For the purpose of this post, I’m going to leave the debate between free software and open source software aside. I believe the nuance is important within technical communities, but a detail that tends to complicate things when brought into situations with people with less technical backgrounds.
When I first started working in Indonesia I had a hard time getting people interested in using QGIS and in turn InaSAFE (QGIS is desktop Geographic Information System Software (GIS) and InaSAFE is a plugin that allows people to calculate the potential impact of a disaster).
My approach in the United States had been “it’s free!” In Indonesia, this approach often received the response “so is ArcGIS, I can just get a copy of it”. I also occasionally tried the Richard Stallman version ‘“free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”‘ Though “free beer” doesn’t resonate well in majority Muslim countries for reasons beyond explaining software licenses.
The people I interacted with were familiar with getting viruses from pirated software. So telling them that QGIS didn’t have any viruses did get some people’s attention. I started using that as one of my selling points.
You Can Modify It!
Usually being able to modify the software doesn’t get most people’s attention. The majority of people don’t know how to program and learning often seems unlikely. When teaching open source in Indonesia we used the “you can modify it” route to mean you can provide input into future releases and we tried to be as responsive as possible to this. We didn’t get as much input as we hoped but we got some.
This one would have been much more difficult in the early days of QGIS. It took a long time for it to become comparable to ArcGIS (the commercial competitor). In recent years that has changed so ease of use has become more of a selling point. InaSAFE was developed as a wizard, so much of the focus was on making it easy. InaSAFE was taking complex scientific models and trying to make them accessible to the average disaster manager. It needs to be easy so people would use it and not feel overwhelmed.
In Your Language
Having both software and documentation in Indonesian helped as well. Particularly the software. It makes it easier for people to learn and helps show you are making an effort in their country as well.
Ultimately it took a long time for things to begin to catch on. Part of that was InaSAFE was new and also methods of getting people interested took some trial and error. The other part was figuring out how people might get interested in open source. Open source is not accepted to the same degree across various cultures and societies. The beauty of it being modifiable is we can look for different methods for it to gain acceptance.