Free Quality Software for Non-Profits

Running the “IT department” of a non-profit organization often means that you have to choose free software while, at the same time, you try to avoid sacrificing quality and usability. You often don’t have the time to tinker with a perpetual construction site and your colleagues may not enjoy being overwhelmed by a wealth of advanced options and permanently being reminded of the engine behind the user interface.

I therefore decided to assemble a list of useful enterprise-standard software that offers either a free version to everyone (e.g. in a “Freemium” model) or particularly to non-profits.

This collection represents only my personal choice and I am fully aware that it can only mention a small fraction of all the free and great software. Since privacy protection is essential to the work of many non-profits, I prioritize self-hosted solutions where available.

I won’t mention here generic services like Gmail, Hotmail, YouTube, Vimeo or social media platforms. (Anyway, most of them are free only in the sense that users are offered as part of a product to advertisers.)

You can find a more exhaustive list of special discounts at this website.

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Social Networking for Civil Society

screenshot: groups in Myanmar language versionSoftware tools for social good often constitute a visible compromise between usability and costs. The platform Mycitizen.net, however, proves that they don’t need to be technically overdesigned, nor visually unattractive.

Mycitizen.net is a social networking platform for communities in developing countries, in closed societies and in countries in transition. Naturally, it does not try to compete with social media like Facebook and Twitter that focus on the entertainment and distraction of the masses. Rather, it seeks to cater for a comparably small niche.

Based on a simple concept, the platform adheres to some principles, which create a slightly different profile than other software solutions that were mostly designed for users in technically developed countries:

  • Mycitizen.net was created for a particular purpose and with a focus on usability, reducing all functionality to the reasonable minimum, rather than showing off the technical back end or confusing IT newbies with loads of settings and extensions.
  • The platform can be translated to other languages than those presented by ISO 639-1, thus including otherwise disenfranchised communities and questioning the prerogative of the wealthy parts of the world to use their own language.
  • The platform comes with a mobile app1 that can connect where the Internet is too slow to use a web browser.
  • The software is licensed as Open Source and can be installed on a local PC so that communities can keep control of their own data.
  • Last but not least, on a personal note: Different than many sober collaboration platforms with a Web 1.0 design, Mycitizen.net is beautiful.

The main challenge will now be the promotion in a comparably tight ecosystem, where decisions are made in the “Global North” on behalf of the developing world, and where the previous boom of ICT as cure-all for all kind of needs and problems in the world has subsequently led to a sentiment of disillusion and scepticism. Based mainly on volunteering input, however, there is no need to set the benchmark of success as high as sparking a digital revolution. Local communities will certainly learn to appreciate receiving a free tool that was tailor-made for their needs.

If you like to learn more, read the updates on the blog, or test the demo deployment.

Gallery of random screenshots

Country-Wide Wi-Fi for Myanmar?

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The Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology has invited tenders from local and foreign companies for providing internet service through broadband wireless (Wi-Fi) across the country, the 7 Day newspaper reported.

source: Reuters

Intelligent Modem and Energy Backup

BRCK - promotional image by Ushahidi

BRCK looks like a promising solution also to connectivity problems in Myanmar. As the people at Ushahidi say:

If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.

What is it?

The BRCK is a software infused device, operating seamlessly with the BRCK Cloud, our website that you can access from anywhere to check how network connections and electricity are performing on your device and a portal to install new services like VPN, Dropbox, or any other app that you might create. It also syncs your BRCK with current data from cellular providers in your country. It can also hold 16GB of memory and you can sync your data directly to your Dropbox, other connected devices, or other applications. Furthermore, a BRCK device that is deployed in rural Indonesia can be fully managed from an office in London — or vice versa.

The project still needs some additional funding. The video at Kickstarter explains well what it is about:

Myanmar Tourism Directory

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Responding to a lack of useful directories that are specialized on Myanmar, easy to use, and provide a channel to promote responsible tourism, I launched the website myantour.com.

Outreach Program for Women – Usefull for Myanmar?

opw-poster-USLetter-2013-JuneSeptemberOnly a few days are left until the deadline on May 1 to apply for a paid internship. You can work from home, and the scope of activities comprises also things like documentation and translation. I think this is an excellent opportunity to promote the Myanmar (Burmese) language in open software and to bring open software to Myanmar. And, of course, the IT-scene in Myanmar would also benefit from getting more women involved.

Myanmar-English Dictionary for Unicode Fonts

It’s been a while since I’ve started thinking about an updated version of the old Burmese English Online Dictionary. To anyone involved in ICT aound Burma/Myanmar it may not come as a surprise that the main obstacle in that project was the font.

The Font Side

The first version back in 2006 was based on a font called Myanmar (Myanmar1) – a name that caused some headaches when later Unicode fonts of the same name came out. Generally speaking, “Myanmar” can be anything – noun or adjective, a country and a language, a citizenship and an ethnic group, let alone a beer brand. The font Myanmar was based on phonetic similarities with English, and in the spirit of literal transcription it should actually be called “Myanma” without the trailing “r”.

the final "design" in 2007

the final “design” in 2007

I soon realized that most of people from Burma who in fact care little about English keyboards predominantly used Win Burmese (Wwin_Burmese1) and so I created a second version that was based on this font. Win Burmese was really handy, providing all important glyphs and displaying reliably on various operating systems. The main problem consisted in ambiguities regarding the order of diacritics: When adding two diacritics to a character their order was mostly irrelevant for the visible result – good for typing, bad for searching. Each search run therefore needed a preceding routine that normalized such variations. A second complication arose from the homomorphy of some glyphs: Many users wrote “ya”/”ra” as “7″ and “wa” as zero. We know similar issues from many Latin fonts, where zero looks like the capital “O” 1 and the small “L” like a capital “i” (a pain in the neck on my Mac).

