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For Better or Worse: ICT4D is Open Source Software

By Wayan Vota on February 7, 2019

Previously, I wrote about how the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) showed that we sell sexy ICT4D success stories to survive in their recent Baseline ICT4D Ecosystem Study of the digital development ecosystem.

There is another interesting finding from the report: for better or worse, the ICT4D community has fully bought into Open Source Software for the majority of our digital development interventions.

Over 80% of technology specialist key informants reported using Open Source software
components as a starting point when developing digital solutions. They used ‘best of breed’ Open Source software, which they then developed on top of or connected to other software to deliver the desired digital solution.

What are these ‘best of breed’ software you ask? The most frequently cited examples of Open Source software components included:

Technology specialist chose their software components based on the type of initiative, the needs of the project, and which stakeholders were involved.

ICT4D Open Source Software: The Good

Arguably, the crazy amount of innovation inherent in our field is the best result from our usage of Open Source software. Just look at how many initiatives are based on ODK! Way back in 2012 we were already overwhelmed with mobile data collection choices thanks to its pioneering code base.

The high degree of local ownership we see with Open Source software is another point of pride for digital development. Personally, I look at the 20+ countries that own their iHRIS deployments with great satisfaction. They embody the whole goal of ICT4D: people taking ownership of their problems and solutions, with us playing a small supporting role in their success.

Finally, I believe that Open Source software changes the dynamic for everyone involved. Unlike proprietary solutions, which often lead to people focusing on financial returns, Open Source software keeps community benefit front a center, helping elevate motives to a higher, more egalitarian purpose.

ICT4D Open Source Software: The Bad

Its not all happiness with Open Source, however. DIAL found that technologists experienced considerable configuration and maintenance costs when they used Open Source tools, which are often not fully understood by other stakeholders in the digital ecosystem.

Technologists also worried about the quality of Open Source components as they are only updated and adapted when grant funding becomes available, resulting in extensive adjustments to build off of the software.

Finally, there is a misguided perception that Open Source solutions have a magical support community that will swoop in and fix any issues for free, instantly. This is rarely never the case. There are significant development costs to create and support an Open Source solution that can be compatible or even exceed proprietary license costs.

ICT4D Open Source Software: The Ugly

Funding. This is the real dark side of Open Source solutions. Developing and providing open source software components is difficult for everyone the international development sector due to the limited market size and difficult donor requirements.

Luckily, IntraHealth International considers iHRIS to be a defining differentiator for the organization, so we receive core support, which we augment with external funding sources. I pity the small organization trying to develop Open Source software based on intermittent donor funding.

Even then, all of us who develop Open Source solutions frequently need to identify other revenue sources to support core software development, or risk our solutions lapsing into abandonware.

ICT4D Open Source Business Models

That’s one reason I’m proud to announce the release of a landmark eLearning course on open source business models that includes input from yours truly.

Open Source Business Course, created by TechChange and UNICEF, is designed for emerging startups in the frontier technology field. The course teaches participants about Open Source business models, including:

  • How Open Source can solve common problems that businesses typically face.
  • Why Open Source can generate more revenue than proprietary solutions.
  • How to build a successful Open Source software business

The Open Source business model course aims to educate startup founders in developing and emerging economies about the merits of open source, dispelling common myths and misconceptions, and assisting participants in improving their own business model along the way.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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3 Comments to “For Better or Worse: ICT4D is Open Source Software”

  1. jefferson says:

    CommCare is not open source. CommCare is a spin off of Open Data Kit. ODK is open source, but CommCare is not.