Putting Oracle a11y news in perspective

3:01 pm community, freesoftware

Oracle laying off GNOME contributors is certainly bad news for the project. It’s particularly bad news because Willie Walker, one of my favourite GNOME contributors, is now out of a job.

I just want to put this in perspective, though. In 2007, IBM made deep cuts in its support of GNOME accessibility, affecting contributors such as Peter Parente, Eitan Isaacson and Aaron Leventhal, who are no longer paid to work on GNOME accessibility work. The IBM cuts were perhaps deeper than those that Oracle are announcing right now (but I suspect that we’re not finished hearing bad news from Oracle). So we’ve been through this (and worse) before.

Next, it’s not all bad news on the accessibility front: other distributions are carrying a small amount of the accessibility mantle (Ubuntu, OpenSuse), with projects like MouseTweaks being funded by Canonical, the Inference lab in Cambridge has been funded for some projects (Dasher, OpenGazer (the newer development of OpenGazer is not yet available for download)) through the AEGIS project, and of course as others have noticed, the Mozilla Foundation has repeated its accessibility grant of the last two years to the GNOME Foundation, and supporting Orca is part of its accessibility roadmap. Mozilla has also funded work to port AT-SPI from Orbit to DBus, and other work on Orca and Accerciser.

So there are people who care about accessibility in GNOME, and there appears to be a potential for funding for accessibility work, for the right people with the right contacts and the right projects.

Perhaps it’s time for the GNOME Foundation to start seeking funds from government bodies, other public institutions and private funding to fund accessibility work for the greater good? I know that we’re currently raising funds for a sysadmin, and have not yet reached the level of support where we can make that position a regular fixture, but accessibility is different.

No one player is willing to put enough funding into accessibility to properly support Orca, gok, Dasher, AT-SPI, Accerciser, MouseTweaks, keyboard accessibility tools like SlowKeys and StickyKeys, and so on – but perhaps there are lots of people who are willing to support a project for a specific feature, or general stability & bug fixing work for a11y on the desktop?

If there is no commercial justification for a company like Oracle to pay two people to work full time on free software accessibility, then it’ll be a hard sell to any other company. But perhaps the GNOME Foundation could bear two full time accessibility employees with targeted grants working on a public roadmap? Raising $250,000 – $300,000 a year for accessibility from grants doesn’t sound that hard.

But then, maybe I’m nuts…

10 Responses

  1. pvanhoof Says:

    Raising $250,000 for employment sounds a bit nuts, yes. GNOME isn’t an employer, but rather a network.

    If GNOME could raise this amount of money for the purpose of improving accessibility, which I think is a great fund raising goal, GNOME should spend this on accessibility hackfests instead of hiring people in my opinion.

    You’ll burn the money more quickly, but you’ll also improve the awareness about the many subjects involved in accessibility among other GNOME developers.

    I also think, but you aren’t doing this here (great) others did, that trying to portray Oracle as having some sort of guilt is extremely counter productive:

    It scares all other companies away from getting involved in GNOME (I can see them thinking “What IF we pull out after some months of investing in GNOME? Their community will slander us! Let’s not get involved into GNOME at all”). Companies change direction all the times. Let them, you can’t stop it anyway.

    But again, Dave, is your blog item the most sensible about this so far.

  2. TOM Says:

    Fire Stormy and you are nearly there. A11y is way more important than her blog post about the books she has read.

  3. Dave Neary Says:

    @pvanhoof: The ideal way to do this would be if some young company with big balls hired Willie, and then started looking for accessibility grants, partnering with the GNOME Foundation. I for one would be very hesitant to do that, because the foundation might well decide to go with another partner after a board change or for any of a dozen other reasons.

    In the absence of that, the ideal is what Eitan has done in the past – contracting to a non-profit paying for the work. In this case, if Stormy were raising grants, the proposals would be co-sponsored by Willie, and when they come in, he gets paid.

    The $250K I said is an estimation on my part of the funds required for 2 people full-time, plus the time & effort of the person who would be bringing in work for them. As an independent contractor, you know that this is not that much money for a 3 person company to be bringing in for project work.

    TOM: If you have a specific complaint about what Stormy does for the foundation, bring it up with the board. If you don’t like what (personal) stuff she posts to her blog, don’t read it. I think she’s done a great job of structuring and organising the foundation, and we’re now in a position to consider things like this, where two years ago we weren’t.


