Social inclusion with Xubuntu: A tale of free software changing lives

M6-IT, a Community Interest Community in the UK, are part way through a project to equip socially excluded families with computers running Xubuntu. I was recently able to interview Richard Rothwell of M6-IT about this project and its progress.

Hi Richard, thanks for agreeing to speak to us. Can you give us a bit of background on yourself?

I spent 20 years as a teacher of Computing, in various secondary schools around the UK. While at Handsworth Grammar School, I moved the schools to a Free Software solution for the academic IT network, based around the wonderful Linux Terminal Server Project. I'm pleased to say that almost 3 years after leaving Handsworth, it is still running an expanding LTSP network. Our work was positively reviewed by the government agency, BECTA --however, this seems to have had little effect on policy. Large government funded organisations find it really difficult to understand Free Software, and tend to be averse to change, especially if it might mean work for them.

Where appropriate, and it usually is, we recommend a free software solution

Tell us about M6-IT: what it is, where you are based and what you do.

M6-IT was set up by myself and Richard Smedley to promote the use of free software in the voluntary, community and education sectors. We were fortunate to be joined by Matthew Edmondson, who had previously been working for the National Computer Centre.

We work with a number of organisations to help them move towards more sustainable IT solutions. We encourage them to look for a more strategic view, asking the obvious questions, like "what does it need to do". Where appropriate, and it usually is, we recommend a Free Software solution, and help them move towards it.

We all work from home, so cover an area stretching from Oxford, through the Midlands and up to Manchester. Working from home helps us keep our costs down - and also makes us more flexible and lowers our environmental impact, something which is important to us.

What led to you deciding that M6-IT would be a Community Interest Company?

It has always struck me that the the ethos of Free Software is that you should make money out of what you are doing, not what you've done. This fits well with the ethos of the Community Interest Company. With CICs the employees and directors can earn an income, but can't build up capital in the company. We also have to make an annual report to our stakeholders, which is there to keep us honest.

The other thing about CICs, is that they are a way of allowing risk taking in social enterprises. Many of the other organisations we encounter working in the same sector are grant funded or unwieldy, and just don't seem to be able react to change.

The project runs in some of the most deprived areas of Nottingham. Pupils from these areas have an 8% chance of going to university

M6-IT are currently running a project for socially excluded families, can you tell us more about that?

The project runs in some of the most deprived areas of Nottingham. Pupils from these areas have an 8% chance of going to university, compared with the national median of about 30%, and a highest rate of over 60%.

The project is funded from a local regeneration budget, and supported by a partnership of four local schools called Quadrant C. Working with them we have identified pupils moving into secondary school who don't have access to a home computer. We invite the families to a training session. The next step is to provide Internet access and a home computer for the family.

This project has funding for 3 years, and we are asking the families to make a voluntary contribution to extend it for the 5 years - to get them through to GCSE. There is research (pdf) that indicates that having a home computer with Internet access has positive effects on a pupil's education.

How did M6-IT get involved in this project?

We were running a smaller project with another school in Nottingham, to help some of their GCSE students. The logic behind this was that the computer would help with their work, revision and motivation.

Many schools have gained 'specialist status'--and some of the money they gain from this status is meant to be spent on their community, and this is one of the ways that they can achieve this.

Was there a reason you chose Xubuntu?

Our initial prototypes were all based around Xubuntu because we found the Xfce desktop was both light and easy to use. We are using recycled computers, so they are not particularly new or powerful. We use the Ubuntu distribution because it is well known, reliable and has a rapid release cycle. Interestingly, we've been putting out some machines with the standard Ubuntu desktop and they now seem to be as fast as Xfce. It's interesting that as each upgrade comes out the software gets more efficient. It's hard not to draw comparisons with other software manufacturers.

We originally intended to do remote maintenance--by ssh--but thus just hasn't been required

The test-run stage of the project is complete. What kind of feedback did you get from the families?

Positive! We know the computers are being used, as they send us an email when they start up and shut down. This was originally designed so we could do remote maintenance--by SSH--but thus just hasn't been required. We have had around a 10% call back to the families to sort out problems.

The project is now in the main stage providing 80 families, how is that going?

The roll-out is progressing steadily and will be complete within the next couple of months. We will then be looking to provide ongoing support for the families. We are looking for a few parents to become 'champions' for the project. The ideal outcome of the project is that it becomes self-supporting, with expertise developing from within the project to carry it on beyond the 3 years.

What are the future plans for this project? Are there plans to replicate it in other areas?

We are hoping that funding will be made available to carry out a similar project as the next set of pupils move up to secondary school.

One of the challenges we are facing is a government funded scheme to provide computers for pupils. This, in our opinion, fails on a number of counts. Firstly the scheme gives the kids laptops running proprietary software, which rapidly clogs up with viruses and various spyware. I know of machines that are effectively useless after a few months. Another problem is that the families are given a computer, but no Internet access. Many of the families we are working with would fail the standard checks carried out by ISPs before providing the service, as they are poor credit risks.

Nottingham is heavily cabled so we initially decided to use that to provide our Internet access. Now we have more time, we are exploring moving to a community wireless solution as a priority. The project has attracted the attention of both Nottingham University--who will look at the impact that the project is having on the pupils and their families - and BECTA.

We've had a couple of inquiries from other people and organisations that want to run similar projects. I fully expect that some of these will come to fruition. One thing that we, at M6-IT have to keep explaining is that we're happy to support others in doing this sort of work--and don't want to run all the projects ourselves!

My hope is that in a few years time there will be community based projects replicating this across the country--that would make me really happy.

Thanks for speaking to me, I hope the project is as big success as you want it to be.


M6-IT website:
Richard Rothwell e-mail: richardr AT m6-it DOT org


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