Daily Business Operations Using Free Software

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People often ask about the free software tools Agaric uses to manage our cooperative business. In this article, we share some of the free software tools we use for office tasks and administration as well as communications. These are Agaric's chosen resources -- the tools we use today for our daily business operations.

Agaric uses free software whenever possible. We build websites using Drupal, a free software content management system, and we are long time participating members of the Drupal Community. When we cannot use free software, we actively search for and contribute to groups working towards solutions.

Here is our reasoning behind the choice to use Free Software whenever possible:
The Need for Accountable Technology - Part 1

You may also wonder why we say "Free Software" and not "Open Source" since the code in both instances is essentially the same. We use the term "Free Software" because it includes the ethical principles about respecting user's freedom. Free software ethics say that users deserve control over the code they use, whereas using the term "Open Source" cites only the goal of letting users participate in the development. We support the ideals of software protecting your rights and not leaving you vulnerable.

What is Free Software?

A program is free software if the program's users have the four essential freedoms:

  1. The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).

Access to the source code is a precondition for this. To determine whether the source code is free, see what license it carries and then check the GNU project's list of licenses.

We do a few tasks that we do not have free software for. So, we use non-free programs for them. Sometimes we use specific non-free software that a client insists on including in the web site. By using non-free programs we sacrifice some of our freedom; some activists would refuse to do that. We do not like the compromise, so we help develop free replacements for those programs. Whenever possible we use software that reflects our values.

GNU/Linux OS

Free operating System - similar in features to Windows and Mac.
We have chosen to use GNU/Linux as our default system for our local development. When we take on a new student we install a GNU/Linux distribution. We always give the option of installing a different distribution, or if a student wishes to do so, they may. These are the favored GNU/Linux distributions in use by our cooperative team *members:

These are not the best versions of GNU/linux in regards to being completely free, you should consult the list of free distributions on the Free Software Foundation website.
* Currently one team member is using the proprietary but BSD-based Mac OS X, which is compliant with the Unix 03 / POSIX standard which GNU/Linux distributions also meet.

Browsers

Firefox: As developers we have to test client sites in all browsers, but for working and building sites, we use Mozilla FireFox. Although the source code of Firefox is free software, they include some icons, trademarks and logos in the download that make it non-free. You can easily remove these as has been done with IceCat, the GNU version of the Firefox browser. It has great performance, developer tools and community. The plus side of having a community around the software we use is having access to a large pool of people with experience and guidance as we learn and build together.

Tor Browser: As citizens we are not fond of being tracked so we use a free anonymizing web browser that does not allow tracking. It is called Tor.

File Storage and Calendar

Nextcloud: NextCloud is a collection of utilities suited for the De-Googlization process. It provides most of the popular tools in Google Drive. Agaric uses a hosted version of NextCloud on MayFirst.org servers that is inclusive of:

  • document and file storage
  • shared document editing
  • multi-device synchronization
  • image galleries
  • calendar
  • contacts

Finance, Accounting and Bookkeeping



 

GNUcash: Accounting software that we use for our bookkeeping.
You can see a review of GNUcash vs Quickbooks and decide if it works for you. We have found a few bookkeeping cooperatives that do accounting!

 

Communications

As a team we rely on different tools to communicate with each other and with clients about daily activities and long term project goals. We have a distributed team at locations around the world and must maintain contact especially when pair-programming or during a migration which calls for all-hands-on-deck, as well as sharing some long informational text notes and documents that include administrative information.

FreeNode: IRC - Internet Relay Chat - Realtime Text Chat: Yes, we still use IRC and you can find us on irc.freenode.net server in the #devs-r-us channel

Our preferences here are as varied as our team members: some use irssi via a remote, always-on virtual server, many use desktop clients, such as HexChat or Konversation, and still others prefer the web-based solution "The Lounge".

Email

MayFirst.org hosts Agaric.com email

Email Client: Thunderbird: An email client from Mozilla, which also makes Firefox, and is available for your phone. It also has an encryption plugin called EnigMail that works well and is not super tricky to get set up.
Hosted Email: RiseUp: Encrypted services run by anonymous volunteers and you must be invited to have a membership.
Mayfirst offers three web-based email solutions.

  1. Roundcube which has a friendly and simple web interface, making it the easier of the two programs to use.
  2. SquirrelMail is an option that is Javascript-free!
  3. Horde, on the other hand, offers more than just email - you can share calendars, to dos and more with other members of your group.

Hosted Email

Protonmail: An email service that is hosted and encrypted.

Email Lists:

We use email list servers for mailing lists based on groups and topics. It allows group mailing to people that sign up for a specific list.

MayFirst Email Server
RiseUp Email Server

Social Media

Mastadon: Publish anything you want: links, pictures, text, video. All on a platform that is community-owned and ad-free.

