Back when the world was younger, there used to be a saying: ‘A Yorkshireman is a Scotsman with the generosity taken away.’ Offensive sayings like that are thankfully rarer these days, but that one may have had a grain of truth. There’s still a cultural reluctance, here in the West Riding, to spend hard-won cash on overheads like IT that benefit far-away corporations, particularly when one is volunteering one’s own services for free to a community project.
For the past five years, I have been involved in a community archaeology project, The Stanbury Hill Project, a collaboration between Bingley & District Local History Society and the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford, that investigated a rock art site on Bingley Moor.
We were Heritage Lottery funded, and I made it my mission to ensure that the money went on things that mattered, like shovels and radiocarbon dating. But that didn’t mean we were forced to do everything with quill pens. We may have been a bunch of amateurs, but we worked to the highest professional standards, and our secret weapon was free software. So, for example, all our survey data was entered into a superb free Geographical Information System (GIS) called Quantum GIS, and preparation of our Final Report – a 140 page full-colour academic publication – was done with the typesetting software LyX and LaTeX. There was even a free program Snuffler for doing the ‘geofizz’ of Time Team notoriety, even though the leading commercial program (Geoplot) is made right here in Bradford; so perhaps we might be forgiven for having spent Heritage Lottery money on the latter. We also made extensive use of the freely licensed Ordnance Survey maps known as OS Opendata.
There’s a lesson for everyone here: if specialised software for my project is available for free, then there’s probably something out there for you too. All you have to do is go online and look for it and learn how to use it. And please bear in mind too that free software is special, because it’s made by volunteers just like you and I – created and shared by people that care about their own projects, not people that just do it as a nine to five job for a faceless multinational.
But this should also cut both ways. Having yourself benefited from the altruism of others, it is equally important for your community project to contribute something back into the wider community. If you’ve developed your own specialised programs, please consider contributing it to a sharing site like Github under a Creative Commons or GNU licence. This enables similar community projects elsewhere to build on and improve your software and feed the improvements back to you – free of charge – instead of being forced to spend money reinventing the wheel. Thus the sharing habit benefits everyone. And this isn’t just about computer programs either. You can share back to the wider community your photographs and posters and artwork, spreadsheet templates, or raw data (with any personal details removed). In a world that seems to know the price of everything but the value of nothing, let’s start to show the world a better way, one Creative Commons photo at a time.