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Last Updated: Tuesday, 2 December, 2003, 11:01 GMT
Brazil bets on Linux cybercafes
By Denize Bacoccina
In Sao Paulo

Unemployed and living in one of the poorest areas of Sao Paulo City, which has a high rate of violence and little to do, 19-year-old Jose Antonio de Oliveira Silva used to spend most of his time at home.

Jose Antonio de Oliveira Silva
Jose is hoping his computer skills will him get a job
But that all changed with the opening in Cidade Tiradentes of a "telecenter", a free internet cafe set up by the local authority.

"Now I come here almost every day," said Jose Antonio, who is taking courses in computer and writing skills.

He spends one hour a day, the maximum time allowed per person, practising on the computer and hopes that the new skills will help him in the search for a job.

"I know people who have got jobs because they knew how to work with computers," he said.

Finding a job is also Elaine Guimaraes' prime concern. Unemployed for five years, she uses the net to register with job websites, e-mail her CV and to access services such as government benefits.

She learned how to use a computer at the Telecenter Cidade Tiradentes.

"During my last job, computers were something new. But now, if I find a job I will have to know how to use them," she said.

Lack of jobs

Getting a job is the number one worry here. Sao Paulo City has an unemployment rate over 20%, but in Cidade Tiradentes, with its 130,000 inhabitants living in social housing projects, the rate is even higher.

Sao Paulo Telecenter
People are allowed to use the PCs for an hour daily for free
Walking around on a weekday, you can see just how many people are on the streets doing nothing.

"Ninety-eight percent of people living here didn't have access to computers before," said Jesulino Alves de Souza, who co-ordinates the centre.

Now, some of them, after learning at the centre, have saved money to buy their own computer to use at home.

A resident of the area for 11 years, Mr Souza believes the Telecenter has become an important part of the lives of many young people in the area.

It has never been robbed or vandalised, unlike other inner city public buildings and schools.

"Maybe because they know that we are here to serve the community," he explained.

'Fundamental right'

The Telecenter project was started two and a half years ago in Sao Paulo by a left-wing local government as part of a digital inclusion plan that aimed to improve access to information.

Research carried out that year showed that there were about three million people in Sao Paulo without any access to computers. Now, about 250,000 people are using the nearly 100 net cafes.

The government is the biggest software buyer. We can save a lot of public money using the free software solution
Beatriz Tibirica, E-Government project
Although ownership of a computer and access to the internet are common for middle-class Brazilians, of the population as a whole fewer than 10% have access to the net.

"We want to take the telecenters to the poorer areas in the periphery, to reduce the social and economic divide," said Beatriz Tibirica, co-ordinator of a project called E-Government.

"Access to technology is fundamental in order to get full rights and opportunities in modern society", she added.

Each telecenter has about 20 computers. Some are used for the courses and others are free to be used for anything from preparing homework for checking the latest about soap stars.

Since last year, all the centres have been using the free operating system GNU/Linux.

"The government is the biggest software buyer," said Ms Tibirica. "We can save a lot of public money using the free software solution."

She pointed out that the free software has many advantages: no need to pay for licences and it is possible to use a simpler version of the computer, with one server and several thin clients - computers without hard disks.

These computers, according to Ms Tibirica, cost a quarter of the price of a machine and have reduced maintenance costs.

Education experiment

Moving from paid to free software to reduce costs is part of a national government plan.

Elaine Guimaraes
Elaine Guimaraes is doing her fourth computer course
The idea is going to be tested on a larger scale in the next few months, when the Ministry for Education buys new equipment.

A new bid is under way to buy 10,000 computers for schools. There are already 230,000 computers in 43,000 schools around the country, most of them using proprietary software like Microsoft Windows.

The new computers will be able to work with both proprietary and open source software.

"More than saving money, which is important enough, the free system will allow us to create a network of knowledge in the field," said Americo Bernardes, director of the National Program for Informatics in Education (Pro-Info).

But he admitted that this was an experiment. "The government is using the free system in some administrative offices. But using it in schools, with students, has a much bigger impact," said Mr Bernardes.


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