Open-source advocates to build free PCs for needy schools

Effort will also test how nontech users adapt to Ubuntu

For years, open source software advocates have been holding "installfests," gatherings to help others learn how to install and use Linux and other open source applications on computers. This weekend in the US, a nonprofit group and a open source vendor are taking the idea a step further by co-sponsoring an all-day "Installfest for Schools" to create what they hope will be 500 refurbished computers to be used by underprivileged students in schools in nearby neighborhoods.

The computers, which are older, outdated PCs donated by consumers and businesses, will be brought to four locations where tech volunteers will gather to install Ubuntu Linux 7.10, which also includes a host of other open source applications, onto the machines. Computer labs in about nine elementary and high schools are scheduled to receive the Linux-loaded PCs for use by their students, said Andrew Fife, the product marketing manager for Untangle, which sells enterprise open source software that blocks spam, spyware, viruses and other unwanted content.

"This is a very interesting experiment to see how non-tech users who don't have a lot of computing experience can adapt to Ubuntu," Fife said.

James Burgett, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Alameda County Computer Resource Center (ACCRC), said the key to the Installfest is that the old computer equipment will be given new lives and used by students and schools that need them.

An additional benefit is that by recycling the hardware, it won't have to be disposed of in municipal landfills or trash incinerators. "My primary purpose is reuse," Burgett said. "I'm much more concerned with avoiding such lost opportunities."

The ACCRC refurbishes usable old PCs and donates them to charities, nonprofit groups, schools and to low-income or disabled people. Non-working computer gear is sent away for recycling. Fife said he hopes to have as many as 40 volunteers working at each of the four sites, installing and testing Ubuntu on the machines to be sure they are working properly.

Setting up the one-day event has been complicated, he said. "There are a lot of logistical challenges," Fife said. Moving hundreds of PCs from various facilities to the four locations has been a huge challenge."

To do that, the PCs are shrink-wrapped in plastic, then loaded onto four-foot-square shipping pallets and trucked to the locations.

Fife set up an online Wiki for the event, and volunteers have signed up after hearing about it through a wide range of open source community groups and private companies. The event has been discussed on company blogs, including those from Sun Microsystems, Ubuntu, the Mozilla Foundation and others. The Mozilla Foundation is providing pizza to the volunteers in the four Installfest locations, while NoStarch Press is donating PDF copies of the book, Ubuntu for Non-Geeks, that will be installed on each of the PCs being built for the schools.

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Todd R. Weiss

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