  4. Eitan Isaacson Says:

    It sounds a bit scary to have the foundation fund full-time development. Is there a precedent? I guess mofo is, they started a company with 100s of employees. The difference being their accidental revenue stream from Google.

    But just from TOM’s comment it is obvious how full time employees of high-profile foundations are vulnerable (And yes, having a full-time executive director like Stormy is one of the best choices the foundation ever made).

    While I am extremely thankful for the time mofo allowed me to spend on GNOME a11y, I think that small grants in themselves won’t save FOSS a11y. I feel that grants and charity may only perpetuate a11y’s sad under-resourced state, and what is needed is a real commercial motivation like Sun and IBM had in the past.

    It sucks that Oracle pulled the plug, but the work that Sun has done in the past, could not have been done by one or two individuals with uncertain income.

    So I am really hoping for renewed business interest in a11y more than anything else. While IBM and Oracle might have made the right choice for their stockholders, I don’t think a11y is objectively a bad business choice. I really do believe that there is plenty of money to be made in FOSS a11y alone.

    If there were a real business justification in a11y, like I believe there is, it would transform FOSS a11y from the current charity that it is into a first-class discipline that would attract talented engineers and blaze trails.

  5. pvanhoof Says:

    > The $250K I said is an estimation
    > on my part of the funds required
    > for 2 people full-time
    > plus the time &
    > effort of the person who would be
    > bringing in work for them. As an
    > independent contractor, you know
    > that this is not that much money
    > for a 3 person company to be
    > bringing in for project work.

    Correct, $250K is probably not enough for two people. This depends very much on the economy and taxes of the countries of the employer and employee, though.

    In Belgium you typically take his monthly bruto salary, you multiply it by at least 2, and then by 12. That’s a rough estimate of the yearly cost for an employee (you better invoice quite a bit more for his services).

    This, however, requires an existing company. If you need to startup a company, then add another $50,000 for costs and expenses for the first year of that company. And I guess you need to somehow pay the manager’s salary too?

    Assuming you give a bruto monthly salary of $5,000 (I guess that’s ~ the salary for a civil engineer who recently graduated) that’ll cost a company about $120,000. Add a leased car of $520 / month (that’s ~ a VW Golf), a phone, a laptop, gasoline, renting a desk and whatever most people expect from employment nowadays …

    What I’m basically saying is that, yes, employment might be a good investment. But this company will have to survive for a few years. And the engineer will expect employment for more than one year. As you said, a change of board of directors at GNOME foundation and your startup might be seriously screwed.

    Better invest it in three hackfests. Hopefully that’ll inspire a student whom you invited to make a name for himself with it.

    The pros you’d hire can find jobs without the help of GNOME. Don’t worry about them.

  6. Claudio André Says:

    I like your idea. But, i’m not sure GNOME foundation itself is the best place to “make these jobs”.

    Anyway, maybe the foundation could start thinking about new ways to find and put resources (directly) in order to solve problems like a11y.

  7. Dave Neary Says:

    @Eitan: There is precedent for the GNOME Foundation directly paying people on short term contracts – that would be one way to get started. We payed Shaun McCance to write some documentation a few years ago, for example. And as you said, the Mozilla Foundation has hired people for roles typically not handled well by the community. (The also hire core developers, which long term I think will be a mistake, but anyway).

    @pvanhoof: A base salary of $80,000 is quite good in the US, especially if you’re not in the bay area or one of the big urban centers in the East. In the US, that will cost an employer ~$90K (the joys of no social protections!) including payroll taxes & overhead, and a little up front to set up a home office – I would have no expectation of a car, and a small amount for home office charges (internet, phone, electricity, office supplies – when I worked at home this was max €50 per month, excluding mobile phone) – your two employees will cost $200,000 and one person working part time on finding them work (and also doing paid work alongside) could be priced at ~$50K for the “cost center” stuff.

    The best set-up would be for the GNOME Foundation to do the grant searching & applications, working with a preferred partner. Shared risk, shared rewards, and a11y users benefit with full time paid people dedicated to GNOME accessibility.


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  10. Donnie Berkholz Says:

    It’s easy for a professional researcher to spend 25% of his time doing nothing but writing grants, which may pull in $250K a year if you’re lucky.