Altruism and open source A often go hand in hand. Through our recent coverage of Perl (see LXF276) we’ve seen that the idea of helping others was intrinsic to both the language’s (and the community’s) development.
More generally, anyone who gives their time and expertise to an open source project, whether it’s through code, translation, documentation or polite bug reports, is helping that project. You might think hacking on your favourite project is probably not going to save the world. But then that all depends on the project.
Back in 2016 (see LXF216), we featured Emmabuntüs, a French collective that combined the power of Linux with the charitable efforts of a hardware recycling cadre. Back then it was putting its bespoke spin of Ubuntu (also called Emmabuntüs) on donated and refurbished computers, and sending those machines out into the world. Both locally, to the Emmaüs communities in France, and through partnership with other organisations, as far afield as Kathmandu, the Ivory Coast and Benin. Nearly six years on and Emmabuntüs is still at it. The only thing that’s changed is that the distribution is now based on Debian.
The collective’s latest initiative is a customised USB image for mass repurposing of machines. Thanks to some canny scripting, this makes doing this at scale much less time-consuming. Join usas we find out more about that and all the other great work the Emmabuntüs Collective do.
The name Emmabuntüs comes from the international Emmaüs movement (see www.emmaus-international.org), which is focused on tackling homelessness and poverty; and Ubuntu, which the distro was originally based on. There are Emmaus charity shops in the UK, but the movement began in France.
Patrick from the Emmabuntüs collective explains: “The Emmaüs movement is a secular movement that was created by the French priest Abbé Pierre, a former resistance fighter and former member of parliament, to help the poor and homeless people notably during the 1954 great cold wave.
“If your readers are not familiar with his efforts, we encourage you to watch the beautiful film on the early days of the movement, Hiver 54, l’abbé Pierre. In 1963, the movement became international, and there are now more than 350 groups around the world. They all adhere to a universal manifesto, adopted in 1969, and share a common goal: to serve before oneself who is less happy than oneself.”
So how does repurposing salvaged computers fit with the Emmaüs ethos? In the collective’s own words: “Recycling in general is an essential activity of the Emmaüs communities, and that’s how they make their living in France. I’m not sure if it’s the same in other countries. On the other hand, in the communities I visited in France, not all of them do computer recycling, because they lack the required skills or staffing. Sometimes our volunteers can help with that. For example, Yves in the Emmaüs premises of Dijon has been refurbishing computers with Emmabuntüs since I first met him.”
However, the work isn’t over when a machine is sold. Indeed, sometimes machines aren’t sold at all. “If we take this example, the computers refurbished by Yves are sold by Emmaüs, and he takes care of the technical part, the sale and the after-sales. On the other hand, sometimes computers are donated in the name of our collective in Dijon. In this case the donor doesn’t want us to sell them, so we give these computers to people recommended by Emmaüs.”
You can read more about Yves’journey at https://emmabuntus.org/yves-the-journey-of-a-humanist. We should note that the Emmabuntüs collective, while strongly aligned with Emmaüs values, isn’t officially allied with the movement. Collectif Emmabuntüs’ goal – “to help associations in their transition to a more ethical digital world through refurbishing under GNU/Linux” – is nonetheless something we can all get behind. It’s been doing that since 2012, and the collective has joined forces with other organisations across the globe to further its goal.
In our previous feature we mentioned some of these, including YovoTogo (https://yovotogo.fr) and JUMP Lab’Orione (https://jump-lab-orione.tg). Both of these organisations help set up computer rooms in colleges, lyceums and community centres. Emmabuntüs provided technical support as well as 12,000 Euros in financial assistance (by way of the Lilo search engine, the default in Emmabuntüs), the opening of new computer rooms in the Savannah and Kara regions (see map, left). This brings the total number of computer rooms in the region to 29, and the total number of computers to 765. Collectively, this gives some training to around 25,000 children each year.
Last time we also mentioned the Africa-wide Jerry project (www.youandjerrycan.org), which is an effort to build and distribute cheap computers built inside a jerry can. The Jerry project and Emmabuntüs have been collaborating for a decade. JerryClan Ivory Coast has since adopted Emmabuntüs as its reference distro. JerryClans also exist in Chad, Benin and Senegal.
