One of the most awe-inspiring tech developments in the last 20 years has been the rapid growth of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) world wide. FOSS is a software movement that promotes freely licensing, copying, studying, changing, improving, and redistributing code. The source code of a myriad of software and digital services are the integral building blocks of our growing digital economy.
In the case of FOSS, these building blocks are made openly available for everyone to tweak and improve to build new innovative solutions. Most of our digital experiences are powered by FOSS today, with more than 85% of India’s Internet running actively on FOSS. Major institutions like our courts, IRCTC, LIC India, and State Bank of India rely on FOSS to scale operations and provide timely efficient digital services to millions.
What makes a piece of software FOSS depends on the licences its creators have chosen to adopt. But beyond licensing, FOSS is about harnessing a culture of open and transparent collaboration to co-create something useful for users and other developers around the world. This 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 to it and modify it to make something new. For the creators of FOSS, this presents an opportunity to problem-solve with tech talent from around the world, to collaboratively improve their code, and further develop their own skills. A wide range of such open-source products is gaining popularity around the world and being used for large-scale tech development and business operations.
FOSS offers new avenues for economic, technological, and talent growth that are rooted in the commons-based peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. On average, FOSS products are more affordable than proprietary counterparts and give increased personal control to creators and users alike. This is becoming much more relevant as more citizens look for representation and agency in the digital world. Without the equalising force of FOSS, the future of the digital economy may well end up being controlled by a handful of Big Tech’s monopolies.
In a recently released report on “The State of Free and Open Source Software in India”, CivicDataLab has documented the history of FOSS, the challenges faced by various stakeholders in the FOSS ecosystem in India, and suggested a way forward. The roots of FOSS in India date back to the early 1990s, with the mushrooming of Indian Linux User Groups (ILUGs) and Free Software User Groups (FSUGs) across the country. Over the last few decades, a variety of local FOSS communities have become centres of activity for people to gather, share ideas, and co-create software. According to GitHub, India now ranks 3rd in the world (after the U.S. and China) in terms of FOSS usage. India’s FOSS usage is still growing at an exponential rate with more developers preferring FOSS libraries and solutions.
Despite this strong consumption, India lags behind the global landscape in building sustainable home-grown FOSS innovations. This is concerning given the country has a large and diverse information technology (IT) workforce of more than 4.36 million employees and an aggregate IT revenue surpassing $180 billion in the year 2019. The lack of substantial FOSS contributions from India has resulted in having a software ecosystem that lacks representation from India’s diverse languages, cultural contexts, and lived experiences. These factors restrict scaling digital adoption for the majority of first-time Internet users.
There is a need for a strategic plan to bring communities, businesses, academia, and government together to make India the global leader in FOSS-led innovation. We have a unique opportunity to harness FOSS to become technologically ‘Atmanirbhar’ aka self-reliant and catalyse our digital growth. FOSS-led innovation will spur the growth of new technologies like 5G/6G, microprocessor technology, artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and others by building indigenous technology capabilities.
This is not a pipe dream—during the Covid-19 pandemic, diverse groups came together to build, localise, 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 more than 100 active contributors to build a timely interactive map to show live updates on district-wise cases, testing, vaccination, and more. Media, academia, and the government used COVID19India.org as a base for their reporting, and the Economic Survey 2020-21 cited it as a source for Covid-19 related analysis. We also saw collaborative development of a variety of open-source Covid-19 related literacy apps, genomics platforms, spatial analysis libraries, e-learning apps, and more, bringing governments, businesses, academia, and communities together to combat the health crisis.
For the Indian FOSS ecosystem to thrive, what we need is a National FOSS Alliance—a network of committed stakeholders from developer communities, industry, academia, and government to “join forces” and work towards building India’s digital ecosystems rooted in the core values of FOSS. Such an alliance can support FOSS communities to work on truly ambitious and innovative projects with the potential for global adoption, mentor and train community leaders, improve FOSS education at tech universities and schools, help improve the quality and accountability of GovTech, and facilitate FOSS projects that are aimed at solving India’s biggest societal challenges. With the largest base of software developers in the world, we can not only enhance our indigenous technology capabilities, but can make robust FOSS tools, infrastructure, and products affordable for millions of users worldwide.
Views are personal. Godhwani is with CivicDataLab; Mittal is with Omidyar Network India.