Social.coop: A community similar to Twitter, the main difference is that it is owned by the members. For as little as $1 a month you can become an owner/member and take part in shaping the future of the platform. You can find and follow Agaric in social.coop, a coop-run corner of the fediverse, a cooperative and transparent approach to operating a social platform

Live Streaming

MayFirst Live Streaming: MayFirst membership includes live streaming.

Conference Calls and Online Meetings

Some Agaric team members are using Jitsi recognizing that it is a work in progress and there may be technical failures at times - such as we have also found using Google Hangouts - lag time, cut-offs, poor sound quality and issues with screensharing... At times we have found that we need to use a proprietary solution that seems to work reliably as we continue to support development efforts and bug fixes with Jitsi. At the heart of Jitsi are Jitsi Videobridge and Jitsi Meet, which let you have conferences on the internet, while other projects in the community enable other features such as audio, dial-in, recording, and simulcasting.
You can self host an instance of Jitsi or choose a hosted version. You can use http://meet.jit.si or an instance is also available for public use at https://meet.mayfirst.org We do encourage you to become a MayFirst member and have access to all of the free software tools they offer. The Jitsi project needs volunteers to use and test Jitsi so it can get better swiftly!

Currently Agaric is using, and paying for, the proprietary Zoom audio/video conference call service and software. We would love a recommendation to another stable choice that is free software.

Phone Calls and Text Messages

Signal: Agaric uses signal to encrypt SMS Text messages and Phone calls. Encrypted Phone and Instant messaging found to be secure and recommended by Edward Snowden as the only truly encrypted messaging app that is not able to be decrypted by anyone. Note that security is an arms race and this could become false at anytime.

Collaborative Note Taking

Etherpad: When hosting an online meeting we usually open a shared note pad so that everyone may contribute to getting the important bits logged. Etherpad text is synchronized as you type, so that everyone viewing the page sees the same text. This allows you to collaborate on documents with large or small teams seamlessly! We use the hosted version, but you are welcome to host it yourself. We have tried a few online pads and settled on Etherpad as the most reliable.

Collaborative Ongoing Discussion

With some collaborators, particularly people involved with the Drutopia initiative, we use Mattermost rather than IRC. Mattermost can be more useful for ongoing discussions; it is similar to Slack and offers a threaded conversation. The community version is free software.

Notes and ToDo Lists

TomBoy A tiny app that lets you take note while it conveniently makes hyperlinks out of titles and allows synchronization over SSH and more.

Password Management

KeePass A password management system that takes most of the worry, distraction and thinking out of storing and retrieving your login information for multiple projects and sites.

Text Document Editing, Spreadsheets and Presentations

Libre Office: A suite of office tools similar to Microsoft Office, Documents, Spreadsheets, Slides. We use LibreOffice tools that come as core software in the distributions of GNU/Linux we are using. You may have heard of OpenOffice, it is now called LibreOffice. It consists of the basic publishing and calculating software for doing office tasks. These are the ones we use most often:
1. LibreOffice Calc - Similar features and functions of a calculating software to make spreadsheets, such as MicroSoft Excel
2. LibreOffice Writer - Similar features and functions of a word processor such as MicroSoft Word
3. LibreOffice Impress - We use this tool to build slide decks and presentations using text/graphics and videos, it is similar to Microsoft PowerPoint in features.

Project Management and Issue Tracking

*GitLab: This tool is a web-based and self-hosted Git-repository manager with wiki and issue-tracking features. We also use Gitlab for cooperative development on our projects.
*Although GitLab isn't fully free software, it does offer a self-hosted version that is. The Enterprise hosted version has extra features and is proprietary.

Redmine: A free program that you can run locally or on your own server for use as a project management and issue tracking tool. Before finding GitLab we used a self hosted instance of Redmine which is free software.

Resources and Free Software Directories


You can contribute to groups working towards solutions, there are many roles and you do not have to be a developer. As an example, *IndieWeb and Jitsi are projects that we make time to support with development, testing, outreach and feedback.

*With IndieWeb, you can take control of your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.

Tools we love and sometimes use

Decision Making and Voting

Loomio: A hosted service available at http://loomio.org
Loomio offers distributed decision making system where you can make groups that can have discussions and make decisions without an in-person meeting. Decide yes or no, or that you need more information.
Note that Loomio also has built a great cooperative resource on at their other URL - http://loomio.coop

Customer Relationship Management

civiCRM: Agaric is working with the developers at MyDropWizard to take a look at civiCRM with Drupal 8.
civiCRM is a free software to manage client relationships and memberships. We have not deployed it yet.

Framasoft: A large collection of free software tools where we use the calendar and polling software most often. We are experimenting with several other FramaSoft tools and may adopt them in the future.

If this has been a helpful read, please pass it on and let us know in the comments how it helped you. A follow-up post will list the tools we use for development purposes. Please be sure to mention any free software you have found and are using now.

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