Brazil made an impression on the free software world during the past five years of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's administration by promoting a policy of migration to open source software for the government and state-owned industry. Initial press coverage of this policy change away from proprietary software was celebrated in many mainstream media outlets. (1)
Since then, the mainstream media hasn't really given much time to the actual policy implementation and English-language bloggers have started to question whether there is anything for open source advocates to be excited about: "Interest in FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) still exists throughout Brazil, but signs of progress are hard to see in 2007," asserts an article at Linux.com (2) and repeated in the open source blogosphere. (3)
This outlook is a significant departure from the reality on the ground. Brazil's commitment to free software is demonstrated in a number of impressive initiatives, any one of which would be unprecedented by themselves.
Collectively, these programs comprise an enormous contribution to the open source community in the form of both code and real-life experience in deploying free software as a solution for large and complex organizations, if not society as a whole.
In an effort to provide information about the Brazilian free software effort to the English-speaking world, we recently spoke on the record with Marcos Mazoni, currently president of the state-owned data processing firm SERPRO (Latin America's largest IT company).
Mazoni was appointed, in April, as the new head of the Technical Committee for the Implementation of Free Software, a group operating on the federal level in Brazil to coordinate all aspects of Brazil's policy of using free software.
Mazoni's prior managerial successes in implementing free software solutions for some of Brazil's largest organizations has people talking (4) about the remaining two years of Lula's term in office and the momentum that he brings to their open source effort.
Mazoni was one of the first public officials in Brazil to begin advocating for the use of free software. His initial work in this area was within PROCERGS, the data processing firm for the state of Rio Grande do Sul.
He then moved on to head up CELEPAR, the IT firm which serves the entire state of Paraná. Mr Mazoni then went to SERPRO (Brazil's Federal Data Processing Service) where he continued to deploy free software until his current appointment to lead the federal committee on free software implementation.
Mr Mazoni: "The truth is that I first had contact with free software when I was the president of PROCERGS in Rio Grande do Sul in the 90's. We started to use free software inside of the government of Rio Grande do Sul, which focused on social activities like education, health, even the public security. This project, which started in Rio Grande do Sul, was solidified in Paraná in 2003, with CELEPAR.
"What we had wasn't a very good experience, we went through an experience that wasn't so good. The important part is to build the communities around the organization. It's when a new logic of knowledge management comes in, where the knowledge isn't only inside of the organization but is shared with lots of people, without any control from the organization itself.
"We were able to create tools based on this community logic, it wasn't only to develop free software but to use what was around, make it better and be able to give it back to society and keep this process active. We created tools for office management inside of the Paraná government, we developed important and strategic systems in the public security area, in the area of automobile management and so on ...
"And we started to work with the private economy as well, the entrepreneurial area, with high risks for the government. Because of this, the project in Paraná was bigger than the one in Rio Grande do Sul.
"When I arrived at SERPRO, SERPRO already had its own culture, it is the largest IT company in the southern hemisphere. Therefore, it has a lot of ties to the free software world but also to traditional software. But, it has been working, in the first four years of this government period, with free software.
"What we try to demonstrate is the aspect of integration with the community, integration with the external environment, of understanding that the use of free software is important but to adopt its philosophy is even more important. This is the innovation that we want."
Brazil's Contribution to Free Software
In the area that Mazoni has worked in, the state-owned IT firms, much of the contribution that has happened is in the form of software development and introducing the paradigm of free software into the management culture of these firms. Out of this experience comes a number of free software programs which are available for download from the IT firms which built them.
Mazoni: "We have public companies in the IT area, on the state and federal level, with a lot of technical capacity, we have top professionals who, when they are exposed to free software technology, get very excited about the possibility of doing real computing. This is a steadily-growing example that evolved in Brazil in the past ten years.
"There are still things missing but every time we progress, we are effectively changing the baseline. It's the question of not having to develop everything. I have to work with the analysis of solutions that exist and keep cooperating with these communities."
"The production process is completely different, because it comes from a different mental model. The model of proprietary software gave us the logic of comparison. One product does one thing, another product does something else, I'm going to see which one I need more, or which one is closer to what I need. In the free software world, we have to depart from this model. I'm not going to compare how much one does or what the other has to do.
"To choose the product I'm going to put in my network, I'm going to see which one more fits my needs and I'll also find myself as an active element in the construction of the product, returning these changes to the community as well. So, we focus on more than just technological metrics, sometimes it isn't about which product does more. This difference - of creating things together, sharing and non-competition is the big change that comes with the free software philosophy."
