Open source and ICT working together for social justice

The recent phenomenon of Information Communication Technology (ICT) – and in particular Open Source (OS) – as a tool to reach community goals such as social justice and public vigilance has reached new heights during the past couple of years. ICT4D or Information Communication Technologies for Development refers to the use of ICT and OS in socioeconomic, international, or human rights development projects. All major areas of development work can be enhanced by the appropriate deployment of ICT and a cursory Google search reveals the success of many of these ventures to date.

The OS movement was created in response to efforts by software manufacturers. These manufacturers sought to take ownership of code created by teams or individuals. However, it was argued that code should freely available for use and for modification, companies seek to prevent this by exercising copyright privilege and limiting the rights a buyer has over their product. OS software is created by individuals or teams who are often not part of the same organization and the final product is distributed freely. Furthermore, non-technical experts can collaborate in the development of specific solutions. Participation in OS projects stems not from a desire to enrich oneself financially but from more community-orientated aims such as peer recognition or the work itself as enriching on a personal basis. Participation in OS projects is supported by academic theory – such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – that shows that people are motivated by factors other than money. Reasons cited for participation in an OS project by programmers are often ones of intellectual fulfillment or peer recognition. A central release schedule is maintained for some OS products. This ensures users are aware of potential bugs and fixes. Also, these central registries provide a change history of the code and allow programmers to tackle areas that need improvement. Users of OS programs are of course free to modify the code to suit their purposes and do not have to pay the license fee or royalties to traditional developers.

The primary concerns of current development projects such as water access; education, access to information, and the empowerment of civil society have all received a much-needed boost from support by ICT developers and the use of OS software. Ready access to mobile technology and the lower costs involved - when compared to 10 years ago - have made mass participation more feasible and allows projects to reach a critical mass at a much more rapid rate than was historically possible. ICT and OS are a strong fit for the purposes of ICT4D because the large support infrastructure and expenses necessary to maintain the network are not present.

ICT has become a permanent feature in monitoring the exploits of repressive regimes and, for drawing public attention and support to counter campaigns. The ubiquitous nature of mobile technology allows it to t become the most powerful weapon against governments who have ceased to act in the interests of their citizens. Speaking to the British newspaper, The Guardian, a spokesperson for the Non-Governmental (NGO) Tactical Technology Collective said, “While computers and the Internet can be extremely powerful tools for advocacy, they also present new risks for a group that is already, in many cases, quite vulnerable. As more advocates have begun to rely on digital technology to achieve their outreach, data-collection, information design, communication, and mobilization objectives, these risks have become more severe."