Closer to home, the collective have also assisted other organisations in France, including Les Bricos du Coeur (https://bricosducoeur.org), GiveIT, the cultural social centers of Couëron and LinuxAzur (a group advocating free software on the Côte d’Azur, see www.linux-azur.org). Then over in Belgium it’s been working with Amaury from the BlablaLinux (https://blablalinux.be) and his open source efforts. As we write, final preparations are underway for the 2022 Jerry Valentin event in Abidjan (https://jerryvalentin.org). We don’t know how that’ll go this year, but last year’s saw further collaboration between Jerry, Emmabuntüs and the Montpel’libre group (https://emmabuntus.org/montpellibre-the-dragonfly-of-liberty-from-equality-to-fraternity).
One major obstacle to helping the JerryClans and associated efforts (such as Jerry Do-It-Together, https://makingsociety.com/2013/07/jerry-do-it-together-server-connects-makers-africa/) is the cost and logistical effort involved in shipping hardware. There aren’t many (if any) associations that offer charitable shipping from France to Africa. So it’s difficult for generously donated or refurbished hardware to get there. And easier to help those closer to home.
Asked if the collective had any plans to start operating in the UK, a spokesperson replied, “We’d like to collaborate with The Restart Project (which offers charitable repairs and education, see https://therestartproject.org) but we haven’t managed to make contact… maybe your interview will help us in this matter.” We sure hope so, and we’d also encourage any fixit-minded readers in the UK to donate their skills to Restart and others like them.
Collectif Emmabuntüs receives its hardware from a few different sources. YovoTogo ships equipment donated by Lycée Notre Dame du Roc (www.lycee-ndduroc.com) and refurbished by Emmabuntüs. That college, like many others, regularly updates its hardware pool. Students constantly needing new machines might be seen as a waste of resources, or at times “technological overkill” in the collective’s words.
Yet this provides a constant stream of computers for donation. “It’s just a bargain!”, the collective tells us. “Mickaël and Claude from YovoTogo erase the BIOS passwords, disable the UEFI, and clone these machines with Emmabuntüs Debian Edition Free Culture server.” This is a spin of its distribution showcasing libre culture. These computers can then be used offline as training tools in high schools across Togo. You can read more about the free culture edition at https://bit.ly/lxf287-free-culture-edition.
>> DANCE WITH THE DEBIAN
When we last talked to Emmabuntüs, the distro was based on Ubuntu. But Canonical had just announced its plan to wind down support for 32-bit systems. This was back in 2016 (remember, Ubuntu 16.10 was the first 64-bit only release), but the collective was already planning its migration to Debian 8 (Jessie). Never short of knowledgeable friends, it teamed up with Arpinux (a developer of the now-defunct HandyLinux distro) as well as the Debian Facile project. “We’d already collaborated with DF-Linux (thanks to Yves from our collective) for the English version of their Debian Beginner’s Handbook.”
“With Arpinux’s help and inspired by the HandyLinux scripts, using the Live-Build tool, the migration was not too hard. Actually it went very well, and since then we already released four versions under Debian, and have started to work on the future version 12 of Debian Bookworm”. See https://framagit.org/Emmabuntus/emmabuntus_de_5 for more about Emmabuntüs DE5.
The latest release sees the venerable (but no longer really supported) LXDE desktop replaced with not one but two offerings: LXQt and Xfce. Such was the success of this change during testing that it was incorporated into the then-stable Emmabuntüs DE3, with good results.
Making the best of donations
Sometimes hardware donations come from larger companies, for example this is where laptops are usually sourced. These sort of bulk donations often entail more work – “parts are often missing, thermal paste must be changed, more RAM or a new hard disk is needed” – but this is standard fare for the collective.
As we know from our growing collection of old kit at LXF Towers though, nothing lasts forever and sooner or later things start to fail. It’s the same thing for the collective, but it strives to make use of all that can be made use of. “If a computer exhibits intermittent hardware problems, we cannibalise it to repair others, because we often get computers of the same type, and we are not in the situation as a private individual who wants to extend the life of their own equipment.”
Very occasionally, but inevitably, some machines received by Emmabuntüs are DOA. Again, the attitude is very much a positive one in this case. “We cannibalise it also to repair others, because for the computer industry this hardware was doomed to end up in landfill anyway. But this situation is very rare, because we usually receive computers from high schools or from corporations which are buying from big brands like HP, Dell or IBM. Those components are very reliable, which is less true with those sold to individuals.”
The minimum system requirements for Emmabuntüs Debian Edition 4 are 1GB of RAM and 80GB of disk space. No doubt some readers will be keen to tell us Linux can work on even more constrained hardware. Be that as it may, Xfce and LXQt (the two desktop environments featured on Emmabuntüs) both work well with this amount of memory, and if people want the machines to be useful offline, then a modicum of storage will surely help.
