May 11, 2006

A FOSS primer for international policy-makers

Author: Rod Amis

When investigating free and open source software (FOSS) development and implementation in developing countries, you're likely to run into Ken Wong and Phet Sayo's FOSS primer, published by the International Open Source Network. What makes this primer so special, and so widely known? To find out, we interviewed the authors.

NewsForge: There are a number of FOSS primers available on the Internet. What motivated you to write yours, and what makes it different from the others?

Wong: While several primers and countless articles about free/open source software did exist at the time we created the first of our primers, none of them tackled it from the perspective of developing countries. As part of the United Nations Development Programme, the International Open Source Network works to fulfill a perceived lack of information targeted towards policy-makers in developing nations.

The introductory primer and all other primers in the series address issues that are of interest to policy-makers. These include how FOSS can benefit a nation's development, policies that encourage or stifle FOSS, and related subjects. While we would hope that the primers are of value to the general public, they are targeted primarily at ensuring that policy-makers have all the information they need to guide the policies and development strategies of their developing nation.

Sayo: There is a great deal of content out there that's quite in-depth; however, it was all scattered. Our target audience needs quick references that outline the issues in an easily accessible manner. We chose to tackle it by needs and problems -- languages and access, piracy and the costs, etc.

And you have to remember that at that time (only a couple years ago), FOSS was relatively new in the development discourse, and so the issues and topics all had to be presented in relevant and simple terms. A primer was the best way to go -- one that could distill what we thought would interest the policy-makers.

NewsForge: What case studies did you find compelling? What do they tell us about FOSS in developing countries?

Wong: There are many case studies in both this primer and the Government and Policy primer so it is really hard to choose any single favorite.

When I am in business/competitive mode, I like the case study on the City of Largo [Florida, USA]. The cost savings and efficiencies it obtained were quite convincing. Certainly any organization would benefit from increased operational and cost efficiencies, and that particular case study shows how beneficial a properly implemented transition can be. There are several other case studies and reports that show cost benefits.

However, cost is only one benefit of FOSS, and a minor one in some cases. For developing nations, with limited resources, FOSS can provide an invaluable base to begin building their information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure from.

For example, I enjoy the various localization examples in both of the primers mentioned above and the Localization Primer. They show how nations, in the cases where the free market has failed them, can still access the benefits of ICT. For example, where a society may be too small or impoverished for a for-profit corporation to localize their software for the market, a dedicated individual or small team can localize FOSS to the society's language and cultural requirements and make ICT more readily accessible to all.

In the long run, it is the case studies that touch upon increased access to knowledge and sharing that warm my heart and motivate me to continue contributing what I can to the FOSS community.

Sayo: I liked the Goa [India] Schools Computer Project case study, primarily because it relates to education. For this region, FOSS will find success through capacity-building, and that starts at the school.

NewsForge: You mention barriers to FOSS adoption in your book. Could you share the primary ones from your analysis with us?

Wong: Some of these barriers are covered in more detail in the government and policy primer. In brief, the major issues we identified were:

  1. Lack of awareness
  2. Not all benefits are commercial, thus free market forces can produce non-ideal outcomes
  3. Entrenched legacy systems

The first point has become less and less of an issue since the primers were originally written. It is getting harder to ignore FOSS in any capacity. Still, there are critical issues that can sometimes get missed, such as the issue of how software patents can adversely impact FOSS uptake and development in a country.

Software patents (a relatively recent development in the history of patents) are being introduced into countries via decision-makers who are often not aware of their impact on FOSS and, for that matter, on ICT in general. Certain countries have had to basically legalize software patents as a result of signing free trade agreements with various "developed" nations.

The other two points are still strong, although the issue with legacy systems is somewhat reduced by the current push for open standards in various areas.

Sayo: I would say that the main barrier is capacity -- be it FOSS or proprietary software. However, utilizing FOSS to address skills development has obvious advantages: It's 100% open to explore to whatever degree you want to, and there are vast networks of peer knowledge and projects on the Net that one can learn from.

I think [Mark] Shuttleworth [of the Ubuntu Foundation] put it best in our WSIS Tunis (World Summit on the Information Society) panel discussion: with FOSS, knowledge and the tool are bundled together.

Governments in the less and least developed countries are the main customers of software. If governments adopt a practice of using FOSS (which makes sense for them economically anyway) then they become catalysts for driving the demand for local capacities in FOSS. As Ken pointed out, awareness is the issue; if governments explored and evaluated FOSS, then you would find that most would probably migrate over where appropriate.

NewsForge: In your view, what would contribute to strengthen the migration to FOSS in Asia?

Wong: Personally, I believe it is still mostly an issue of awareness, though of a different sort today than from several years ago. Several years ago, FOSS was not even on the radar of most organizations or policy-makers. Today, more and more, they are aware of FOSS. Unfortunately, while they know of this thing called FOSS, the details are lost, especially when there is a lot of bad information (some deliberate) out there.

While FOSS does have some commercial companies behind it, their number is small compared to the number of proprietary software companies that have grown in the last quarter decade. FOSS voices and marketing are drowned out by the voices of proprietary software companies fighting the disruptive change that FOSS represents to their business model.

Against the marketing juggernaut brought against FOSS, it is a testament to its great value that its adoption is actually still growing. There have been many examples of technically or functionally superior products that have been displaced by inferior but better marketed competitors.

Government policy can be a critical element in changing this. At the very least, it is a solid indicator of government priorities that will raise awareness of FOSS. At the very best, it can do so much more.

Final thoughts -- I have always been amazed at the friendliness and assistance provided by the FOSS community. These primers simply could not have been written without the assistance and work of countless others that served as a base for the primers. In the introductory and government/policy primers alone, there are hundreds of citations of reports, case studies, and projects done by others. Like FOSS itself, it is the spirit of sharing and working together that has made the primers and others like it possible.

Sayo: As Ken noted, in the Asian context, governments in many countries are the primary users, so they can stimulate industry and promote FOSS use in the classrooms. The issue then becomes a delicate one, because the question is whether or not it is prudent for government to be preferential when it comes to its choice of technology. Some could argue that it is already being unnecessarily preferential, read "locked-in," particularly in the desktop arena, but this is changing as FOSS productivity suites are improving; hence the arguments are increasingly moving to open standards policies. I think there are stronger arguments for pro-open standards policies than there are [for] pro-FOSS policies; it so happens that the latter is implicit when the former is adopted (given the current situations in IT). But I'm digressing from your question.

Assuming governments are pragmatic and come up with the most appropriate and cost-effective solutions, keeping in mind their crucial role as technology adopters, then, given the benefits, FOSS would probably win out. So what's the holdup? I fully agree with Ken, it's awareness. It's probably a matter of time.

There are a number of forces at play pushing it the FOSS way. Momentum is building, given the need to adhere to World Trade Organization policies and to control piracy. Vietnam is the prime example in ASEAN. But again, I digress.

What is amazing is how much FOSS and software issues have pervaded the development discourse. And as awareness increases in the development field, as in government, development agencies can play a critical role in just making the most pragmatic (read sustainable) choice of utilizing FOSS, and adopting open standards and open content in the projects and programmes they fund. This trend too seems to have momentum and is a matter of time.

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