I owe part of my IT education to the Open Source Community. I enhanced my programming skills using open source programming languages; I garnered a better understanding of operating systems through my study and research of the Linux kernel; I understood the inner workings of software by having access to their code; and in college, I used learning materials from computer science classes made available by MIT Open Courseware. But this article is not about how I benefited from open source software. I only mentioned my experience with open source software to illustrate that if I can benefit from it, every Liberian can do the same. Therefore, this article is about how open source software can benefit Liberia as a developing country. It is also a call to both private and public organizations to invest in open source software in order to enhance Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) and Information and Communications Technology for Dollars (ICT4$).
Liberia’s ICT sector has achieved a lot since the end of the civil war. The creation of a liberal market, the advent and deployment of the ACE subsea cable and several other achievements have been the factors that have driven Liberia’ ICT revolution. Again, this article is not intended to delineate all of Liberia’s ICT achievements; it’s about the benefits we can get from investing in open source software.
Before going further into this discussion, permit me to briefly discuss the difference between the two types of software. Open source software is software whose source code is openly published, is available at no charge, and can freely be modified and distributed. Proprietary software is software that is generally licensed for a fee and its source code is kept secret. It is often developed by software firms or companies such as Microsoft.
Investing in open source software development can be done in several ways: as a research program in institutions of learning, or through IT experts and firms in Liberia. This initiative will lead to an ecosystem of software that can be used in government, counties, institutions of learning, businesses, etc., to enhance economic growth. It will also lead to the creation of software firms that will hire and train talented Liberian IT professionals to develop software that can be used and sold both locally and internationally. This would see a rapid uptake in open source software use and expertise in Liberia, with a corresponding blossoming of new projects and new commercial ventures based on them.
Investment in open source software development is not a new idea. A lot of countries have been doing this for quite some time. For example, in the United States, the Obama Government has been very pro-open source considering its policies and use of open source software (White House’s Web site is built on Drupal and Open Source CMS). In fact, the United States has been supportive of open source software prior to President Obama’s ascendency to office. Through its agency for international development (USAID), the US Government has been funding open source software development abroad since 2007. Its involvement with the Open Source Development 2.0 challenge a few years ago, and the creation of the Global Development Commons and Innovation Development Agency (IDEA) are few initiatives that demonstrate U.S. interest in encouraging open source software development.
The British government is also known to support the use of open source software. Its Gov.uk initiative, a scalable and modular open source platform that supports the needs of citizens across numerous government departments, is evidence of this. France, which has a large market for open source software, has a history of investing in open source software as evidenced by its handing out of 175,000 open-source-software-equipped memory sticks to high school students in 2007. Through policies and high-profile projects, France has for years been advocating for open source software, in government and education.
In Africa, over the years many efforts have been made to promote the adoption and use of open source software within academic institutions, companies and governments. The Free Open Source Software Foundation for Africa (FOSSFA) and Open Source Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA) have been strong advocates of open source software development in Africa. Africa is also known for some major open source projects that have originated from the continent. Some of these projects included, Ubuntu, one of the most widely used Linux distributions and the crisis reporting application from Ushahidi.
Finally, with the ACE subsea cable in Liberia, I strongly suggest that investors begin funding open source software research and development. This will help to put software in the hands of many, reduce ICT spending in government and the private sector, allow Liberians to open businesses that will sell locally developed software, increase ICT expertise in Liberia, and help create content needed to leverage the capacity of the ACE subsea cable. It will certainly enhance our ICT4D initiatives as well as provide the medium for ICT4$. More importantly, it will create the path toward a DIGITAL LIBERIA.