If a co-op business structure works for Sunkist and Land O'Lakes, it could work for software too. After several successful university software development projects, developers in Brazil are using an old business plan in a new way.
Univates, a university center in the south of Brazil, has been a free software user since 1997 and has adopted free software as a standard for administrative people since 1999. As there was no academic administration system available as free software, Univates developed its own, SAGU. SAGU now is used by a dozen other universities in Brazil, with some of them contributing code. By adopting free software and developing SAGU, Univates has saved almost $200,000 US in software licenses. It further saves $70,000 US every year as it doesn't need to buy new licenses or upgrades when installing new computers or increasing the user base. The number of students in Univates has grown from a little less than 2,000 in 1999 to more than 7,500 in 2003. The savings always have been more than enough to cover the payroll of the whole IT department, now employing 26 people.
If you search Google with the keywords Free Software Brazil, you surely will find Univates' projects among the first search results. These projects include a library automation and integrated circulation system, GNUTECA, which is compliant with international library standards. It has been promoted in South America through workshops held by Unesco's office in Montevideo. There also is a PHP-based, object-oriented development framework, MIOLO, that was used to develop GNUTECA and is the base of several other projects. You also should look at Agata Report, a full-featured professional database reporting tool; see www.univates.br/freesoftware.
Univates is a community-owned university. Its only financial support comes from students' payments and some services it provides to the region's industries. It serves a region made up of 40 cities where 300,000 people live. As it is owned by the community, Univates also is audited by this community, which participates in the election of the rector and in several committees that help decide the university's actions. Univates is committed to regional development and has promoted several programs through which it helps local industry.
Univates has watched its IT department become self-sustainable and even generate resources for the university by selling services such as software customization and technology transfer seminars. However, as Univates never wanted to be a software house, it proposed to its IT team that it become a separate entity. As its own entity, it can be hired by Univates and by others, expanding its business and creating job positions to be filled by the university's graduates and students. Both this new entity and Univates would work on a business plan that would link regional development and free software.
The International Co-operative Association (www.ica.coop) says that:
Co-ops are based on helping each other and caring for others. A cooperative is a type of business or organization. It is a group of people who are working together to solve their own problems and meet their needs. Co-ops are different from other types of organizations since they abide by three main rules: 1) co-ops treat people fairly and respectfully; 2) co-ops encourage people to work together toward solving their mutual problems; and 3) co-ops provide products and services to meet people's needs rather than solely for the purpose of making money.
By this definition, it is quite easy to see that a co-operative organization and the free software philosophy have a lot in common. Both are concerned with treating people with respect and working toward common objectives. The new organization that was born from Univates' IT department is a cooperative called SOLIS (www.solis.coop.br), officially inaugurated on May 12, 2003.
SOLIS works toward regional development by finding ways of empowering local businesses through the use of free software. By doing this, people at SOLIS hope these businesses can become more competitive, profitable and able to grow and hire more people.
Right now SOLIS is working with industrial and commercial associations, helping the companies associated with them fine-tune their needs in order to save money by sharing among them the costs of software development, customization and training. Univates and SOLIS wish to prove in a practical way that free software can help regional development and is good business that—most importantly—respects people's free access to knowledge. We hope other universities can set up similar arrangements in their own regions.