The voluntary open source community Open Labs has played a role in the introduction of Nextcloud and Libre Office to the municipality of Tirana (the capital of Albania). The goal for this community is to reach local and regional governments in Albania as well as promote FLOSS internationally. Their work happens largely through offline events, however, COVID-19 forced them to find new ways and has stopped the direct influence for now.
Open Labs Albania is a non-profit organisation that promotes FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software). It is based entirely on volunteers. This democratic-based community started in 2012 and has recently celebrated its nine years anniversary. It seeks to tackle local and regional issues by using open source methods. In 2017, Open Labs played a role in facilitating the choice of the municipality of Tirana to implement the open source file sharing application Nextcloud.
Impact on local government
Two of the current board members in Open Labs, Mariana Balla (Product Owner) and Silva Arapi (Open Source Consultant), explained to me in an online interview that the organisation introduced one co-founder of Nextcloud to the IT-director for municipality of Tirana (at the time Ermir Puka) and two people from his team at the Open Source Conference Albania.
They had the discussion of how Nextcloud could solve the issues that the IT-department was facing at the time in terms of having a cost-effective solution, more control over their data, and also have a collaborative software which would help their entire distributed team to work in a more productive way. I think one of the factors of their migration to Nextcloud was this meeting and the sort of collaboration with the people of Nextcloud.
- Silva Arapi, board member at Open Labs
After a successful migration to Nextcloud, the IT department introduced Libre Office in the municipality administration. Once again Open Labs was the one to introduce the IT director to the members of the Libre Office community. Silva Arapi, who at the time worked in the IT department at the municipality, explains that the change to Libre Office faced a number of challenges in the organisational implementation, but that the result, however, was that 80-90% of the computers now run with this open source solution.
Conferences and volunteers
Open Labs' volunteers play a central role in the Open Source Conference Albania and a number of other similar events. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, put this work on hold. Even the physical ‘hacker space’ made by the organisation had to stop all activities. This forced Open Labs to initiate online workshops and webinars. But it also limited the impact they had had through conferences as well as the possibility of building the volunteer engagement and local government.
For beginners who come for the first time in the hacker space we try to introduce them to the non-tech part of open source, for example doing translations. If you are good at English, you can translate it into Albanian. This is a way to contribute, and this keeps people engaged so they keep coming at the hacker space and they get more familiar with how things work, and they meet people and get friends and this way we manage to engage non-tech people who then don’t get scared of the hacker space.
- Silva Arapi, board member at Open Labs
The volunteers and participants in Open Labs have mixed professional backgrounds. Many are computer science students, but not all. Mariana Bella tells me about an architect who got involved with the community due to an idea for a project to document important buildings and villas that are being demolished in recent years through open source tools.
We have always encouraged people to come and participate because it doesn’t have to be a technical person.
- Mariana Balla, board member at Open Labs
The coming projects
With the current decrease of COVID-19 restrictions, Open Labs can once again focus on their wider impact through events such as Open Source Conference Albania and FLOSS Balkan. And besides bringing people together to work on open source, Open Labs also has several projects planned which have been initiated by the community. One of these is about 3D printing, another is podcasting series with interviews with open source experts. At the moment, they don’t have any public sector project planned.
- Open Labs is a volunteer-based organisation in Albania, which played a role in the induction of open source tools to the municipality of Tirana.
- The promotion of open source locally and regionally has been on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic but as the restrictions are fading out, new projects are about to be commenced.
- Everyone is welcome in the organisation. Many volunteers are computer scientists but their ‘hacker space’ is open for anyone with an interest in open source.