Gutenberg's invention of the printing press heralded a new era of information sharing that resulted in the Renaissance in Europe, fundamentally changing the structure of society.
With the arrival and mass adoption of the internet we are living through a new, global renaissance.
The internet has allowed communication and information sharing on a whole new level. We are witnessing extremely rapid change and development in the world.
A key driver of this renaissance has been the free and open source software movement. Indeed, free and open software has been critical to the success of the internet. At the same time, the internet itself has facilitated the development of free software by providing a means for developers to collaborate on their projects.
This rapid change is very disruptive, threatening long established business models. Technological advances such as driverless vehicles, robots and artificial intelligence have the potential to replace many existing jobs. Some commentators suggest 40% of current jobs are under threat.
This rapid change presents particular challenges for Bermuda, a small island jurisdiction that has traditionally been slow to change.
I am actually quite optimistic that the threat of a jobless future will not turn out to be as bad as many fear. Further, I think Bermuda has some unique opportunities to be a model that the rest of the world will want to follow.
The very free software and open culture that is driving all this change presents great opportunities for Bermuda.
When the first computers were build software was commonly shared. If you had just spent $1M on a computer it made sense to share your software with others working on the same model. Collaboration with others increased the value of the investment for all concerned, including the manufacturers of the computers.
With the introduction of personal computers this model changed. Suddenly, those developing software realised they could make vast sums of money by selling the software separately to each computer owner.
Software was sold in binary form and the purchasers did not have the source code necessary to modify that software for their own needs. They had to rely on the software vendor to address their needs.
The free software movement began in the early 1980's with the establishment of the GNU project.
Free software is defined by whether the recipient has the following freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
So the word free as about freedom not cost. Many prefer to use the term libre software. There is no restriction preventing people charging for free software, but the freedoms it comes with generally mean it is also free to obtain, due to freedom 2.
The journey for free software over the last thirty years. Proprietary software vendors have been very aggressive in attacks on the software movement, such as Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer describing Linux as a cancer in 2001.
Undeterred, the free software community has continued to develop software in open, collaborative communities. Today free software is ubiquitous. It runs the computers at the internet giants of social media.
Over 30 years the communities developing software have refined their tools and development methodologies to the point that it now dominates the software world: Open Source has won
In fact, the real winners are the users of software, which in today's world is much of humanity.
Today, Ballmer is no longer at Microsoft and the company is open sourcing its products in an attempt to stay relevant.
Advantages of free software
There are many advantages to using free software. For a small island like Bermuda these advantages can be even more significant.
Money spent on proprietary software is money leaving the island. In return you get software without the freedom to experiment, examine and discover how it works.
If you need support or help that requires changes to the software you have no alternative but going back to the original vendor. In short, you have vendor lock-in.
The local people managing this software are limited in what they can do, due to not having the critical source code need to fully understand the software.
When you use free software you empower your local people. They can learn how the code actually works and customise it to their own needs.
Initially, you may not have the skills to do this, but over time you can build up your skills.
Regardless, the fact that other users of the software also have the freedom to work with it then anyone with the skills to understand that software can offer you support.
When users encounter problems with the software, they have all the tools they need to diagnose and fix those problems.
Hence with free software, instead of spending your budget on license fees you can invest in local talent and build local expertise.
Disadvantages of free software
Most of the disadvantages of free software apply to proprietary software too.
For example, some projects are not widely used. If you depend on a package and are one of the few users of that package then you may end up having the maintenance burden yourself.
The same problem arises with proprietary software. If you depend on a commercial product that few others are using you run the risk of the vendor dropping support or simply going out of business. Since you do not have the source code, at this point there is little you can do if you need to fix problems.
In short, just as you have to do due diligence with proprietary software the same applies to free software. Generally, you will want to stick to widely used software.
If you find yourself using some niche software others are not using you may want to ask if you really need it: are you doing something innovative that others are not doing, or have you missed a better solution that others are using instead?
Free Culture Movement
Free software is just part of a wider Free Culture Movement. Software can be considered as literature. The free culture movement is now in every area of digital life:
- The free online, collaboratively developed encyclopedia, Wikipedia.
- Open access to scientific research.
- The OpenStreetMap project, providing free global maps.
