel.
Czajkowski What kind of issues did you run into in ubuntu ?
We had big issues when Ubuntu switched to Pulseaudio it does not handle this issue well and, for instance, now we are testing Karmic they switched the GDM greeter to something with a face-browser. Nice idea, but not with 120 users in LDAP, and especially not when you can’t easily configure it to not do this.
Jan Stedehouder Why don’t you stick with the LTS versions? That would save a few issues?
We are for the most part, but for instance Openoffice 3.x does bring substantial benefits and back porting Firefox is also no fun even on the LTS, it does seem that Ubuntu sometimes forgetsthe ‘corporate’ or mass-deployment situation. We always have to recompile Openoffice to make sure it handles concurrent access correctly that is, when somebody else has a document open and you try to open it, you should get a notification on that, and be offered to open it read-only upstream openoffice does that correctly. But for some reason Ubuntu’s version presents you with a blank document or, depending on the version, with a rather cryptic error message.
Czajkowski Do/Did you also use other linux distros?
No, as a whole we’re very satisfied with Ubuntu as for software, we use pretty much standard Ubuntu. Some software that people really like: Inkscape and Scribus. gthumb. It’s great for simple image manipulation, for which Gimp is complete overkill. VLC It consistently plays every multimedia format you throw at it. For calendaring, we use a nice server called Davical. It is a calendar server that works very well with the Lightning plugin for Thunderbird it integrates with LDAP, so all our users are known.
Czajkowski What do you suggest should be done in Ubuntu to better match your needs?
The main thing is indeed to keep in mind the fact that Ubuntu is used in organisations with lots of users so that tests are done to ensure that new sound-daemons also work when your home-directory is remotely mounted. And that maybe face-browser login screens are not smart with hundreds of users 🙂 The documentation is actually good. Although ubuntuforums.org is a bit chaotic at time
Jan Stedehouder Am I correct to conclude that 10-15 desktop haven’t migrated yet?
The last Windows desktops are still used for the financial stuff we are at this moment implementing OpenERP, but it will only go into production on January 1st, when the new fiscal year starts. OpenERP is a client/server solution for business software. It can do bookkeeping, Human Resources, sales, CRM, you name it but it is NOT a simple solution. This is not it’s fault, it isa full-blown business suite and they are always complex we did investigate all solutions, including proprietary closed software. They cost at least 300.000 euro so we finally convinced management that it’s actually smarter to spend 100.000 on getting things translated/localized and GPL’ing that plus, some of the people writing OpenERP are from Luxembourg,and actually speak Dutch in addition to French. That makes communication a lot easier.
Czajkowski what piece of advice/trick have you best learned from this ?
Best trick: be careful about what hardware you buy. One example: we got brand new fancy colour copier-machines. Turned out they had network ports, and were fully Postscript compatible. All Linux users could print to them about 3 minutes after they were plugged in. The windows users had to wait for driver installs, and even then had problems…. Also, Ubuntu got so much better in energy preservation. We uselow-power machines (Fujitsu Q-series). They look basically like a Mac Mini. Completely silent and very small vey fall asleep during lunch break, and wake up within 5 seconds very impressive.
I’d like to thank Paul Roeland and Jan Stedehouder for this interview it was great to learn so much from them, and also get some feedback to show others. It’s a bit long but there wasn’t anything I could really cut out !