"Now is perhaps a good time to start exploring the alternatives"
Anaïs Ladoy, a PhD student at EPFL’s Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG), is using nothing but free software to carry out her thesis research. She’s opted for this approach because she wants her results to be reproducible and open to all.
Where we live affects our health. By investigating the interactions between the environment and public health and identifying vulnerable neighborhoods, geographical approaches can provide key insights that could help shape and guide public-health policy and prevention campaigns. Anaïs Ladoy, a PhD student at the Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG), part of EPFL’s School of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), is tackling the issue of how to incorporate geographic information for precision in public health. But there’s something singular about her research, which she began in 2019 in partnership with the Canton of Vaud: she’s using nothing but free software.
A personal challenge
“It all started as a personal challenge,” says Ladoy. “When I began working on my thesis, I replaced my old Mac with a new PC. But rather than sticking with Windows, I opted for the Ubuntu (GNU/Linux) operating system. I’ve long been interested in coding and didn’t want to be a passive user.” Having embarked down the open-source path, Ladoy decided to persevere, seeking out freely available alternatives for every type of application: word processing, browsing, search engine, image processing, and integrated development environments (IDEs), as well as applications more specific to her research field, such as for mapping and geographic information processing. She relies heavily on a directory compiled by Jean-Daniel Bonjour, the former head of IT at ENAC (see below). For instance, when carrying out geocoding work – the process of converting street addresses into geographic coordinates – Ladoy shunned Google’s services in favor of Swiss federal-government databases (geo.admin.ch) and collaborative maps (OpenStreetMap).
Anyone can access my data and reproduce my results without spending a single penny.
An ethical approach to science
Ladoy argues that using free software is an ethical approach to science. “Anyone can access my data and reproduce my results without spending a single penny,” she explains. “I think that’s particularly important given the applied nature of my research.” In 2021, she helped the Canton of Vaud install mobile COVID-19 vaccination centers by targeting places where populations could suffer from information gaps or accessibility barriers.
Her decision to use a free geographic information system paid off at the height of the vaccine rollout: during crisis response meetings, civil protection and cantonal government officials were able to dig straight into Ladoy’s findings, generate their own maps and decide on a course of action – all without having to stump up CHF 10,000 in annual license fees for the equivalent paid software. “Public- and private-sector organizations could save a lot of money by switching to free software,” says Ladoy. “With the growing concerns over the power of the Big Five tech companies [Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft], now is perhaps a good time to start exploring the alternatives.”
According to Ladoy, organizations often cite a lack of technical support as one reason behind their reluctance to abandon paid software. With free applications, users have to rely on the community – rather than a support service they pay for – to fix bugs in the software. But Ladoy describes this as a “non-issue,” explaining that the same bugs occur time and again and, in many cases, the fixes are already available online. What’s more, most businesses and public-sector organizations have sufficient in-house IT expertise to handle these issues without outside support.
Once you’ve made that choice, you stick with it.
Ladoy cites interoperability as the main stumbling block on the path to wider uptake of free software. Many files still bear proprietary extensions (such as .docx for Microsoft Word and .pptx for Microsoft PowerPoint), and opening these in non-paid applications can lead to layout problems, missing bibliographies and other structural issues. In Ladoy’s view, these are minor problems that often stem from conditioning. “Very few people who abandon proprietary software go back,” she explains. “Once you’ve made that choice, you stick with it. For me personally, the gamble paid off. Right at the start of my thesis, I decided I wanted to make my research as accessible as possible. I knew it was the right choice then – and I’m even more convinced now.”
Ladoy learned about free software during a class she took at EPFL. Now, she’s using her position as a scientific assistant at LASIG to spread the word among EPFL’s student community.