Open Source The Indian e-Governance scenario

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World over, governments are finding that Open Source solutions offer significant benefits – stron enough that some are considering or mandating its use

Information Technology has gained lot of attention in recent times due to its ability to change the face of economies. It is a technology vital for development. But the opportunity cost of achieving development through Information Technology is huge due to the high cost of proprietary software. This is more true in the case of governments in developing countries where the e-Governance trumpet has been sounded high. Lot of hype has been created recently by the e-Governance industry, and many of the projects undertaken under the e-Governance agenda have not been able to see the light of the day due to cost overruns (the major hindrance). A related issue which few developing countries have fully confronted is that of copyright and software piracy. Complying with international standards means ending widespread copying of software (endemic in most developing countries), and the prospect of very high and recurrent software costs. Other problematic issues are security and virus problems. A not so recent development which is attracting much interest, especially in developing countries, is Open Source software and the Linux operating system in particular. This type of software goes a long way in helping to resolve the issues mentioned above.

What is Open Source?

Open Source is, in essence, a way of creating and distributing software. We use the term ‘open-source’ to refer to software that is made readily available in the form of source code. This includes open-source software, free software, ‘FOSS’, software libre, and ‘FLOSS’. Rather than keeping the human-readable programme instructions (called source code) hidden from users, as traditional software companies such as Microsoft, Intuit and Apple typically do, open-source programmes give away the source code to one and all. Such access enables users skilled in programming to become de facto software developers by adding to or modifying the software code and then redistributing it. Nor is open-source software licensed to single users or companies in the typical fashion––users can pass on the software to others if they choose. Instead of preventing the software from being shared, open-source licenses dictate how the software is shared. For example, software licensed under the widely used GNU General Public License (GPL) allows any user to redistribute a programme without charge, but requires that any redistribution be accompanied by the source code.

Why FOSS for Governments?

World over, governments are looking into Free/Open Source Software and in many cases finding that they offer significant benefits- strong enough that some states/countries are considering or are already mandating the use of FOSS software in governments. These benefits are not necessarily the same benefits that are driving the wide scale adoption of FOSS in commercial companies. National priorities are different from corporate priorities, and FOSS supplies some benefits that are reaped at the national level, especially in developing nations. Some of the benefits driving government FOSS adoption are:

  • Reduced Reliance on Imports
  • Low cost of adoption
  • Developing Local Industry
  • National Security Issues
  • Open Standards and Vendor Lock-in
  • Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and Piracy
  • Localisation

Right now, Governments are confronted with the following questions.

  1. How to get government applications and relevant content developed?
  2. How to get the common masses to use Open Source products?

We will get the answer to the former question, if we focus our attention towards the development of applications. Firstly, there should be a proper definition of the problem. Once that is served to a programmer, they could come out with an innovative application effectively. These applications should not be developed and used and re-used in isolation but techies should be ready to share their knowledge with each other. For this to happen, techies have to put their head together and work towards the common cause. Open Source community is a right platform for these programmers to get together and come out with innovative applications. Moreover, these communities can work on a regional basis for the development of content locally. There would be better interaction among programmers if they work in teams on a regional basis.

Linus Torvalds put the codes out for he had a few problems to solve and he could definitely use the support of several others to get them solved. Being a charismatic co-coordinator, he got several people to contribute. The latter question as how to get the common masses to use Open Sourced products begs a patient approach. Here various concepts of management such as marketing of products and services, value proposition, delighting the customer etc. come into the picture. Secondly, while designing e-Government solutions, the opinion of masses must be taken in to account. For instance, are developers interacting with common masses for analysing, designing and implementing e-Government solutions? It may seem little unreal here and critics would question the scope for developers to go to villages asking for user’s opinion after spending 12 hours in front of their computer screens writing the programme code. However, when we talk of using Open Source at the national level by developing applications for defence, it is must that we take the user’s perspective of the application in mind. Only then would concepts like customer delight be a reality.