- Open data initiatives.
Whilst you can now find free software for pretty much any task you might want to do, access to data is more of a challenge.
Legislation, such as Bermuda's Public Access To Information act have helped to make government data freely available, but often data is not easily accessible. Ideally, data should be searchable and freely available in machine readable formats.
In many cases the obstacle is lack of resources in government departments, in other cases there are fears about making the data available.
Jurisdictions that have embraced open data have seen significant benefits. For example, the City of Ottawa, Canada, has a full time employee whose job is to promote open data. The city runs regular events to educate citizens about the data sets that are available and has run several competitions with prizes for innovative new uses of the data.
It is no coincidence that the Free Software Movement had its roots in academia. Scientists have long known that science advances faster when researchers collaborate and share their knowledge.
Over the past 25 years, as educational establishments have been starved of resources they have turned to the commercial sector for sponsorship and much scientific research, performed in educational establishments has remained proprietary.
Over recent years there has been a strong movement back to open access research and publishing. This movement now has critical mass and is a driving force between the rapid innovation we are seeing in the world.
Those that are working in secret are increasingly finding themselves unable to keep pace with work going on in the open. Indeed, the challenge most researchers face is simply keeping pace with these developments.
Free Culture in Bermuda
Bermuda's IT sector has been dominated by the proprietary software sector for the past 20 years.
This has been the natural choice over this period. It is what the rest of the world has also been using and Bermuda has naturally followed the crowd.
Further, most proprietary products are in fact build on top of free software.
The reinsurance industry has been a heavy user of proprietary software and models. A typical reinsurer will spend $10M-$20M per annum on proprietary software and models. The total spend in Bermuda is probably of the order of $250M-$500M per annum. And software is tax free in Bermuda.
These models are often black boxes which do not enable the users to understand how they really work. The vendors are struggling to keep pace with scientific developments. At the same time, their platforms are making increasing use of free software.
The traditional reinsurers are coming under increasing pressure from new entrants to the market who know how to leverage the free software world and to use the growing tsunami of digital data.
There have been some notable examples of free software use. For example Renaissance Reinsurance has been doing their in-house risk simulations on the Linux platfrom since 1999. Further, many companies are making use of free software tools such as the Python programming language, widely used in science, finance and education.
Bermuda skills shortage
Bermudians have naturally sought training in the proprietary tools that the main employers on the island are using. The result is that there is a serious shortage of free software skills.
Bermuda has a highly educated population and its small size creates excellent networking opportunities. Bermudians have a long history of working together, you only have to look at the way the island responded to the battering by hurricanes Fay and Gonzalo to see how the island can work together when need arises.
What is missing is a central integrated strategy of joined up government. Developing free software culture and collaboration across government departments on free software projects can have a very significant impact in this area.
There are many great initiatives to build a free culture community here on the island, but achieving critical mass has been a huge challenge. Initiatives by the government in partnership with community members can have a huge impact.
The Bermudian educational system is largely ignoring free culture at present. Again, there are pockets of activity, such as teachers giving short courses on the python language, but no coordinated strategy.
School IT infrastructure is running on the proprietary Microsoft platform. Due to security concerns, computers are increasingly locked down and students do not have the freedom to explore the tools they are using.
I have heard tales of teachers spending 30 minutes just to get their students logged on to machines.
Technology in the classroom is a difficult to do well. Since technology is advancing so rapidly, creating a curriculum that is relevant is a huge challenge. For those doing the educating, keeping pace with all the change whilst continuing to teach is a daunting task.
Creating and maintaining a computer lab is time consuming and expensive. The result is often a sterile room full of locked down machines that do not give students the freedom to learn through experimentation and play. After 2-3 years use the lab becomes obsolete as support is dropped for the software that is being used and it is time to upgrade to new hardware and new software. And teachers need to be re-trained.
Free software can run well on low powered, energy efficient computers. Free software projects are driven by the community around that project. There are new releases and upgrades. From time to time there will be non-backward compatible changes as those running the project decide it is time for a re-working of the code. However, since it is the users of the project that are making these changes there is usually excellent support to migrate to newer versions.
Further, there is nothing stopping you staying with the older version. In general, free software projects have a much longer lifespan than comparable commercial products.
