14. Applying IT Expertise to Community Support Activities
Ingotec, what’s in that name? It is a CIC company dedicated to provide quality IT (that’s the tec) for charities and NGOs. It was formed by Lyn Waddington and Joe Doupnik in OUCS to transfer some of the knowledge and techniques of our work to those who are doing other helpful things for the community at large. As cost is a primary factor in charity operations we seek good solutions which cost the very least.
We decided to form a company to house this work so that contributions and donations, and some commercial income could be dealt with properly, and any profit would be redistributed to charities. As the rules on CIC organisations are many and strict, formation took some doing.
A parallel, supporting operation is familiar to many in OUCS, the Dragonfly Co-operative which creates jewellery from a wide range of materials, from recycled parts to well polished stones. Many in OUCS create the items, display them at Art Week and at community fairs. Profits from it help support Ingotec.
Services versus costs: competing goals but achievable ones. For example, our first major customer was in need of file serving for both local volunteer staff as well as others located at outposts abroad. They needed a solid secure email system, shareable file store and a web presence, and more. All communications needed to be secure on the wire yet usable from any location with whatever computing resources were at hand. Security was incorporated as multiple layers to protect the production system from unkind persons and accidental misconfigurations.
We surveyed and built several solutions based on commercial offerings. One in particular would be just fine for them. Alas, the cost was well beyond their resources. We then considered building an equivalent system employing only open source free software from the community. This turned out to be a large undertaking because the needed pieces were not designed to work together, had variable amounts of documentation, and some parts required extensive rewriting to perform for our goals. We are producing a rough equivalent to a commercial product, but from free parts. A rule used was avoid change to source code if at all possible, to permit components to be upgraded over time without loss of functionality.
We surveyed prospective components, tried them, observed carefully what fit best but kept alternatives handy for retreating, and then went on to the next problem in the series. We reviewed the status periodically, tested, and kept going. The final result was checked before deciding that we were done. In the end we accomplished the goal, much to our own surprise, by careful design, by testing, by persistent thorough working out of puzzles, and by not settling for expediencies. This is not the kind of project which could be done casually, nor that which average users (those volunteers in a charity) could achieve by themselves.
The many various internal components would be familiar to the technical staff of OUCS as they are the same as used within OUCS, as it turned out. These range from email to an identity vault, file serving to some security features. In this case we reinvented the wheel to work up from open source basics to finished form without touching OUCS resources. Creating the system was a major undertaking. Documenting it was a second, to ensure there need be no critical person in the system. Then the next important major undertaking could begin: the training and leading of the customers to use the system, with Ingotec standing behind them to keep it going over the long term. By design, small daily tasks such as adding users or changing passwords would be done by the customers themselves. That in turn meant our design had to provide nice easy to use interfaces, with not a whiff of what goes on in the Linux operating system, even though most open source programs have only raw command line interfaces. Usability by the customer was very much in our minds throughout the project.
Our hope is to reuse this core work to provide similar services for other customers. We also wish to encourage other IT professionals to do similar work, using their IT skills to provide professional quality systems at minimal cost to those in need.