"So when we look at some of the experiences in Brazil of building office systems, email, scheduling, directories ... those are based on free software technologies. We had 'Direto' from PROCERGS, 'Carteiro' from SERPRO. But we work with 'Expresso' from CELEPAR because 'Expresso' is a groupware that's in a process of evolution, so more people are working on it, in a much more productive environment, and even more, we'll have new things happening with the product that we couldn't have thought of alone. So, we have people that haven't been working together with us on this solution, from the community, working on it and building solutions that we haven't even thought of yet.
"So this change has certainly put 'Expresso' into a big evolution in Brazil, especially in the public sector, but not exclusively. Because we also started to introduce the thought that cooperation is the best thing in the free software world.
"It's not the matter of the technology itself, but the co-operation, working together beyond the boundaries of my organization, and that I don't need to have the brand of my organization on every product. I have to have a good product that works, that has a permanent life cycle. This is the logic that free software shows us as a great organizational innovation."
This incorporation of the free software process into the planning and management of some of Brazil's largest IT companies (which also serve the public as state-owned entities that work on public projects) is not only providing code contributions but is spreading the concept of free software development methodologies to a vast number of people.
Resistance to Brazil's Free Software Movement
It goes without saying that introducing a wholesale migration to free software and the development methodologies that accompany it would run into institutional inertia no matter where it was attempted.
Introducing it within the public sector of Brazil, one of the largest countries in this hemisphere with a reputation of bureaucracy in the government, is certainly not an exception. That said, Brazil's commitment to free software is demonstrated by how well these obstacles have been overcome.
Mr Mazoni: "There is resistance of various types. For sure there will be resistance whenever you present something new. It's a new type of business so there are people who won't be able to project themselves within this new model. It's a change from the traditional system, where you have commission-based sales and things like that.
"So there is a real resistance that happens, subjectively and objectively, from people. But I figure this is a matter of sticking with the traditional model for personal reasons or because you can't visualize the business opportunity.
"But also there is resistance from natural human reaction, that comes from cultural aspects, because we were raised in the world, in our schools, for a competitive process, right? We weren't raised with a cooperative process. We are classified in school, in anything that we do, so from then on it's all about who is first, second, third.
"We don't share knowledge in school. In school, it's the teacher telling us things and only a little sharing of knowledge. There's still a very traditional model being used in the traditional school networks in the entire world. So, we grow up having a model that's very much about competition.
"The whole question of globalized capitalism is that only the most strong will succeed. Solidarity is not an incentive instilled in us from birth. So when we present a model of business where solidarity is the principal difference, the positive difference, there is a strong cultural impediment to this.
"It's this that we can't resolve from one day to another, that's a lot of evangelizing. It's very political, many free software events try to show people that there is another way of relating to other people, other people's talents. This is a middle- or long-term task and this is why we have so many free software events in Brazil.
"In trying to show that it's possible, in spite of everything we've learned until now, from our school chairs, from our political and family and all other relationships. So, this is a medium- or long-term task but one that has to be done. And one day when things change, those paradigms will also fall.
"But there is another question that's more practical, that I'm also involved with. Another element of difference that people feel, I think, is knowledge. So, when people are presented with a new possibility, a new skill set, the first thing that people do is resist, to keep their skill sets relevant.
"I am a specialist in databases, I am an operating system specialist, so I can't see how a database works or an operating system works. But if they feel so helpless with different things, they are putting themselves at risk of not taking an advantage that presents itself. So we have to show people that shared knowledge permits us to evolve much more quickly. So there's also the task of convincing people about this.
"We have to deal with these questions of resistance: cultural, the practical question for the professional himself, plus economic questions. How do we deal with this? Events, speeches, successful projects. Successful projects are very important so people can see that while it seems there are difficulties, there are many more advantages. So, it's an on-going task that we have to do."
Free Software and the Media
Mr Mazoni: "I think that we return to the cultural question, which also applies to the media. When it was announced that Brazil would take this strategic option, the media imagined a bunch of winners and losers and that's why they ended up being very apathetic. In truth, what Brazil is doing is a process, a process that happens at opportune times.
"We're not going to migrate something that isn't ready to be migrated. It's a process that has to be planned with calm. We are not in a crusade against proprietary software, we are participating in a grand movement of other movements in our country, in our continent and we believe in a better equilibrium of the planet.
"This is a process, this is not something where we have victories and losses. And that is where the media stops being attracted to it. These things are done with more calm, more negotiation and so we don't know exactly how it will end up, this transformation of the business model."
Cooperation with LatAm Countries
Brazil is the largest country in South America (nearly the size of the United States) and its position is an influence on other countries in the region. It probably can be stated that Brazil's commitment to free software has naturally brought along other countries in South America. There are free software movements happening all throughout Latin America but, in particular, in Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile and Argentina.