Free software allows students to get a more fundamental understanding of how computers and software work.
Educators at Cambridge university, were concerned that a new generation of students, growing up in the internet age, nonetheless had a very poor understanding of how computers actually work.
To address this the Raspberry Pi project was started. The aim was to create a cheap, low power, computer that students could use to learn the workings of a computer. The aim was to create something like the BBC micro computer kit that my generation grew up with.
The raspberry pi allows students to attach a whole manner of sensors, cameras, LED's and motors and write simple software to interact with them. It allows the students to learn through experimentation and the projects they pursue are only limited by their imagination.
Bermuda College could be a focus of free software education in Bermuda. An excellent example to follow would be the MAGIC centre at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
MAGIC stands for Media, Arts, Games, Interactivity and Computing. They offer a minor in open source. Students are introduced to the open source world and shown how to find free software projects that interest them and how to become involved.
I met a number of the students at this year's PyCon in Montreal, Canada, as well as the programme leader, Stephen Jacobs. He was open to the possibility of working with Bermuda College and even setting up mentoring relationships between his students and those at Bermuda College.
If Bermuda College can build up a thriving free software and free culture programme it could help turn Bermuda into a thriving centre for free software development.
As noted above, use of technology in schools is difficult to do well.
A particular challenge is training the educators. In many cases the key is simply to create spaces where the children can play and experiment with technology.
There are teachers in the Bermuda schools with interest in technology and free software. It would be good to identify these teachers and create opportunities for them to share their experiences with each other and work on projects together.
Technology and software can be of considerable assistance to students with special needs. Unfortunately, the technology is often very expensive.
Free software has a role to play here to. Accessibility tools are included out of the box, rather than as expensive add-ons. Being able to install these assistive tools on as many computers as you like with zero license key costs, not to mention not having to manage license keys, ensures that they are more widely available and allow those with special learning needs to work with the same machines as other students.
Whilst some tools are not as feature rich as the commercial alternatives many are good enough. Further, since it is free software, you can always spend the money you would have spent on license fees to pay a local developer to adapt the software to your needs.
The Bermuda government is currently running largely on proprietary software.
In 2002 the City of Munich embarked on a project to move its computers to the linux platform. It is an excellent project to study for any jurisdiction that is considering a similar move.
Munich has had considerable financial savings as a result of the move and will realise even greater savings in the future.
In 2015, this sort of migration is much easier to do and many of the problems that Munich experienced have now been solved.
The main challenge for Bermuda would be in getting government IT workers comfortable with the new technologies.
Change can be very stressful and threatening to those working in IT. It takes years to develop skills and become productive. New environments often mean these skills are no longer relevant.
Further, it is important to remember that IT managers in the past made the best decisions they could based on the technology environment at the time. A change of course should not be seen as a criticism of these decisions, rather a recognition of the changes in the wider IT world and the need for Bermuda to adapt in order to be able to take advantage of all that free software can offer.
As in education, the key is to identify people in the government with an interest in collaborative development and free software. This can be a powerful way to increase collaboration between government departments.
Governments everywhere are starved of resources. Working with peers in other branches of government helps spread knowledge and creates greater consistency across government.
Free software community
Many government and educational free software projects have their roots in the informal communities of free software enthusiasts.
Often these enthusiasts are wary of bureaucratic control, believing their projects should be driven by the interests of those contributing to the projects rather than external interests.
At the same time, there are many government and education focussed projects where the contributors are only too pleased to help their local educators to take advantage of these projects.
The education system cannot hope to foster this sort of community all on its own, rather it should endeavour to work with enthusiasts in the wider community.
Educational establishments can help work with the community by providing meeting rooms, hacker spaces, internet connections and infrastructure to host projects.
Re-training the Bermuda workforce
Raising awareness of free culture is a key to getting more people involved. Once free software community gets to a critical mass it becomes self-sustaining, running regular meets and events where others can be introduced to the subject.
If we can create spaces around the island where anyone with free time can come to learn about this wonderful world of free culture then we will have a powerful way to introduce these new skills to the Bermuda work force.
The Python Community
The Python programming language is a particularly good fit to the Bermuda environment.
Python is one of the easier languages to learn, is very well designed and heavily used within education, science and finance.
