It struck me recently that I have been making use of a lot of practically-free services provided by a variety of communities, but that I have not necessarily been giving anything back in return.
A picture paints 1000 words, but getting permission to use them is a nightmare. When I first started producing documents or presentations containing images, I wasn’t too concerned with which website I had taken them from. However, over the past few years I have been trying to be more careful about giving credit where credit is due for the material that I use.
In particular, I have been using Wikimedia Commons a lot for my lectures and talks. This brilliant site is a huge archive of media (still images, sound and video) that is available for use under Creative Commons licenses. Often you need to just add the name of the author, then you are free to use the media. It seems that nature photographs are a particularly substantial part of the collection. Flickr is a similar source of photographs, many of which are shared under CC licenses.
Wikimedia Commons also has a large amount of content that is in the form of video and audio, but there are a number of sources that are explicitly geared towards providing this kind of content. The TED Talk archive was a fantastic resource for me when I was lecturing to a class of conservation biology students. The short, punchy, thought-provoking talks gave them a break from me and were often extremely entertaining. For more videos of an educational nature, Youtube has an entire section of its site dedicated to education.
I have blogged before about the problems with scientific publishing, and how large corporations who do not have intellectual progress as a priority are making huge amounts of money by throttling access to information. The same could be said of the software that scientists use to produce those scientific papers. Statistical packages can run into tens of thousands of dollars for a single program, and often monopolise entire markets. However, there has been some push-back from the scientific community. One program that I use almost daily is R. This program emerged from an attempt to recode an entire commercial statistics package from the ground up and was released as open source software. Despite having a reasonably steep learning curve (I’ve pasted a screenshot below – IT’S COMMAND LINE!!!) R has received enormous support from the community and huge numbers of additional add-on libraries have been designed for the package. As I tell people when I am encouraging them to use R, it will almost certainly do whatever you need it to do but if it doesn’t then just ask and someone will fix it for you. R has not only removed my need for proprietary statistical packages, but I also find myself using it for geographical information systems (GIS) analyses.
Other freeware programs that might be of interest to people:
- Notepad++ – a brilliant text editor that highlights code in a variety of languages. I use it for R and html code.
- Filezilla – FTP client.
- GIMP – freeware alternative to Photoshop with huge functionality. See Paint.NET for a leaner program.
- Mendeley – reference manager.
- MEGA – phylogenetic analysis software (a bit niche, that one, but I find it useful!)
- Skype – not technically freeware, but if you’re only calling computer to computer then you can save a fortune.
[EDIT: A couple more programs that I forgot:
- WordPress – how could I forget? Wordpress is a free website/blogging platform that is easy to set up. Great for getting information out there quickly and efficiently.
- Drupal – for those of you with slightly more complex requirements, Drupal is a brilliant web content management system (CMS). There are a lot of free themes and the resulting websites can look extremely professional. My website is in Drupal.]
Giving something back
I had never thought much about where all of this wonderful, free media came from until I started printing off some dragonfly photos that I had taken. I realised when I looked that I had a reasonable number of pretty decent quality photos that were sitting around on my computer. I’ve now created a Flickr site that houses all those photos and they are all shared under CC Attribution licenses (just stick my name under it and then you can do whatever you like with it). You can find those photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/katatrepsis/.