The first edition (based on Ubuntu 10.04) could run on 256MB machines, but that was a long time ago. As the collective explains: “Within the frame of our collaborations with YovoTogo, JUMP or others we advise them to use computers that are not too old. Our goal is not to make feats by reviving very old computers, but rather to refurbish computers having the longest life expectancy, especially those sent to Africa.” The collective, and the organisations it partners with, share a common goal: “To reuse these systems to train the youth of these countries and to open them up to a free and ethical digital world.”
Many of these machines end up in classrooms where there often isn’t even a reliable power connection, let alone reliable internet connectivity. Indeed some schools didn’t even have a connection to the electrical grid until they got their computer rooms appropriately kitted out. And now, through the power of Linux (and libre software generally) thousands of students can be trained every year. As the collective says, “This is the purpose of our common actions, like in the Emmaüs movement: helping other people.”
Emmabuntüs’ most recent initiative, in partnership with Debian Facile (https://debian-facile.org) is the creation of a self-cloning system image that can be installed to a USB stick, which in turn can be recycled. Before we explore this, it’s worth talking about Debian Facile (“Easy Debian”). This is a French association that promotes Linux via meetings, its forum and its Debian Beginner’s Handbook (see https://lescahiersdudebutant.arpinux.org/bullseye-en/index.html).
The USB re-use campaign began in earnest in August 2020 and also featured BlablaLinux (mentioned above) and Tugaleres.com (a generalist site promoting Linux, environmentalism and more). The goal was to “federate initiatives for reuse in order to provide Linux computers free of charge, or at low cost, to poor people, schools, etc.” Team Emmabuntüs is more than adept at getting its distro on to PCs, having been at this game for some time. But no matter how quick you are with a mouse, if you have to install an OS manually on dozens of machines, it’ll take a lot of time.
Besides helping with the scripting, and creating a series of videos about the key (see https://bit.ly/lxf287-youtube-usb-key) Amaury from BlablaLinux has also been sourcing the USB keys themselves. These are sold at cost price (plus shipping) throughout Belgium and France. Interestingly, since the easier Ventoy method has been introduced, demand for these has lessened, presumably because people can easily make their own.
DEALING WITH DONATED KIT
“Parts are often missing, thermal paste must be changed, more RAM or a new hard disk is needed.”
We (being numerologists at heart) asked the team how much time the fully automatic USB key saved. Obviating the Clonezilla configuration stages (see box, opposite) saves “at least two minutes”, and then using Ventoy (which automatically detects which storage device is which) saves a further 30 seconds. This may not sound like much, but this is per machine being imaged. “With this method we take between two and 10 minutes to recondition a machine, versus the 30 to 45 minutes needed to install an ISO.” We spend a lot of time installing Linuxes at LXF Towers, and those long waits for progress bars to move to get rather tedious. In traditional time measures we estimate the key could save up to four cups of tea if you have a dozen or so machines to image. Not bad, not bad. In terms of actual numbers Mickaël and Claude from YovoTogo achieved a phenomenal refurbishment of 150 machines in two days using the new tooling.
That’s the sort of productivity we can only dream about here at Linux Format. Huge thanks to Yves, Patrick and the rest of the collective for their help putting this feature together. LXF
>> AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
The first stage of the campaign saw the introduction of the ‘manual’ USB key using Clonezilla. However, the collective soon saw there was room for improvement: “Clonezilla is a cool tool. It has lots of settings though, and you have to navigate through about 20 different screens before the cloning operation starts.” This can be complicated for beginners and also prone to errors, “especially when you’re on your 10th refurbishment of the morning,” add the collective. “Getting through this initial part takes about two minutes, then the actual cloning process only takes between two and 10 minutes, depending on the machine”.
The next stage was the ‘semi-automatic’ key that used MultiSystem (http://liveusb.info/dotclear). Clonezilla has a scripting mode, but this wasn’t quite enough for the refurbishment teams, who have to contend with volatile device labels and different storage configurations. So using MultiSystem, a USB stick is partitioned with a number of clone images and can cater to both BIOS and UEFI systems. It can even configure swap, which isn’t possible with Clonezilla alone.
The final evolution is the fully automatic key, which instead uses the cross-platform Ventoy (featured in our last issue). All that’s required is to set up the partitions, then copy across some scripts and clones. As you’d expect there’s no shortage of tutorials on how to make one (see https://emmabuntus.org/how-to-make-an-emmabuntus-refurbishing-key-with-ventoy). And once you have that you can mass- recondition machines about as fast as physically possible. And of course you can then clone the USB itself. Many USBs make light work.