The development of Myanmar/Burmese fonts seemed to follow the country’s own difficult political development and the tendency of its society to easily break up into factions. The Internet was increasingly full of sites offering Burmese fonts, often with dead links, there was considerable confusion about versions and hardly any agreement about naming the files 2. The development of Unicode made a big step – and yet has halted before the final finish – with Zaw Gyi that (probably through media web sites) has gained huge popularity. Free Unicode fonts gradually evolved and claim now to be complete and compliant, but you still encounter many compatibility issues depending on platform and browser.

For some time I considered resorting to Zaw Gyi, thus prioritizing popularity over purity and minimizing the hassle of inexperienced users with the installation of new fonts. On the other hand it was clear that once software corporations would discover the Myanmar market and Internet access improved, the choice was made in favour of Unicode. I have a feeling that particularly the development of the Myanmar Wikipedia gave it a push. Eventually I decided to cross the t’s and dot the i’s and chose Unicode.

Design Planning

Myanmar-English Online DictionaryThe following objectives guided the concept:

  • Operation should be easy enough for people who are not experienced using a computer: avoiding redundant options and cluttered pages, while offering context-sensitive advice and facilitating search if people spell words the way they (think to) hear them.
  • As before, the dictionary should be fairly interactive in a way that users can suggest new words and corrections. This, of course, still requires moderation through the backend, making it necessary to find a compromise that doesn’t require to employ an editor. I realized that the confusion around Zaw Gyi and Unicode would have to lead to additional help.
  • Responding to the current development, the new dictionary should be ready for smaller screens, like tablets or smartphones. Rather than having two different layouts, I decided to go for a responsive design.

Additionally I wanted to keep the previous features. And, being not a web designer, I also kept the colour scheme and most of the icons that over the years had become “a part of the family” although some of them are not directly related to their purpose.

Past Experiences

October 2010

October 2010

March 2013

March 2013

The pie charts on the right show operating systems of visitors to www.burmese-dictionary.org and may illustrate the development. Today you cannot rely on Windows as the one operating system that covers the great majority of settings on the client side. Users with Myanmar language skills seem to use increasingly mobile devices and don’t shy away from high-priced brands. When developing software and websites for Myanmar users, you have to count now with a broad scope of configurations.

countries

Countries in March 2013, identified through IP addresses.

In March 2013, visitors from Myanmar took third place in the ranking of countries, after the US and Singapore, which are probably the two prime countries for long-term and short-term migrants from Myanmar respectively. 3

August 2008

August 2008. Visitor numbers are being accumulated over a period of several months.

It is clear that I must not forget the actual target group – migrant workers and refugees – and people inside Myanmar where high-end devices are often not affordable or available, especially outside the urban areas.

Going Online

The final output is naturally still a work in progress, and many words have not completely survived the migration from Win Burmese to Unicode and need to be corrected manually. Particularly the question which font is recommended seems to vary considerably depending on operating system and browser. I therefore decided to add a dedicated page where even inexperienced users can check which fonts are available on their computers and share their experiences with others.

Myanmar Unicode FontsThis feature is still very experimental and its success will depend on whether users are able to correctly ascribe an issue with text to the font that is actually causing that issue.

Further details of the development:

  • As a result of using Unicode, the search field can now contain English or Myanmar regardless of the search direction. That means that either users need to be advised to correct a wrong direction, or this change is being made automatically (based on the first character). The extreme alternative would be to entirely remove the switch for the search direction. I am, however, hesitant to remove all manual overrides.
  • It may be misleading that the domain names are burmese-dictionary.org and myanmar-dictionary.org which may insinuate that the names “Burmese” and “Myanmar” have something to do with the fonts, while actually these words simply denote a stylistic difference and they were picked rather as a matter of coincidence.
  • Due to limited time and capacity, I have not increased the linguistic quality of the vocabulary or its representation. Anyway, this dictionary is a hybrid involving crowdsourcing and it would be difficult to enforce higher standards.
  • HTC has announced a phone with pre-installed Myanmar fonts. This would be helpful to use Myanmar text without having to jailbreak or root the device. I could not get hold of any further information about HTC’s device (price, availability, features) – if you know anything please leave a comment.

Democracy’s Fourth Wave? Digital Media and the Arab Spring

Democracy's Fourth Wave, front coverThis book by Philip N. Howard and Muzammil M. Hussain was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press. Although the topics are not directly related to Burma, the Arab Spring has undoubtedly inspired the people in Burma and scared the rulers.

The official description says:

Did digital media really “cause” the Arab Spring, or is it an important factor of the story behind what might become democracy’s fourth wave? An unlikely network of citizens used digital media to start a cascade of social protest that ultimately toppled four of the world’s most entrenched dictators. Howard and Hussain find that the complex causal recipe includes several economic, political and cultural factors, but that digital media is consistently one of the most important sufficient and necessary conditions for explaining both the fragility of regimes and the success of social movements. This book looks at not only the unexpected evolution of events during the Arab Spring, but the deeper history of creative digital activism throughout the region.

The book is available at Amazon. I will post more information as soon as I can get hold of the book.

Contents

Introduction

  1. Digital Media and the Arab Spring
  2. The Recent History of Digital Media and Dissent
  3. Information Infrastructure and the Organization of Protest
  4. Authoritarian Responses and Consequences
  5. Al Jazeera, Social Media, and Digital Journalism

Conclusion: Digital Media and the Rhythms of Social Change

Technology in Burma – Myanmar

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Originally a series for travellers, definitely worth reading if you are interested in Internet and mobile networks in Burma/Myanmar.

Interaction Design