Open-Source Technology in ICT4D

This week I had to prepare a tutorial on ‘Open & Subversive Technologies’ for students of ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London. It got me thinking about the importance of enabling users to genuinely ‘appropriate’ ICT for Development, and the extent to which free & open-source technology might help make user appropriation of ICT for Development possible.

I am conscious that I’m still a long way from having a clear articulation of either (a) the importance of users being able to appropriate technology for development or (b) the benefits of free and open-source production for users’ appropriation of ICT4D, but I’m hoping that drafting this blogpost will take me one step further down that path.

Enabling User Appropriation of ICT4D

Paulo Freire taught us the critical importance of ensuring that the people who are the “objects” of development are also its subjects. Two generations of development practitioners have since focused on how to operationalise this aim of to ensuring that development is people-centred and community-led, including by using the kind of participatory practice popularised by Robert Chambers. Most recently Amartya Sen has argued that disadvantaged people have the right to be the principal authors and actors in their own development process. In his agent-oriented view of ‘Development as Freedom’ Sen argues that,”Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are essential to the process of development”.

In ICT4D, my gut feeling is that open technologies offer the most freedom for the “objects” of development to be its subjects; that is for genuine appropriate of technologies by local actors to realise the kind of development that they most value.

Benefits of Openness

Open licensing removes the unfreedoms and dependencies of proprietary technology and creates the potential for users to be the architects of their own (ICT4) development.

When technology is transferred from one context to another it is often desirable to make modifications to optimise its (re)use value. This might mean changing the user interface language or producing content to reflect local culture or other preferences. It could mean a more substantial re-engineering to align the technology with local infrastructure, climate or available peripheral technologies.

In the case of a ‘closed’ or ‘proprietary’ technology such as Microsoft Office or an Apple iPad making any such modification is illegal and prohibited by restrictive patents and copyrights.

On the other hand, technologies such as Open Office, the Android mobile phone operating system and Arduino hardware are produced using permissive open-source licenses that are specifically designed to give users three freedoms: the freedom to learn how it is produced; the freedom to modify and improve it in any way they value; and the freedom to freely distribute either the original or modified versions to anyone, giving them the same freedoms. 

One example of why this matters in development is the fact that a country like Nigeria has 510 living languages, the majority of which do not constitute commercially profitable market opportunities for proprietary software producers. Open licensing gives communities the freedom to appropriate and modify technology to meet their self-defined needs. Nigerians can and do produce local language versions of Open Office and Android but are prevented from doing so with Microsoft or Apple products.

Open-source production models can be used to develop not just software but hardware, music and written work, as well as any other technologies. Open-source production often achieves its social objectives by mobilising the collective efforts of a virtual community in a process of collective production. By working collaboratively participants are able to share the responsibilities and rewards of production and to put into the public domain new goods and services for the benefit of all. And everyone is free to take, modify, further improve and redistribute.

The freedoms of this open, participative method of community (software) development seem to me to have obvious resonance with the aims and methods advocated by Freire, Chambers & Sen.

Limitations of Openness

Before you start thinking Tony’s been drinking the open-source Kool-Aid (OK, so I had a sip or two!) so let’s do a reality check here and ask the critical questions: ‘Open to whom?’, ‘What power relations are in play?’ and ‘Who benefits?’

As is the case with ‘Open Data’, in a society where inequalities exist, when you make something passively ‘open’ you actually risk making existing inequalities worse. It is likely to be the already advantaged that are most able to exploit the potential of openness due to their existing preferential access to resources including education, social capital and technology. If this holds true for open-source software then we might expect open-source communities to be dominated by white, male, graduates from the global North.

Openness is not enough; if want currently disadvantaged and under-represented people to be able to appropriate technology for development then we must purposefully set about building the capacity for what Mike Gurstein calls the 'effective use' of technology. 

Building Capacity in Effective Use of Open ICT4D

It is not enough that the technology is open. Openness may be necessary but it is not sufficient. People also need practical skills and a sense of agency to make effective use of technology in development.

The logical conclusion here then is that some good old fashioned ‘empowerment’ and ‘capacity building’ needs to be built into every ICT4D initiative to ensure, as Amartya Sen says, that people are not ‘passive recipients of the benefits of cunning development programs’, and instead ‘can effectively shape their own destiny’.

If we are serious about reducing external dependencies and enabling local ownership and control of development then we need to make technology choices that provide the potential for local talent to become active producers of local content in local languages. Some capacity building will be necessary to give local talent the practical skills and sense of agency it needs to translate the potential of open technology into new community capabilities and practical development outcomes.

By choosing open technologies and building capacity for effective use communities can be empowered to genuinely appropriate and make effective use of ICT for Development, so that the people who are the “objects” of development can truly be its subjects.


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