Python has a vibrant, global, community which is vast, diverse and aiming to grow.
Traditionally, technology communities have lacked diversity, being heavily dominated by white, middle class males.
The Python community has recognised this and been working very hard to address the lack of diversity. In particular, it has made itself more accessible to women.
I believe the Python Software Foundation would be very supportive to any initiatives here in Bermuda to introduce python to black Bermudians.
However, a first step in this direction is to build up our own local community. Organising a small PyCon conference over the winter months would be an excellent start.
If we can establish a regular conference then I am sure there will be many overseas pythonistas only too happy to come to Bermuda to share their knowledge and skills and help us on this journey.
The reinsurance industry is under strain at present. New entrants to the market, a flood of new capital from hedge and pension funds, new insurance linked securities are all pushing down premiums.
Companies are trying to cut costs through mergers.
The Bermuda reinsurers are all very much proprietary, Microsoft shops. However, they are making increasing use of free software.
Many companies have python in their toolbox and have been using it for many years. At least one reinsurer has been doing its in-house risk simulations on Linux since 1999.
Others are starting to realise they need to be able to leverage free software and open data, but are very short of employees with the necessary skills and experience. Further, migrating from legacy systems on proprietary platforms presents severe challenges. Again, there may well be considerable resistance from IT staff and senior management whose careers spanned the proprietary software era.
The larger companies also have offices in London, Zurich and Dublin. All these cities have vibrant free software communities.
Tax regimes still make Bermuda an attractive location, but relying on this alone to keep companies here is a risky strategy.
If Bermuda can build a vibrant free software culture and community, focussing on education, science, environmentalism and finance then it will be a very attractive place to do business. Free software skill are in high demand world-wide.
Further, even if existing companies wither and die, there may be a new generation of start ups, without the burden of legacy systems.
Environmentalist interests are highly aligned with those of the reinsurance industry. Both are concerned with modelling the impact of human activity on natural hazards such as hurricane and earthquake.
Models to evaluate insurance risk can also be useful in assessing environmental impact of climate strategies.
Bermuda is a delicate island ecosystem with a strong interest in understanding the impacts of climate change. But, as a small island the onus is on Bermudians to study their own environment and collect data to understand how it is changing.
Free culture creates the opportunity to collaborate with those doing similar work in other small island communities and will likely be critical to ensuring Bermudian interests are addressed.
As an isolated island community, sustainability was critical to Bermudian's survival for hundreds of years. As communications have improved it has depended more on trade and has become much less sustainable.
There are many opportunities to redress the balance. Perhaps, with robots and algorithms freeing up time people will devote more of their time to their local communities.
Bermuda has very high energy costs whilst having an abundant supply of renewable energy: solar, wind and wave.
Solar is very active on the island, but will present challenges for BELCO and residents alike.
As more homeowners install solar panels BELCO will be faced with maintaining the same grid with less income. At current levels of adoption there is little problem.
As adoption increases, this will likely increase costs for the most vulnerable on the island who can afford the costs of installing solar panels.
The move to free software is reducing business costs and increasing collaboration amongst organisations.
Free software gives its users the power to experiment with that software, to scratch an itch, to investigate an idea. It is greatly empowering.
Whereas in the past you might have had to spend thousands of dollars to obtain the tools to investigate an idea, now those tools are freely available.
With the accompanying data tsunami individuals are further empowered to explore their ideas.
Raising awareness of free software and creating understanding of how it empowers individuals is critical to creating societal change, creating greater community cohesion and sustainability.
Free software and open data have made significant contributions to public transport.
Cities that have opened up GPS data giving current locations of public transport fleets have seen increased usage. Further, with better data collected on usage they have been able to optimise timetables and reduce costs.
Computer models can also be developed to evaluate the benefits of new transport strategies.
Transport is critical to the visitor experience here in Bermuda.
Most free large free software projects have vibrant communities. Whilst the development methods and tools support work that is scattered across the globe most projects find conferences, coding sprints and educational gatherings give their projects a considerable boost.
If we can develop free culture community here in Bermuda then members of those communities will want to come here to work with us.
Although Bermuda is an expensive place to visit it can be made more affordable. Flights to the island are no more expensive than flights across North America. There are many properties available for short term rental.
