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Free and Open Source Software at the United Nations

by David Boswell
07/20/2006

Advances in technology have revolutionized the way people live, learn and work, but these benefits have not spread around the world evenly. A digital divide exists between communities in their access to computers, the Internet, and other technologies. The United Nations is aware of the importance of including technology development as part of a larger effort to bridge this global digital divide. This article looks at how various United Nations agencies use free and open source software to meet the goal of putting technology at the service of people around the world.

The Millennium Development Goals

The Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) are a set of eight targets to help end extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. The United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, created in March 2001, has worked to advance the development goals and targets of the UN, in particular those set by the Millennium Declaration. The Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID) group replaced UNICTTF, and now has the task of providing an open policy dialogue on the role of information and communication technologies in development.

In their report The Role of Information and Communication Technologies in Global Development: Analyses and Policy Recommendations, the Task Force states that information and communication technologies will increasingly become one of the main enablers in the pursuit of poverty alleviation and wealth creation in developed and developing countries alike. It's easy to overlook the importance of technology in development, though. When people are starving and don't have access to clean water, does it matter if they have access to the Internet? Technology is not an end in itself in these situations, but it is a tool to achieve wider goals such as eradicating hunger and achieving universal primary education.

To help raise awareness of the potential for free and open source software in this area, various UN organizations and nonprofits have created the FOSS: Policy and Development Implications (FOSS-PDI) initiative. Part of this initiative consists of a mailing list that discusses specific FOSS applications that address the different MDGs, information about how different countries are using open source software, and coordination for events being planned around the world.

International Open Source Network

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) created the International Open Source Network (IOSN) with the goal of helping developing countries in the Asia-Pacific Region achieve rapid and sustained economic and social development by using free and open source software. To achieve this goal, the IOSN acts as an open source information repository, maintains a database of FOSS programmers and experts, offers technical support and training, and provides research and development grants to programmers to work on localization efforts and local font development. IOSN also organizes and sponsors events to help advocate on behalf of FOSS and creates primers and guides for the use of FOSS in education, government, and other areas.

IOSN hosts information about how different countries are getting involved in the open source community. The IOSN country report for Sri Lanka has information about how local developers quickly built the Sahana Disaster Management System to help coordinate the relief effort after the country was hit by a tsunami in 2004. Other IOSN Sri Lanka contributions include several Sinhala-enabled Linux distributions and a Linux download accelerator. There are additional country reports for Cambodia, China, India, and Malaysia.

Although the IOSN effort works only within the Asia-Pacific region, the UNDP is promoting the use of FOSS in other developing countries. For example, there is an initiative to support local e-government projects in South-Eastern Europe. The pilot project was started in Bulgaria, and there are plans to extend to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Romania. A (PDF) report on progress of the South-Eastern Europe e-government project shows that eight municipalities have migrated to FOSS, providing cost savings and increased effectiveness of services.

The project is part of a larger UNDP Global Programme focused on developing national capacities by establishing a series of regional centers using FOSS. Currently, all coordination happens on a national and regional scale, because there is considerable opposition to using FOSS for development coming from parts of the developed world. Most of the traditional software industry has its base in the developed world; there is concern that promoting FOSS could hurt this industry. From the developing countries' perspective, however, FOSS is a way to introduce competition in order to lower costs and expand options. The different views of the role of software in development have hindered the UN's ability to create a single coherent strategy for FOSS to apply to all member states.

Free & Open Source Software Portal

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also recently become interested in using free and open source software as part of its own programs. UNESCO's mission is to promote international collaboration through education, science, and culture. They have recognized that FOSS can play a key role in extending and disseminating human knowledge. In a review of UNESCO's activities in this area, Jean-Claude Dauphin, Computer Systems Analyst from the Information Society Division, states that "the software development models used by FOSS movements are also good examples of the power of sharing knowledge. These models encourage international solidarity, collaboration, and voluntary community work."

UNESCO has created a Free & Open Source Software Portal that both promotes existing FOSS projects and hosts free and open source software created and released by the United Nations. The portal, started in November 2001, focuses on providing software that matches UNESCO's fields of competence: specifically, information processing applications and education tools. Future additions to the portal may add collaborative development tools that would allow for certain developers to host their own projects on the site.

UNESCO has developed several projects in cooperation with libraries, universities, and programmers from many different countries. They include:

UNESCO's CDS/ISIS software is part of a (PDF) multilingual library in Amman, Jordan. Greenstone is in use in Africa as part of training local archivists and librarians to create and customize digital libraries. Free software is also part of UNESCO's radio-in-a-box prototype that features a self-contained laptop and transmitter that can quickly set up a broadcasting station in remote areas or in disaster areas with damaged infrastructure.

One Laptop per Child

In 2002, Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a challenge to Silicon Valley to create the technologies that would enable the digital have-nots to enter the Information Age. He urged the information technology industry to "broaden its horizon and bring more of its remarkable dynamism and innovation to the developing world." He also announced that the General Assembly was planning to hold a World Summit on the Information Society in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunis.

Many organizations and groups have worked to answer this challenge. There have been several low-cost computing initiatives started in the last few years, including India's Simputer project, Intel's Community PC program, and AMD's 50x15 initiative. Perhaps the most well known of these efforts is the $100 laptop project. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) organization is a nonprofit created by Nicholas Negroponte, the former director of MIT's Media Lab. The OLPC's goal is to create a laptop to sell for $100 each to governments to give away at no cost to school-aged children.

The $100 laptop, designed specifically for use in developing countries, should reach production in 2007. The laptops will consume very low amounts of energy and will come with a crank to provide manual power without the need to plug in to an existing power source. FOSS is a crucial component to the success of this initiative. The laptop will come installed with free and open source software in order to help reach the $100 price point and to allow for the creation of localized education applications and content.

At the summit in Tunis in 2005, Kofi Annan helped Negroponte demonstrate an OLPC prototype. The United Nation's involvement with the project took a step forward the next year at the 2006 World Economic Forum in Davos. At Davos, Kemal Dervis, head of the UNDP, signed a memorandum of understanding with the OLPC stating that the UNDP will work closely with OLPC and other UN agencies on the ground to assist national governments deploy the laptops to targeted public schools.

Other UN Agencies

Several other UN agencies also use FOSS to support their own missions. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) has promoted the benefits of FOSS for trade through reports and conferences. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has developed several of FOSS applications that provide spatial mapping functions, food production analysis tools, and animal disease data management.

In April 2006, the United Nations University (UNU) hosted a conference about knowledge issues in open source and medicine that analyzed the role of FOSS and other collaborative models of knowledge production in economic development. The UNU's International Institute for Software Technology (IIST), has also recently launched the Global Desktop Project as part of an effort to increase the number of open source developers in East Asia. The UNU is also hosting UNeGov.net, a site that provides a forum for exchanging experiences, sharing technical information, and reaching consensus on the best practices in the field of electronic governance.

Too Early to Tell

The United Nation uses FOSS in various ways across several different agencies. Most of the initiatives have only begun recently, so it is too early to tell if the promise of information technology in general and of free and open source software in particular will be able to live up to their potential. There is no doubt that technological advances can improve people's lives around the world, but will software that is freely available and free to customize be able to play a part in bridging the gap between those that already have access to technology and those that do not?

David Boswell has been involved in the Mozilla community for more than six years. He is also a coauthor of Creating Applications with Mozilla and helped launch mozdev.org.


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