Situating the role of free software in the Indian digital economy

One of the most impressive technological developments of the past 20 years has been the rapid growth of free and open source software (FOSS) around the world. Free software is a software movement that encourages the free license, copying, study, modification, improvement, and redistribution of code. The source code for a myriad of digital software and services is the cornerstone of our growing digital economy.

In the case of free software, these basic elements are made available to everyone and can be modified and improved to create new innovative solutions. Today, most of our digital experiences are powered by free software, with over 85% of the Indian internet actively running on free software. Large institutions like our courts, IRCTC, LIC and State Bank of India rely on open source software to expand their operations and provide fast and efficient digital services to millions of people.

What makes FOSS software dependent on the licenses its creators have chosen to adopt. But beyond licensing, FOSS is all about harnessing a culture of open and transparent collaboration to co-create something useful for users and other developers around the world. It could be a programming language like Julia, an operating system like Linux, a container orchestration platform like Kubernetes, or a web browser like Firefox.

In each of these examples, anyone located anywhere in the world has the freedom to view the source code, use it, add it, and modify it into something new. For free software creators, this represents an opportunity to solve problems with tech talent around the world, improve their code collaboratively, and further develop their own skills. A wide range of these open source products are gaining popularity around the world and are used for technology development and large-scale business operations.

New avenues for growth

Open source software offers new avenues for economic, technological and talent growth that are rooted in the peer production of information, knowledge and culture. On average, FOSS products are more affordable than their proprietary counterparts and offer increased personal control for creators and users. It becomes much more relevant as more and more citizens seek representation and agency in the digital world. Without the equalizing force of free software, the future of the digital economy may well end up being controlled by a handful of big tech monopolies.

In a recently published report on “The State of Free and Open Source Software in India”, CivicDataLab documented the history of free software, the challenges facing various stakeholders in the free software ecosystem in India and suggested a way forward. The roots of free software in India can be traced back to the early 1990s, with the proliferation of Indian Linux User Groups (ILUG) and Free Software User Groups (FSUG) across the country.

Over the past decades, various local free software communities have become hubs of activity for people to come together, share ideas, and co-create software. According to GitHub, India now ranks third in the world (after the United States and China) in terms of the use of free software. The use of open source software in India continues to grow at an exponential rate, with more and more developers preferring FOSS libraries and solutions.

Fall behind

Despite this high consumption, India is lagging behind the global landscape in creating sustainable local FOSS innovations. This is of concern given that the country has a large and diverse information technology (IT) workforce of more than 4.36 million employees and a turnover of over 4.36 million. IT total surpassing $ 180 billion in 2019. ecosystem that lacks representation of India’s diverse languages, cultural backgrounds and lived experiences. These factors limit digital adoption by the majority of new Internet users.

A strategic plan is needed to bring together communities, businesses, academia and government to make India the world leader in open source software innovation. We have a unique opportunity to harness free software to become technologically “Atmanirbhar”, aka self-sufficient, and catalyze our digital growth. Innovation driven by open source software will drive the growth of new technologies such as 5G / 6G, microprocessor technology, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and others by strengthening local technological capabilities.

This is no pipe dream – during the Covid-19 pandemic, various groups came together to build, locate and deploy crisis response solutions for India, showing that such collaboration is possible. One such popular application is COVID19India.org, a FOSS initiative that engages over 100 active contributors to create a timely interactive map to display live updates on cases, tests, immunization and more at the level of individuals. districts.

Media, academia and government have used COVID19India.org as the basis for their reporting, and the Economic study 2020-21 cited him as the source for the analysis related to Covid-19. We have also witnessed the collaborative development of a variety of open-source literacy applications related to Covid-19, genomics platforms, spatial analysis libraries, e-learning applications, etc. ., bringing together governments, businesses, universities and communities to tackle the health crisis.

National FOSS Alliance

For the Indian FOSS ecosystem to thrive, we need a National FOSS Alliance – a network of engaged stakeholders from developer communities, industry, academia and government to ‘join forces’ and work towards building Indian digital ecosystems rooted in FOSS core values.

Such an alliance can help FOSS communities to work on truly ambitious and innovative projects with potential for global adoption, mentor and train community leaders, improve free software education in universities and technology schools, help improve the quality and accountability of GovTech and facilitate FOSS projects. which aim to solve India’s biggest societal challenges. With the world’s largest software developer base, we can not only enhance our local technology capabilities, but also make robust FOSS tools, infrastructure and products affordable to millions of users around the world.

Gaurav Godhwani is from CivicDataLab and Kriti Mittal is from Omidyar Network India


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