Further, winter is a natural time for such conferences. When it is -25C on the east coast, +20C in Bermuda is a very attractive option.
As an example, the annual Python conference, this year held in Montreal, attracted 3000 free software enthusiasts to the city.
Sport is an important part of Bermudian life. The sports clubs are yet another location where free culture can be introduced to Bermudians.
For example, the German soccer team's success in the last World Cup was in part due to the team of data scientists that they had analysing game data.
The Bermuda national soccer team is enjoying success in its World Cup qualifying campaign. It would be good to build on this success by introducing data analysis to the Bermuda game, working with free software and home grown technology to enable Bermudians to learn about this technology whilst enjoying the sport and helping Bermudians succeed on the world stage.
The America's Cup is a technology feast. The main sponsor of the defending Team USA is Oracle.
Oracle is another hugely successful proprietary software company that has had a complex and not always friendly relationship with the free software world. Like Microsoft, it is trying to adapt to the new world. Interestingly, Oracle is sponsoring a raspberry pi weather station project for schools.
The America's Cup is an opportunity to showcase the island to all those that will visit as a result of the sailing.
Further, it gives an opportunity to teach our students about technology. We can have students build model boats, guided by software they have written for a raspberry pi, powered by a small solar panel. Imagine something along the lines of a Non-Mariners race for model boats.
The America's Cup Committee has a huge challenge to build all the infrastructure in time for the event.
If we can foster free culture community here in Bermuda then the America's Cup can act as a focus for community projects.
The free software community can work with the organisers to build IT infrastructure fit for the 21st century. Infrastructure which will be an asset to the island long after the yaughts have gone.
Privacy and information security
Information security, or cyber security as it is more popularly known has been very much in the news of late.
It is now quite clear that securing data on computers against a determined attacker is a close to impossible task with current technology.
Every day we hear stories of massive leaks of very personal data, such as this breach at the Office of Personnel Management.
Bermudians have a much better and more nuanced appreciation of privacy issues than those living in large cities. Bermudians are acutely aware of the importance of privacy and how to respect other people's confidences.
There is an opportunity here for Bermuda to do pioneering work on data security and provide a safe haven for data, respecting people's privacy.
These massive data breaches also demonstrate the costs associated with gathering and storing large amounts of sensitive personal data and may well further drive the move to open data. Since the data will likely leak out anyway, why not share it with everyone?
Information security and privacy concerns may slow down adoption of new technologies due to a number of factors:
- public fears about loss of privacy
- concerns about security of devices
- locking down of computers in the workplace reducing efficiency.
As a small jurisdiction Bermuda can be a test environment for new, innovative security strategies, building its own, internal, freely accessible networks.
It should be noted, however, that currently data on corporate and government computers in Bermuda is highly vulnerable to determined attackers.
Bitcoin and crypto-currencies
Bitcoin is an innovative payment system often referred to as a crypto-currency. It uses advanced cryptographic techniques to authenticate transactions.
It has some characteristics in common with Paypal, although is fundamentally different in a number of key respects.
It is a distributed system without a central authority. Bitcoins are awarded to users which offer computing resources for payment processing work.
It is becoming mainstream and has the potential to be a hugely disruptive technology. It was the subject of one of the talks at last year's Bermuda TEDx event.
Anyone can create a bitcoin wallet and then use it to make or receive payments to others.
In the current Bermuda job market, with rising unemployment and rising numbers of Bermudians requiring two or three minimum wage jobs to keep their heads above water there are signs of an emerging barter economy. Bermudians are finding it is better use of their time to help each other out than to take such jobs.
Bitcoin is a currency that allows individuals to trade on their reputation in a global environment.
Free software provides Bermudians with the tools they require to offer their services globally and bitcoin may well support this activity.
For example, a musician could host their digital music on a website built using free software and accept donations in bitcoin.
Bermuda has much musical and artistic talent, raising awareness globally can only help tourist numbers.
The dramatic pace of technological and social change in the world is creating stress and challenges across the globe.
Bermuda, as a small island community that has traditionally been slow to change has unique challenges.
The very free culture movement that is driving much of this change is largely untapped here in Bermuda.
This presents a massive opportunity for Bermuda to empower its citizens by introducing them to this magical world of opportunity.