Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has great potential in government applications

Source: Indian Express


Relevance: Using open source technology to improve public services in India.

Synopsis: India announced a policy to encourage open source in 2015. However, the true potential of this policy is yet to be realized, largely due to constraints in public procurement processes. A look at the misconceptions about FOSS and a roadmap for its optimum utilization.

What is FOSS?

Free and Open Source (FOSS) is a software that is licensed to be free to use, modify, and distribute. FOSS today presents an alternative model to build digital technologies for population scale. Unlike proprietary software, everyone has the freedom to edit, modify and reuse open-source code.

Benefits of FOSS

FOSS offers many advantages:

  • Reduced costs
  • No vendor lock-in
  • The ability to customize for local context
  • Greater innovation through wider collaboration
Usage of FOSS in India 

Recognising its potential, in 2015, the Indian government announced a policy to encourage open source instead of proprietary technology for government applications. We have seen some great examples of public services being delivered through systems that use FOSS building blocks, including Aadhaar, GSTN, and the DigiLocker.

  • Many other solutions launched by the government including Digilocker, Diksha, Aarogya Setu, the Covid-19 vaccination platform CoWIN have also been built on top of open-source digital platforms.
Misconceptions about FOSS
  1. Lack of trust: “Free” in FOSS is perceived to be “free of cost” and hence, many think that the solutions based on FOSS are not good enough. For example, FOSS is often mistaken to be less trustworthy and more vulnerable, whereas FOSS can actually create more trust between the government and citizens.
  2. Absence of one clear owner: Another important issue is that it can feel easier to deal with a proprietary software vendor who builds a customized software and can be held accountable for any failures. In the case of FOSS, there appears to be an absence of one clear “owner”, which makes it harder to identify who is responsible.
  1. Incentivize uptake of FOSS in government: The government’s policy on the adoption of open-source software 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 and sourcing departments are asked to weigh the lifetime costs and benefits of both the alternatives before making a decision. The present policy can 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. A repository of “GovTech ready” building blocks: Off-the-shelf FOSS software is often not ready for direct deployment by government. Creating a repository of ready-to-use “GovTech-ised” building blocks, can help departments quickly identify and deploy FOSS solutions in their applications.
  3. 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. The best innovations emerging from these challenges can be listed on government procurement platforms such as GeM.
    • One such challenge — a #FOSS4Gov Innovation Challenge — was recently launched to accelerate the adoption of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in government by harnessing innovation from the FOSS ecosystem.
  4. A national “FOSS Centre of Excellence”: Finally, 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 that led to Kerala being a pioneering state in the adoption of FOSS. A national “FOSS Centre of Excellence” can create the much-needed momentum to build world-class “made in India” FOSS products.
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