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Open source and ICT working together for social justice

The recent phenomenon of Information Communication Technology (ICT) – and in particular Open Source (OS) – as a tool to reach community goals such as social justice and public vigilance has reached new heights during the past couple of years. ICT4D, or Information Communication Technologies for Development refers to the use of ICT and OS in socioeconomic, international or human rights development projects. All major areas of development work can be enhanced by the appropriate deployment of ICT and a cursory Google search reveals the success of many of these ventures to date.

The OS movement was created in response to efforts by software manufactures. These manufacturers sought to take ownership of code created by teams or individuals. However, it was argued that code should freely available for use and for modification, companies seek to prevent this by exercising copyright privilege and limiting the rights a buyer has over their product. OS software is created by individuals or team who are often not part of the same organization and the final product is distributed freely. Furthermore non-technical experts can collaborate in the development of specific solutions. Participation in OS projects stems not from a desire to enrich oneself financially but from more community orientated aims such as peer recognition or the work itself as enriching on a personal basis. Participation in OS projects is supported by academic theory – such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that shows that people are motivated by factors other than money. Reasons cited for participation in an OS project by programmers are often ones of intellectual fulfillment or peer recognition. A central release schedule is maintained for some OS products. This ensures users are aware of potential bugs and fixes. Also these central registries provide a change history of the code and allow programmer to tackle areas that need improvement. Users of OS programs are of course free to modify the code to suit their purposes and do not have to pay the license fee or royalties to traditional developers.

The primary concerns of current development projects such as water access; education, access to information and the empowerment of civil society have all received a much-needed boost from support by ICT developers and the use of OS software. Ready access to mobile technology and the lower costs involved – when compared to 10 years ago – have made mass participation more feasible and allows projects to reach a critical mass at a much more rapid rate than was historically possible. ICT and OS are a strong fit for the purposes of ICT4D because the large support infrastructure and expenses necessary to maintain the network are not present.

ICT has become a permanent feature in monitoring the exploits of repressive regimes and, for drawing public attention and support to counter campaigns. The ubiquitous nature of mobile technology allow it to t become the most powerful weapon against governments who have ceased to act in the interests of their citizens. Speaking to the British newspaper, The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Non Governmental (NGO) Tactical Technology Collective said, “While computers and the Internet can be extremely powerful tools for advocacy, they also present new risks for a group that is already, in many cases, quite vulnerable. As more advocates have begun to rely on digital technology to achieve their outreach, data-collection, information design, communication and mobilization objectives, these risks have become more severe.”

OS components of ICT are a seemingly natural fit with this trend. The transparent nature of OS chimes well with a desire by many of these advocacy organizations to cast light onto the darker regions of government business. Examples of ICT projects in action include Daraja, an NGO operating in rural Tanzania. Their “Raising the Water Pressure” project encouraged people to use SMS to report faults with water points and to put pressure on the government to respond in more rapid manners to problems of this nature.

Other examples of ICT4D include the use of the technology in areas recently damaged by natural disasters. When an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, much the communication infrastructure was destroyed or severely damaged. Several ICT solutions were used to aid in relief efforts including crisis mapping to identify and prioritize areas of need, the use of OS tools to monitor inventory levels and co-ordinate the relief effort and restoring Internet connectivity to local NGO’s by Inveneo, a non-profit organization who deliver ICT solutions to the developing world. ICT4D provided creative solutions at a low-cost to rapidly ease the suffering of those effected by the disaster.

OS and ICT can be utilized together to merge communication and information technology. This combine results in flexible solutions and the ability to customize OS programs in a manner specific to the ICT4D project. For example, data validation can serve a vital role in monitoring local elections, especially when the potential for electoral fraud is high. Monitoring projects can be established to identify unusual trends and to make the government aware that they are under scrutiny. Recent elections in Kenya, Nigeria and Georgia have used ICT4D projects to ensure adequate scrutiny. Alternatively app’s can be developed to make qualitative data more qualitative. However, caution must be exercised in these projects. Exposure of activists is a significant risk and even encryption may not always provide sufficient protection. The creation of more anonymous reporting systems is one possible route around this concern. Already one system operational in India allows users to send an SMS to a central number, which then passes on the message in an anonymous manner. Projects like this encourage the community to share solutions and then implement them via OS resources. Common objectives such as social justice are thus brought into reality.

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