Mr Mazoni: "We do have a strong relationship with all the countries in Latin America and other countries, especially Portugal and Spain. So, Spain has done strong work with us in the free knowledge centers. And we already have some projects underway with other countries in Latin America. For example, Paraguay, where we already have economic projects together, i.e. Itaipu. Software that we perfected in Brazil is already translated to Spanish and being released to all the other countries in South America.
"All this helps to have good relationships with Cuba, Argentina (which has a control system using free software, environmental controls), Chile has a project that is focused more in the private sector. It's a country where free software has advanced in the private sector, more than the government.
"But we have these relationships and we are organizing an event for the end of August where the Lula Government, the 'Electronic Government' is going to be discussing exclusively free software, where we will be bringing all these actors from our little part of the globe to talk about common projects, because our situations are very similar.
"Brazil holds half of the gross domestic product in South America. But we have situations here, we have difficulties just like any other country in South America and also modern problems that the others don't have. So, we have a leadership obligation to improve quality of life here in South America.
"Included is the strong stand of the Lula government for the preservation of peace in our southern hemisphere. These co-operative relationships also help in our mission that the president has today in South America, which is the preservation of peace. So, free software adds the element of liberation of the people."
Future of Free Software Migration in Brazil
There are now only two years left in the administration of President Lula. Given the vast institutional shifts to free software that have occurred, it is hard to imagine an economical way to rollback these projects - not only the changes within state-owned IT firms but the many other projects that Brazil has launched with free software: the massive Digital Inclusion project, the educational Linux projects as well as the general use of open source wikis, project management software, groupware, and so on.
Mr Mazoni: "I think that right now in Brazil, we can already point to the government as a success case, the governmental experience at the federal and state level. With the good amount of community support that emerged in Brazil, we can move forward in all respects of this new ecosystem of free software.
"I think that we have obligations in these next years to consolidate free software in Brazil as a viable business model, making it more independent from the policies of the current administration, making it a part of the Brazilian state with its different actors: the government, civil society, universities.
"We should use this great moment that we're living in for digital inclusion, for the re-organization of our country to implant a new philosophy and a new model of business. Our mission here is to create a sustainable business model that each time is more in the hands of society, not in the hands of government.
"So I think that this rich experience that Brazil had in this period is strong enough for us to work for a change in society where people are going to defend the logic of free software, where (emphasizing) the model is no longer necessary."
There are three fronts to the Brazilian free software commitment: 1) internal migration, 2) digital inclusion and 3) investment from the government into Brazil's IT sector.
"Exactly, that's right, we have three fronts. And we have some other aspects that are important for us to promote and make available for global society, we are not only good software engineers. We can create intelligent information systems, to aggregate systems of information. We don't only work on code development, we work on creating complete IT solutions.
"I think that the role of Brazil is very important, especially here in South America, to use this richness to include more people in the global economy, in the ecosystem, to create an ecosystem that works. Because the government is a major purchaser ... the Brazilian government, in these three levels, buys half of everything that is used in information technology (which is nothing new because it repeats what the USA does).
"It makes sense that a major purchaser like this is going to affect the market. It makes decisions that affect the market. So we make a decision as a customer of technology, in truth what we want is this openness, this open knowledge, much more than the technology itself although it also reflects on the technology.
"We can design a market where people have more value than software licenses, and this is what we believe and it's our task for the second mandate from President Lula."Footnotes
(1) Brazil's shift to free software was initially given coverage in both the New York Times and BBC News.
(2) "Brazil's FOSS utopia image at risk", Bruce Byfield, January 24, 2007, Linux.com
(3) "Of late the free and open-source Brazilian dream may be fading a little," writes Slashdot, linking back to the same Linux.com article which warns us to not get too excited because "one thing is certain: the image of Brazilian FOSS in the rest of the world is out sync (sic) with what is happening."
(4) "Mazoni has an impressive record as a public servant in many of Brazil's largest state-owned IT firms (...) Mazoni's placement as the head of SERPRO, and now as the head of the CISL signals that Lula is still serious about FOSS. With two years to go before Brazil's next presidential election, Mazoni will almost certainly have time to make his presence felt.", "FOSS in Brazil: An important shift in leadership", Aaron Shaw, April 26, 2008
(5) A directory of applications produced at CELEPAR is available on their website.
(6) PPA, or Planejamento Plurianual, is a municipal planning application available for download from the CELEPAR website.
Authors Ryan and Isabela Bagueros own North-by-South - www.northxsouth.com - an open source Internet development firm located in San Francisco, California and São Paulo, Brazil. They also maintain a news website about the free software movement in Latin America: http://news.northxsouth.com.