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Government, ICT and Open Source Software

By   |  August 4, 2003

Nhlanhla Mabaso is the Open Source Manager at the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research(CSIR). He has also been a key member of the South African Government\’s Open Source Workgroup which was instrumental in drawing up the State\’s OSS strategy. He previously worked for the Departement of Public Service and Administration with minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi who has been one of the country\’s most vocal advocates of open source software at a government level.

In this article Nhlanhla says he hopes to open a debate around the various government activities and the relevance of open source software by highlighting some of the areas in which open source software is either being used or is being considered.

A question was recently asked on one of the mailing lists about the possibility of Nigeria\’s elections being conducted on an OSS platform. This raises important questions about the transparency of election processes. Will citizens, in the future, be content with a major company, aligned to some political parties, having their results counted on this company\’s software without being able to freely audit the software used?

And this is just one example of the key issues that government ICT (Information and Communication Technology) planners have to consider.

Stakeholder involvement
The country\’s democracy extends beyond its constitution and electoral process. As a result, many of the bodies set up to address specific challenges tend to benefit from the wisdom which results from cross-sectoral participation. Government has made a firm commitment to greater integration and co-ordination across different organisational levels and sectors (Mbeki, 2003). This presents the country with a unique opportunity of introducing ICT innovations through the participation of all stakeholder groups. The open source policy development process has benefited from this. It is expected that more players will now participate in the evolution of this policy and the implementation of its concomitant strategy. This is all the more logical given that expertise on open source software on the continent has been in existence over a long period, especially among the sectors where greater efficiencies were needed to optimise on limited resources.

Various government entities have been invited to share information on the extent of OSS penetration in their environments. Below are some examples of government activities where open source software is relevant.

– As part of the Partnership for Africa\’s Development (NEPAD) programme, the Presidency, Departments of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Industry (DTI) as well as Public Service and Administration, among others, are involved in various programmes to encourage greater collaboration among African countries. Apart from narrowing the digital divide, the ICT initiative therein seeks to promote the development of indigenous knowledge systems. A vibrant software industry is one way of achieving these goals. OSS enhances such collaboration and the development of competitiveness.

– The DTI is looking to improve South Africa\’s balance of trade situation. Currently, the counrty imports more software than it needs to.

– The DTI and Department of Social Development (DSD) have developed strategies around poverty alleviation, job creation and the availing of entrepreneurial opportunities. OSS contributes to the process of lowering entry barriers to new businesses thereby creating greater opportunities for entrepreneurs and their prospective employees.

– The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry provides an interesting example for explaining the social and economic value of OSS. The water is available at little or not cost; in many cases it is as good as, if not better than the branded water or other commercially available drinks; there are few limitations to what can be done with the water, from drinking, washing to producing other things. Similar examples about breastmilk compared to formula could be provided by fundis from the Department of Health.

– The Departments of Education (DOE) and Labour are directly involved in activities to address the development and deployment of appropriate skills and courseware. ICT approaches that give unlimited access to information and the developer community are thus important to the work being done in this area.

– Recently, the Department of Communications hosted a workshop on convergence. OSS provides greater opportunities for innovations resulting from and contributing to the transfer of technologies across platforms.

– The Departments of Land Affairs, Agriculture, Transport, Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Defence (DOD) as well as Education – Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are relevant to all these departments. Great benefits can be derived from the availability of OSS GIS solutions like GRASS and the development of others using the OSS approach.

– DOE and the Deparment of Arts and culture – Human Language Technologies are of great interest to work being done by these departments. A successful example is

– DOD, South African Police Service, National Intelligence Agency, South African Secret Services – The ability to exercise the choice of enhancing information systems security through collaborative efforts instead of obscurity is very much in line with the thinking of these entities around issues of state security.

– Department of Correctional Services – ICT literacy as part of the rehabilitation programmes within this department could reap great benefits. OSS allows the possibility of doing this without having to buy software licences for a fluctuating number of programme participants.

– Department of Justice -There are constitutional imperatives towards promoting access to information. The idea of Open Standards and Open Document Formats is very much in line with OSS thinking.

– Department of Health – There are many successes of health systems that have been developed on OSS. The most recent one being the on the Medical Research Council\’s enterprise document management system.

– Department of Minerals and Energy Affairs – Collaboration models in the mining sector have been in existence for years. These are very similar to the ones being proposed for OSS.

– Departments of Public Enterprises and Public Works – There are clear guidelines on where the Intellectual Property developed within government projects belong. More can be done to optimise the benefits therein as well as the economies of scale that can be achieved through greater collaboration.

– The DTI and National Treasury are continuously involved in developing financial models for a more effective way of managing public funds and developing the country\’s economy. Through the Meraka initiative, the CSIR is currently working on a total value chain exercise to show how these could benefit from OSS.

– Department of Sports and Recreation – When it comes to sports and recreation, South Africa is a force to be reckoned with. A number of innovative technological interventions in sports have been made with a lot of applications being developed from within the country.

– Department of Science and Technology – The State Information Technology Agency is involved in developing an OSS research. This is in line with the thinking around the country\’s National R&D strategy. There are many creativity & innovation opportunities that arise from OSS. This should contribute to successes being realised, such as the one about the use of wireless technologies in mind controlled wheelchairs. Such possibilities increase exponentially with access to unlimited knowledge sources through OSS.

If you have any comments or feel you could contribute to this detbate please feel free to contact Nhlanhla Mabaso directly or send feedback and opinions to Tectonic and we will publish them on the site.

Corrado, T. (2003). Does anybody know about E-Government in Nigeria? [].

Mbeki, T. (2003). State of the Nation Address. [].

Engineering News, Creamer Media (2003). Research council opts for open-source system [].

Reuters, Yahoo News (2003). Scientists Developing Mind-Controlled Wheelchair [
&cid=581&ncid=581&e=1&u=/nm/20030724/tc_nm/health_wheelchair_dc]. (accessed 24 July 2003).


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