Free and open source software have great potential in government applications

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The journey of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in India has been long and dynamic. What started with a few Linux user groups in the 1980s has grown into a movement through collaboration between a diverse community of innovators. FOSS is now presenting an alternative model for building digital technologies at the population level. Unlike proprietary software, everyone has the freedom to edit, modify, and reuse open source code. This translates into many benefits: lower costs, no vendor lock-in, the ability to tailor the local context, and greater innovation through broader collaboration. We’ve seen great examples of utilities delivered through systems using FOSS building blocks, including Aadhaar, GSTN, and DigiLocker. While the trend is promising, much more can be done.

Recognizing its potential, in 2015, the Indian government announced a policy to encourage open source rather than proprietary technology for government applications. However, the true potential of this policy has not yet been realized, largely due to constraints in public procurement processes.

Several misconceptions remain in understanding LL, especially for GovTech, and it is important to clarify these points to help increase LL adoption.

“Free” in FOSS is seen as “free” and, as a result, many believe that solutions based on FOSS are not good enough. For example, free software is often mistakenly viewed as less reliable and more vulnerable, while free software can actually build more trust between government and citizens. FOSS communities can review open source code to verify adherence to data privacy principles, help find bugs, and ensure transparency and accountability. Many solutions launched by the government, including Digilocker, Diksha, Aarogya Setu, the Covid-19 CoWIN vaccination platform – built on open source digital platforms – have benefited from valuable inputs provided by volunteer open source developers. . These inputs have helped enormously in improving the solutions and making them more robust.

Another big problem is that it may seem easier to deal with a proprietary software vendor who builds custom software and can be held responsible for any failures. In the case of free software, there seems to be an absence of a clear “owner”, which makes it more difficult to identify who is responsible. While this concern is legitimate, there are ways to alleviate it, for example, by ensuring that internal government technical staff understand the available documentation and by having key personnel reach out to affected developer communities. This has been successfully tested in several projects, but needs to be further strengthened.

India is at an inflection point on its journey towards greater adoption of free software in GovTech – it has already demonstrated the potential of free software deployment through its use in critical population-wide projects . With an IT workforce of over four million employees and a software industry the envy of the world, we already have the talent. What we need is a concerted push to harness the greatest promise of free software: the possibility of collaborative technological innovation.

Here’s a four-step path to making that vision a reality.

The first step is to encourage the adoption of free software in government. Government policy on the adoption of open source software requires all technology providers to submit bids with open source options. Suppliers must also justify whether they are not offering an open source option, and procurement departments are encouraged to weigh the costs and benefits over the lifetime of the two alternatives before making a decision. While this is a good boost, perhaps the policy can go further by formally placing greater emphasis on metrics specific to open source software in the evaluation criteria for tenders, and offering recognition to departments that deploy free software initiatives, such as a special category under the Digital India Award.

The second step could be to organize a repository of “GovTech ready” building blocks that are certified for use in government and audited for safety compliance. Free off-the-shelf software is often not ready for direct government deployment. Creating a repository of out-of-the-box “GovTech-ized” building blocks can help departments quickly identify and deploy LL solutions in their applications.

Third, FOSS innovations can be fostered through “GovTech Hackathons and Challenges”, bringing together the open source community to design solutions to specific problems identified by government departments. The best innovations emerging from these challenges can get a head start by listing them on public procurement platforms such as GeM. One of these challenges, a # FOSS4Gov Innovation Challenge, was recently launched to accelerate the adoption of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in government by harnessing the innovation of the FOSS ecosystem.

Finally, a credible institutional foothold is necessary to accommodate innovation led by free and open source software in India. Such an institution can bring together free software champions and communities scattered across India around a common agenda for collective impact. The Kerala International Center for Free and Open Source Software (ICFOSS) is a prime example of such an institution that has made Kerala a pioneer state in the adoption of free software. A national “FOSS Center of Excellence” can mobilize capital, resources and capacity building support, creating the momentum needed to create world-class “Made in India” FOSS products.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 30, 2021 under the title “Opening up open-source”. Singh is CEO of MyGov and National Electronic Governance Division, Ministry of Electronics and Informatics (MeitY) and Pande is at Omidyar Network India. Views are personal


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