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Aid Evolved Podcast: The Costly Business of Free Software

By Rowena Luk on June 12, 2021

Yaw Anokwa

Aid, Evolved is a podcast about technology, poverty, and health. Every two weeks we’ll bring you a new episode about doing good, better. Our conversations are built around an idea that technology and innovation might help us fight poverty and live healthier lives in the future than we have in the past.

I will be speaking to innovators, non-profits, social enterprises, and donors to unpack questions about how innovation is being used to tackle some of our biggest challenges. We’ll talk through how innovations are born, how they grow, how they become mainstream and/or how they fade away.

A Conversation with Yaw Anokwa

In this episode, I speak with Yaw Anokwa, the CEO and co-founder of Open Data Kit, one of the most popular open source data collection tools used in the aid sector. Yaw talks about the risks that keep him up at night, and how he’s managed to navigate ODK around these risks.

The Costly Business of Free Software 

This is an excerpt from our conversation. Listen to it all here.

Rowena: What were some of the low points, what were some of the risks, what were some of the points where you were like, “I just don’t know if it’s going to work out,” or “this is just too hard”. Because I’m sure you must have had some.

Yaw: My dear wife says: if Yaw loses a leg, what he’s going to say isn’t that he’s lost a leg, he’ll say “I’ve lost all this weight. I am now even more aerodynamic.”

Rowena: Hah! Oh my god, Yaw, do you still have both your legs?

Yaw: I have both my legs and both my hands right now. So for me, there hasn’t been an occasion where I thought, this is a disaster or this is not going well. We haven’t had huge experiences with data loss, for example, or where the software has failed. We’ve been very fortunate in many ways.

I think the things that are failures in a sense are… you know, this notion of a community oriented global health project, the sustainability and how that actually gets paid for isn’t so clear. So I think people have this notion of open source, where people will show up and they’ll build software and it’ll be a big Kumbaya community project. And for some projects it’s like that.

“You realize, realistically speaking, for the last 5, 10 years, the project is always a few months away from bankruptcy.”

But the reality for ODK is there’s a lot of code there. It’s very mission-critical code that people are using for Ebola vaccine tracking and monitoring elections.

And it’s a 10 year old code base. So it’s not the kind of thing that somebody would just show up as a volunteer and just jump into. It’s very complicated. The reality is, even though the software is free, it costs real money to build.

Yaw, gathering feedback from a Ugandan farmer during ODK’s first ever deployment. 11 years later, the Uganda government used ODK in an effort that vaccinated 19.5 million children.

ODK started in 2008. So for the last 10, 12 years, it has always been hand-to-mouth figuring out how do we actually fund those kinds of things. So that’s the kind of failure and challenge at this stage in the project. That’s what keeps me up at night, is how we solve that problem, how we figure that out. It’s when you realize, realistically speaking, for the last 5, 10 years, the project is always a few months away from bankruptcy.

And this is the case for most open source projects.

Rowena: That does sound stressful.

Yaw: It is very stressful, it’s just like, well, if another contract doesn’t come through or if we can’t find a bunch of contributors, there’s nobody who can take on the responsibility of this enormous code base for free. It just doesn’t work.

Rowena: It’s really great to hear you talk about that openly. When I hear ODK, I think of it as such a success story. And hearing that even with such a success story, sustainability challenges are still present, and are present for years. It makes it clear that this is not an easy space to work in.

If there are other people out there that are trying to build something like this, and they’re like, “Aaaagh, why can’t I pay for this all?!” Maybe it’s just a hard sector to pay for it all.

Yaw: It is, in many ways… And maybe this is a little inside baseball for folks, but there is a lot of money, like actual money, in global development.

If you think about how many Land Cruisers there are driving over Africa, what the diesel costs are, the cost in the pre-pandemic days of flying people around the world to have conferences where they discuss sustainability. Whereas if they just took the money to discuss sustainability and gave it to a project, that project would be sustainable!

Rowena: True.

Yaw: So there’s plenty of money in global development, billions of dollars, but not all of it filters down to the projects. And so there are structural problems that make this a very difficult problem to solve.

“If you think about the cost of flying people around the world to have conferences where they discuss sustainability… if they just took the money to discuss sustainability, and gave it to a project, that project would be sustainable.”

Rowena: How has that affected you, in your journey, as you’re struggling through this?

Yaw: You know, I don’t get a lot of sleep sometimes. But that’s just the nature of the beast.

Two Solutions

There have been two approaches that I’ve tried to take over the last couple of years.

[One approach is this] people at Google get paid one hundred thousand, two hundred thousand dollars a year to work on software that is less complex. And so we’re making software as volunteers for free, giving it out. And obviously that doesn’t work because there are not a lot of volunteers to do that.

Rowena: Yeah, and it’s tricky because that’s also a lot of the appeal of ODK. You download it, use it, you don’t have to talk to anyone. But then how does it not stagnate?

Yaw: I’ve been talking to funders for the last, I don’t know, forever, saying that if funders and countries like this model, where it’s free to use and open source in this way, then there needs to be funding for it somehow. So that could come from the countries, that could come from the funders. And to me, it’s not unreasonable because…

For example, malaria bed nets are not sustainable, right? Like giving away malaria bed nets. Nobody says, “Well, this isn’t financially sustainable.” People do say, “Here’s a good thing that we want to do. These are public goods that we want to give to the world. And so we should find some way to, you know, pay for it.”

Rowena: Right.

Yaw: And so in the same way, if you want software that is a public good, there has to be some way to pay for it. And it can’t just be Kumbaya magic. So that’s what I’ve been telling funders. And I think structurally it’s going to be very difficult for funders to make that change. But that’s the change that needs to happen if they want more things like ODK to exist in the future.

[The second approach is this] But as of today, what we’ve done on ODK is take more ownership of the problem. And so we are now providing folks who want to pay things of value that they can pay for. So if you don’t want to host ODK yourself, you can pay us and we will put it on the cloud [ODK Cloud] and provide technical support for it. And you pay for that service.

Rowena: That makes sense.

Yaw: Or if you want a feature, then you can hire the developer team and we work to put it in the software. So just going away from the model where it’s just like, oh, people, when they want to contribute, can contribute to it. These are very clear ways that you can pay us money and that money will go to making the software.

So that’s where we’re doing. But for the broader ecosystem, if funders and countries want more things like ODK, like the next kind of ODK to exist, there has to be a way for there to be consistent, reasonable, small but meaningful amounts of money to make it happen.

In the last 12 months, ODK has been used in every country in the world except Greenland and North Korea. If you know about a project in either country, let us know!

To Hear More

To listen to more about Yaw, including the humble beginnings of ODK as a research project, how it first gained traction in Kenya (and in outer space), and his secrets to success, listen to the full conversation on Aid, Evolved or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Written by
Rowena Luk has spent over a decade deploying technologies, building organizations, and conducting research in digital development in over 18 countries around the world, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. She also hosts the Aid, Evolved podcast. The views expressed in these conversations belong to the respective speakers. They do not reflect the position of any organization.
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