An open-source geek-out, Latin American style

A lively free-software festival in Buenos Aires highlights Argentina's increasing passion for the open-source mindset and all it represents.

installs at Flisol
More than 90 percent of open-source installs at the Flisol event were done on laptops or Netbooks. Johanna DeBiase

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina--Last week, I touched down in Buenos Aires with my Ubuntu-powered Netbook in tow and started making calls and sending e-mails to get a handle on the tech scene in this New York-size Metropolis. That is, of course, a difficult thing to pin down, but through sweet serendipity, one phrase did seem to come up over and over again--"open source."

A few years back, Argentina's government looked at mandating the use of all open-source software in its offices, largely to save on software costs.

But the open-source gestalt also fits well with Argentina's independent streak--whether it's the lasting legend of the altruistic gaucho cowboy, rough and rugged while looking out for his fellow man, or the smell of fresh croissants in the air and certain continental flair that make Buenos Aires share more in common with Paris than Caracas, Venezuela.

In fairness, it should be noted that Venezuela actually followed through with mandating open-source software for its government, but Argentina's love of software libre may go even deeper. By mid-decade surveys indicated nearly half of businesses here were using Linux.

With more than a third of Argentina's population centered in Greater Buenos Aires, the city is today home to a thriving open-source community that appears to make the country a leader of open source in Latin America. A quick supporting metric: Firefox 4 has been downloaded in Argentina close to a million times already, according to Mozilla figures, which is several times more per capita than the adoption rate in neighboring Brazil, with its much-lauded emerging economy.

I contacted Guillermo Movia, who works with Mozilla Argentina, and he pointed me to the University of Buenos Aires, one of nearly three dozen sites in Argentina--and many more across Latin America--where Flisol, or the Festival of Latin American Free Software Installation, took place last Saturday, April 9, or 9 de Abril.

"It's the diffusion of a philosophy about free technology and free thinking and sharing as a kind of cultural consciousness."
--Hernan Saltiel, Fliso organizer

The daylong open-source geek-out took place upstairs in part of the university's business school not far from the center of Buenos Aires. The building's heavy wooden doors and ancient stone floors presented the same dignified facade as one might find within the gates of Columbia or Yale. But the energy of the Flisol event was a better match to the buzz outside, across Avenida Cordoba, where a stream of students, tourists, and commuters flowed out of stores and subway stations into a crowded park speckled with the pink autumn flowers of ceiba trees.

As I was led up to a talk on Linux by a prominent journalist (whose strong Castillian dialect I could scarcely understand), one Flisol organizer told me in a hushed tone that they were "hoping to show the business minds that run this place that there is a whole other world out there."

While Linux has already proven its worth in the business sector, the people who attend this event, and others like CafeConf--Buenos Aires' open-source conference, whose attendance has swelled from the hundreds to the thousands in recent years--are out to push open-source as a movement, not just a cost-cutting measure.

Downstairs, it was pretty easy to get immersed in that mindset, with rooms full of mostly youngish Argentinians, laptops in hand, engaged in an open-source orgy. The vast majority of attendees brought their devices get to injected with Ubuntu, but Debian was also popular, another organizer, Hernan Saltiel, told me.

Saltiel wore an OpenSolaris T-shirt and a goatee; he speaks fluent English--people here know him as "Hecsa."

open-source code
Watching the open-source grass grow... Johanna DeBiase

"I've been in this community 15 years," he said, adding that Argentina has seen a recent upswing in interest in open source. "Android promoted it a lot. Because people say 'what is this?' and you say it's based on the Linux kernel; and they say, 'What is Linux?' and then, 'What is open source?'"

Saltiel says open source isn't only growing in Argentina's cosmopolitan capital. He noted that there are at least five organized communities in each of the country's states, including some of the more far-flung Andean areas. There are radio shows that focus on open-source topics, two open-source magazines, and even open-source job fairs here.

Back in one of the install rooms, two young men sat anxiously staring at an older laptop screen, watching rapt what would otherwise seem like painfully slow status updates.

"49 percent installation completed..."
"49 percent installation completed..."
"49 percent installation completed..."
"49 percent installation completed..."

Hundreds of these installs took place between here and another Flisol site in suburban Buenos Aires, strengthening the open-source army by that many more systems. As Saltiel puts it, "It's the diffusion of a philosophy about free technology and free thinking and sharing as a kind of cultural consciousness."

Flisol organizer Hernan Saltiel (right) bubbles over with enthusiasm for everything open source. Johanna DeBiase

Of course, it's not all Bohemian. There's plenty of "damn the man" sentiment to go around, too, but that's not to say Argentina isn't pragmatic about its approach to software, either. Saltiel works as a project manager for Verizon, after all.

In fact, the most obvious theme at the Flisol event and in my limited talks with porteños (natives of Buenos Aires), had nothing to do with free software, or really with software at all. Instead, it was clear that Argentina's emerging open-source boom is more about community and connections, with like-minded enthusiasts scattered across Buenos Aires' disparate neighborhoods and regions, and even the disparate countries of the entire Latin American sphere.

In the end, while this country sometimes seems cut off--by the Andes, by the Atlantic, and by its massive Portuguese-speaking neighbor to the north--it is increasingly connected to the rest of the world by bits of code.

Related story: Singing the South American 'CDMA blues'

Correction, 5:53 p.m. PT: to indicate Hernan Saltiel's correct last name.

 

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