Bridging the digital divide

By   |  March 12, 2003

NGO Bridges.org recently launched a two-year study comparing the use of open source and proprietary software in Africa. Tectonic recently caught up with programme manager Philipp Schmidt to get some more information on the study.

What is Bridges.org? And what is the organisation\’s history?

Bridges.org is an international non-profit organisation with a mission to promote effective technology use in the developing world, help people in developing countries use ICT to improve their lives, and tackle the digital divide. It is a Section 21 corporation based in Cape Town, South Africa, and was founded in 2000 in Washington DC. Its multi-disciplinary staff and engaged board and advisors bring together a wide range of experience in ICT and related issues from the worlds of business, academia, technology and development. Bridges.org also combines involvement in the highest levels of international technology policy-making with participation in ground level projects in developing countries and disadvantaged communities, research and report writing.

It is one of the few organisations to bring this broad vision to bear on its work. It has established an international reputation for the quality and objectivity of its work, and has produced reports for the United Nations ICT Task Force, the World Economic Forum (WEF) and a number of multi-national corporations and civil society organisations.

Bridges.org recently announced a two-year long study comparing the use of open source and proprietary software. What is the focus of the study and what do you hope to achieve?

The research, which is being conducted in collaboration with SchoolNet Africa, aims to fully examine the implications of the choice between open source and proprietary software in an African context. We will look in particular at the impact that software choices have on schools and community access to information and communications technology (ICT), both in terms of ground level implementation in computer labs, and the costs and benefits at the national policy-making level. The goal is to provide an unbiased analysis and raise awareness in order to inform decision-making processes at both levels.

The debate around open source versus proprietary software has been led in the past by advocates of one or the other side. How is the study aiming to add to this debate?

By presenting an informed, but objective perspective of the issues. We don\’t want to participate in the heated debate, but compile information that speaks for itself. Others are free to draw conclusions and try to get them implemented – we are interested in understanding the whole picture and helping other make informed decisions.

The study also aims to compare the use of open source and proprietary software \”in an African context\”. What are the defining characteristics of this \”African context\”?

The term \”African context\” has many implications. In terms of cost we are clearly dealing with other dimensions of affordability and feasibility and that is important to notice when using industry-standard models for analysis. The Gartner Group\’s Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) approach, for example, provides a complete model for cost factors but must be adapted to the realities of this environment. We are also looking at issues related to language, culture and historical implications on technology use which are critical factors in the African context and investigate how these issues impact the choice for one kind of software or the other. And then on a more practical level: We are conducting all of our research in South Africa and Namibia and are comparing some of what we see here with the situation in other countries like Peru, India and Germany.

What, in your opinion, are the advantages of Open Source software in this context?

We are still in the beginning of this project and it would be premature to draw conclusions at this point. There clearly is widespread belief that open source software could help reduce costs and encourage a culture of sharing and development that might positively impact the local IT industry. Of course the other side of the coin is that currently we see a lack of trained people and not enough professional support is available for open source applications – resulting in higher human resource costs, which might well balance the savings on software licenses. An example: It is relatively easy to find a friend, colleague or neighbour who has some experience with Windows and who could help with typical end-user problems like setting up a printer.This kind of user base and level of informal support simply does not exist for open source applications at this point.

Much has been made of the \”free\” nature of Open Source software? Is \”free\” enough of a reason to use open source? Or are there other, perhaps more compelling reasons, to use open source software?

I would like to avoid the argument over \”free\” or \”open\”. I personally believe that the philosophical aspect of the debate sometimes distracts from the real issues, one of which is the importance of providing access to technology to a larger number of people. There are many ways to do this and open source software might not always be the most effective choice.

In your experience what are the pitfalls or shortcomings of Open Source software?

For one, the steep learning curve. Almost all open source applications need better user interfaces and overall packaging and especially on the desktop market that is a problem. In addition there still is a certain lack of professional services and support around the products. Other problems could be summarized under the misconceptions heading and as part of the study we will explain which is which.

The South African government is increasingly advocating the use of Open Source software in public service delivery. Do you feel this is a positive decision that holds benefit for the country as a whole or do you feel the opposite is true?

Again – I would like to come back and answer this question at a later stage of the project. What I can say at this point is that there is no simple answer to the question. As part of our research we are trying to understand the environment that is relevant for and impacted by these decisions, so that one can decide under what conditions it could be a beneficial decision and when other solutions might be more appropriate.

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NGO launches long-term open source research

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