Game changer: Making sense of open source software in digital economy

SourceThe Business Standard

Relevance: Open source software can provide many advantages to the government.

Synopsis: Open source software has many advantages and can save huge public money.

CoWIN is the digital platform for the Covid-19 vaccination drive. Earlier this month, the government said that India would allow CoWIN to be an open-source for all countries to access, adapt and use, thereby becoming one of many countries that have open-sourced their government projects.

What is open source?

Red Hat, the world’s leading open-source software solutions company, explains open source as “a term that originally referred to open source software (OSS). Open-source software is code that is designed to be publicly accessible — anyone can see, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit.

Open Source

  • Open-source software is developed in a decentralised and collaborative way, relying on peer review and community production.

What does Open Sourcing a software mean?

Open-sourcing a software means that people can look at the code and suggest improvements or issues, and also use the code under a licence to develop similar products. In other words, they would be “free from royalty”.


Advantages of Open-source Software:

  • Cost savings: A study in 2015 said that the use of free and open-source software (FOSS) could lead to estimated savings of about Rs 8,254 crore in Indian schools, and about Rs 51.20 crore in police departments in the country. Further, it also promotes a do-it-yourself attitude towards technology among officials.
  • OSS is often cheaper, more flexible, and has more longevity than its proprietary peers because it is developed by communities rather than a single author or company.
  • Software and bugs go hand-in-hand. Proprietary software does what is called ‘blackbox’ testing. In open-source, the code is open, which makes it possible for many more people to look at the code, and they can do a much better job than blackbox testing
OSS and government:
  • In 2009, the French Police said that it had saved millions of dollars by migrating to an open-source operating system.
  • The United States, in 2016, introduced the Federal Source Code Policy, whose main requirement was that any new custom source code developed “by or for the Federal Government” has to be made available for sharing and re-use by all federal agencies.
  • More recently, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread last year, the government of Singapore was the first to open-source its Bluetooth contact tracing app (TraceTogether).
India and OSS:
  • India has had an open-source policy since 2015. Many of India’s large projects, including Aadhaar, the Goods and Services Tax Network, and Unified Payment Interface, have all used open-source technology to build the projects in question, but the code has never been opened for the larger community to examine.
  • India’s contact tracing app Aarogya Setu’s Android version was also open-sourced last year.
Challenges with OSS in Government projects:
  • The right capacity, and right understanding of what open source is not known to all officials.
  • In open-source, the government is open for scrutiny, co-creation. This might create mistrust on how the technology is being deployed.  For instance, open-sourced Aarogya Setu app faced heavy criticism from the community because the source code did not match the actual app code, and was not updated.
  • Opening up the entire code of an application or platform will make it vulnerable to attacks.
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