Aleksandar is a techie at an investigative journalism organisation from Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose work involves keeping the servers up and running, and developing new tools for journalists. As the centre experiences a lot of digital threats, he ensures that the organisation’s data is safe. He also makes open source contributions in his free time, currently divided into two projects, one being part of his work at the centre. In this short interview, he described the Balkan digital commons community.
With all of the opportunities to work in IT for the tech giants, why did you chose to work for Open Source solutions companies and projects?
To work for any such companies I would first need to have a resume. I could have also worked in smaller companies to slowly advance, but by starting out with open source software, I was able to work on larger projects, be able to show them to other people, and get feedback on whether I was a good programmer or not. It was a good stopping point for me, coming from a ‘third world country’, to get into the IT world.
What role does the open source community play in spreading IT knowledge and education in the Balkans?
Personally speaking, I talk a lot about the things I’m involved in, I write blog posts, I tell people how to engage with open source software, I even won a writing reward for actually talking about how to join open source projects. Spreading this knowledge is also my personal way to help young people who cannot afford software sometimes, by presenting how open source can help them out, and at the same time help the OS community. As for the open source community inside of BiH, it’s not very large or advanced. While we are doing our best in order to slowly increase the community, we also hit roadblocks, because IT people here are kind of stranded in their own small communities, and they don’t usually do much outside of work, sometimes because working 8 hours in the field is enough. That is what we are currently dealing with.
How widespread would you say is the open source community in BiH and in the neighbouring countries? Do you interact with other digital commoners offline? Do you attend regional events?
I have some connections in Serbia, I know there is a small but strong community in Kosovo, and Croatia has 2 or 3 conferences dedicated entirely to open source software. With the community in BiH, we meet mostly at conferences, for example at the Point conference where I am one of the panellists.
What are the social and political consequences of enclosing the space for technological developments (as opposed to free and open source)?
I don’t think the knowledge will ever be completely enclosed, there will always be programmers willing to develop solutions for free, or improve open source tools. These tools will continue to help in the political sphere, sometimes explaining to people the political problems, or how politics works, for example here in BiH, which is something you need years to figure out.
Is there a sense of community in the world of digital commons? Why do people remain engaged, and how can this be promoted more to other people?
We have all sorts of communities and groups, basically either organised via mailing lists or some sort of instant messaging applications.Every time we develop some new software there’s always a certain feature which allows you to build new features on the software you work on and to report bugs, and basically to talk to each other about problems we encounter, and assign them among ourselves to work on. It always feels like being a part of the community. We also try to work for example in the region, with people who speak BCS, but events are basically the only way for us to talk to people from the region efficiently, and over a longer period of time. None of the attempts in building a strong digital community here have succeeded so far.
Are there any notable open source solutions that have originated from the Balkans community?
The issue with this is that the ‘owner’ of a project in the open source world is not that well known. You’re never going to work on it just yourself, you are going to get more people to contribute to it, so the ownership is not something common in the OS community and sometimes I’m surprised when I find out, maybe years later that a piece of software I had been using was developed by someone from this region. Usually, the only association is the brand of the project that is being developed, but not with one particular person. Open source projects tend not to succeed, and I think it would be better to have some kind of own identity into the project, as this would encourage people to work harder.
Have you or people from the Balkans tried or played with the idea of using open source technology to improve your local communities?
I know of one idea from Slovenia which is currently trying to spread to BiH, Serbia, and Croatia. It’s basically a web application that allows you to see every decision that the parliament is making (in BiH’s case: parliaments), and displaying who voted for what law, who and when they abstained, just to have better transparency in terms of who people voted for and what they actually support or not in their roles. The latest project I’m working on is also about community. We’ve created apps for media organisations, so instead of one organisation developing their own Android and IOS apps, we thought we would create one that we would input it into the organisation’s management system and deploy it. What we’ve done is to create a middleware sitting in between the websites and mobile apps that scan published content, adapt it to a format that is usable on mobile phones and then transfers it to the mobile phones and their users. In essence, instead of everyone working and investing resources into developing new apps, which are all very similar in nature, there is one free, open solution anyone can use. This open source solution could easily be used by businesses too. It’s also an initiative that is aimed at people who keep blogs, such as activists, to talk about their projects.
As a conclusion
One challenge the open source community is facing right now in BiH is Microsoft, as they have recently opened an office in BiH, and practically speaking they are the only ones for whom copyright law applies. They are trying to extort licenses from businesses and they are the ones who try to promote expensive software. Instead, our philosophy is why switch to something more expensive when you can have free software.
Visit Aleksandar’s Website for more information on OS projects, how to get involved and help develop OS solutions.