14 February 2017

Liberia: Fund Open Source Software Research to Enhance ICT for Development (ICT4D) and ICT for Dollars (ICT4$)

opinion

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 (OSS) to stress the plethora of opportunities that it provides and the impact it can have on our ICT sector, and the country as a whole. Hence, the subsequent paragraphs provide insights into the positive impact that Open Source Software can have on a developing country like Liberia. The article is also a call to both the public and private sectors to invest in Open Source Software or OSS 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 that favors all players, the advent and deployment of the ACE subsea cable and several other achievements have been factors that have driven Liberia' ICT revolution.

Before going further into this discussion, please indulge me while I attempt to inform you of the two types or categories of software in the field of ICT: Proprietary Software and Open Source Software. 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. Open Source Software or OSS is software whose source code is openly published, made available at no charge, and can freely be modified and distributed. Since the focus of this article is on the impact of OSS on development, I shall not expound further on Proprietary Software.

Investing in OSS for development can be done in several ways: as a research program in institutions of learning, or through IT experts and firms in Liberia. Such an initiative can result in an ecosystem of software that can be used in government, 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 ICT professionals to develop software that can be used and sold both locally and internationally. This initiative has the propensity to yield a rapid uptake in OSS use and expertise in Liberia, with a corresponding blossoming of new projects and new commercial ventures based on them.

Investment in OSS for 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 is known to have 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 OSS prior to President Obama's ascendency to office.

Through its agency for international development (USAID), the US Government has been funding OSS 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 OSS. 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 OSS, has a history of investing in OSS as evidenced by its handing out of 175,000 OSS-equipped memory sticks to high school students in 2007. Through policies and high-profile projects, France has for years been advocating for OSS in government and education.

In Africa, over the years many efforts have been made to promote the adoption and use of OSS 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, the continual decrease in the prices of broadband internet services due to the presence of the Africa Coast to Europe subsea optical cable in Liberia, I strongly suggest that investors begin funding OSS research. 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.

HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY!!!!!!!!

Liberia

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