Open source software: addressing some misconceptions and stereotypes

This post was cross-posted from the World Bank Group blog page. It was authored by Alanna Simpson.

GeoNode risk map of Kabul City

Flood and landslide risk of Kabul City, via GeoNode

While stuck in I-66 traffic one morning, a colleague and I had a vigorous debate on the merits of open-source versus proprietary software. I was left with the realization of how much misinformation still persists about this particular subject.

This discussion prompted me to be more proactive about advocating for the adoption of open-source technology. I believe we are just beginning to explore the possibilities for these tools in reducing poverty and ensuring sustainable development.

Here are some of the points we debated and how they were debunked:

“Developing countries already use the proprietary version of ‘X’ software.”

In many cases, government agencies are expending significant funds annually on software licenses that have functionality far and beyond what is actually needed – it’s the classic case of buying a Ferrari to get from A to B when a Fiat would also do. Moreover, because the cost of licenses are so high, it may mean sharing a few licenses across a large number of staff, ultimately reducing productivity. Or, these barriers can result in, as I have personally seen too often, the widespread use of pirated software versions.

“There is no technical support or training for open-source software.”

Often proprietary software is sold with a package of technical support and standard training courses which gives the buyer comfort in the event of an issue. There is an assumption that similar options are not possible if open-source versions are adopted. In reality, there has been a rapid expansion of technology firms that are able to provide highly customized and responsive (often local) support around different open-source tools. So with the savings from avoided license fees, users can set up contracts for ongoing training, technical support and customization of tools/workflow to meet their specific needs.

“Open-source software is not as secure as the proprietary equivalent.”

In an era of malicious and damaging IT attacks, ICT security is a critical concern for public sector institutions. But it is important not to assume that just because software is proprietary, it is somehow more secure than an open-source version. In fact, the opposite may be true – as highlighted here.

“Open-source software is not as user-friendly as equivalent proprietary versions.”

For open-source software in its early stage of development, efforts are typically placed on building out functionality rather than the user interface/user experience. However, with a little bit of time, efforts soon shift to these aspects. Recognizing this barrier, more and more open-source projects are considering the user design from the start, which was our approach for the recently launched ThinkHazard! platform that enables users to easily access information about the disaster risks their projects face. Functionality and cost efficiency do not have to come at the expense of usability and aesthetics.

“Open-source software is niche and does not provide a long-term solution.”

Some of the longest-running and most widely-used software solutions are open source – for example, the Linux operating system and Mozilla Firefox web browserthat many of us use to do our day to day work. Indeed, the latest version of GeoNode has been downloaded 700,000 times – GeoNode an open-source geospatial software initiated by the World Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) in 2010. Also, because open-source software can be easily customized, they provide an opportunity to engage local innovators to create adaptable solutions to specific needs whilst still maintaining connection with longer term and larger scale development.

“It’s just software, so why bother with a lesser-known solution?”

If you have only ever used proprietary software, then you are missing an opportunity to engage with a dedicated and passionate community of developers and users that organically grows around open-source tools (see the recent GeoNode Summit, for example). This community rapidly responds to issues with solutions, bug fixes, and long-term development planning that meets their own needs, but is also flexible and benefits the community of users through pooled funds and coordinated investment.

“It is not a good use of public funds to invest in open-source technology.”

Building public tools that are useful, open, and accessible lowers the barrier to entry for governments, city authorities, and non-government organizations. This is an excellent way to invest public funds. A recent independent evaluation of the GeoNode software estimated a conservative return on investment in excess of 200%. Moreover, GFDRR and the World Bank have supported Governments in more than 50 countries to utilize this software to improve disaster and climate resilience.

The needs of users are often complex and contexts can vary dramatically from country to country, and so we need to be always mindful to avoid cookie-cutter approaches or to evangelize open-source versus proprietary solutions. It’s not simply one or the other — but lets encourage others and ourselves to move outside their comfort zone to embrace innovative solutions.