Free and Open Source Software

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : FOSS

Mains level : Paper 3- Potential of FOSS

Context

Recognising its potential, in 2015, the Indian government announced a policy to encourage open source instead of proprietary technology for government applications. However, the true potential of this policy is yet to be realized.

Advantages of FOSS

  • Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) today presents an alternative model to build digital technologies for population scale.
  • Freedom to modify: Unlike proprietary software, everyone has the freedom to edit, modify and reuse open-source code.
  • Reduced cost and innovation: This results in many benefits — reduced costs, no vendor lock-in, the ability to customise for local context, and greater innovation through wider collaboration.
  • Use in public service delivery: We have seen some great examples of public services being delivered through systems that use FOSS building blocks, including Aadhaar, GSTN, and the DigiLocker.
  • FOSS communities can examine the open-source code for adherence to data privacy principles, help find bugs, and ensure transparency and accountability.

Challenges in adoption by government in GovTech

  • In 2015, the Indian government announced a policy to encourage open source instead of proprietary technology for government applications.
  • Several misconceptions remain in the understanding of FOSS, especially for GovTech.
  • Trust issue: “Free” in FOSS is perceived to be “free of cost” and FOSS is often mistaken to be less trustworthy and more vulnerable, whereas FOSS can actually create more trust between the government and citizens.
  • However, Many solutions launched by the government including Digilocker, Diksha, Aarogya Setu, Cowin — built on top of open-source digital platforms — have benefited from valuable inputs provided by volunteer open-source developers.
  • Such inputs have immensely helped in improving solutions and making them more robust.
  • Accountability issue: In the case of FOSS, there appears to be an absence of one clear “owner”, which makes it harder to identify who is accountable.
  • While this concern is legitimate, there are ways to mitigate it.
  • For example, by having the government’s in-house technical staff understand available documentation and getting key personnel to join relevant developer communities.

Way forward for greater adoption of FOSS in GovTech

  • Here is a four-step path to make this vision a reality.
  • 1) Incentivise FOSS in government: The government’s policy requires all tech suppliers to submit bids with open source options.
  • Suppliers also need to justify in case they do not offer an open-source option
  • Sourcing departments are asked to weigh the lifetime costs and benefits of both alternatives before making a decision.
  • While this serves as a good nudge, the policy can perhaps go a step further by formally giving greater weightage to FOSS-specific metrics in the evaluation criteria in RFPs, and offering recognition to departments that deploy FOSS initiatives, such as, a special category under the Digital India Awards.
  • 2) Create a repository of GovtTech ready solutions: a repository of “GovTech ready” building blocks that are certified for use in government and audited for security compliances is needed.
  • Creating a repository of ready-to-use “GovTech-ised” building blocks can help departments quickly identify and deploy FOSS solutions in their applications.
  • 3) Encourage FOSS innovation: FOSS innovations can be encouraged through “GovTech hackathons and challenges”, bringing together the open-source community to design solutions for specific problem statements identified by government departments.
  • One such challenge — a #FOSS4Gov Innovation Challenge — was recently launched.
  • 4) Create an institutional mechanism: A credible institutional anchor is needed to be a home for FOSS-led innovation in India.
  • Such an institution can bring together FOSS champions and communities that are scattered across India around a shared agenda for collective impact.
  • Kerala’s International Centre for Free & Open Source Software (ICFOSS) is a great example of such an institution.

Conclusion

With an IT workforce of more than four million employees, what we need is a concerted push to harness the biggest promise that FOSS holds.

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