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Open-source advocates to build free PCs for needy Bay Area schools

Effort will also test how nontech users adapt to Ubuntu

By Todd R. Weiss
February 29, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - 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. Tomorrow, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit group and a San Mateo, Calif.-based 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 underpriviledged students in schools in nearby neighborhoods.

The computers, which are older, outdated PCs donated by consumers and businesses in the Bay Area, will be brought to four locations where tech volunteers will install Ubuntu Linux 7.10, which also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 in the Bay Area are scheduled to receive the Linux-loaded PCs for their students, said Andrew Fife, product marketing manager at San Mateo-based Untangle Inc., which sells enterprise open-source software that blocks spam, spyware, viruses and other unwanted content.

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

James Burgett, founder and executive director of 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 low-income or disabled people. Nonworking 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 4-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 Inc., 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 Linux for Non-Geeks, that will be installed on each of the PCs being built for the schools.

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