Vignette 2 | Grounding data self-sovereignty on free open source software solutions

Bangani Ngeleza

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The choice of software platforms for the pursuit of self-sovereignty is an important part of ensuring the optimal appropriation of its value. Free Open Source Software (FOSS) solutions present opportunities that not only extend the concept of sovereignty beyond data to also include the underlying software, but also have a range of other relevant benefits, some of which are outlined briefly below. Not only is FOSS affordable to obtain, but it also has many cost advantages on total cost of ownership (TCO). The availability of the source-code for instance means that organisations are able to make adaptations without needing to pay for the services of the company that developed the software. The absence of licensing costs also contributes to lowering the TCO. In addition, the relative stability of FOSS resulting from a large community of developers eliminating errors means the costs of support are low (Cassell, 2008).

Open standards in software development are a contributory factor to the use of FOSS and are most beneficial to governments which tend to consume huge amounts of information whose optimal value is realised when it is readily accessible to citizens (Hwang, 2005; Simon, 2005). Open standards allow for a modular development of FOSS solutions, meaning that there is no need to rely on one software provider for the total solution, but rather, it is possible to combine software from different sources, thus limiting vendor lock-in (Simon, 2005). Open standards supporting FOSS can also be beneficial for the development and sharing of educational resources by educators (Pfaffman, 2007), an important factor for developing countries.

There are several researchers who have shown that the security achieved with FOSS exceeds that achieved with proprietary software (Mosoval et al., 2006; Sherif, Zmud & Browne, 2006; Hwang, 2005; Drosdik, Kovacs & Kochis, 2005; West & O’Mahony, 2005). According to these researchers, this is due to the open availability of the source code in FOSS, allowing more people to view it and to detect and correct errors. The frequency with which FOSS updates are made available to the public also contributes to improved security as it allows for developers to test the software well ahead of its final release. For instance, a survey of Linux development by Evans Data found that 92% of their Linux systems had never been infected with a virus and 78% had never been cracked (Simon, 2005).

The fact that users of FOSS have access to the source code makes it possible to adapt this form of technology innovation to local requirements (Cassell, 2008; Mosoval et al., 2006). The South African government can benefit from general public licence (GPL) based FOSS solutions because these can be adapted and modified in order to suit any local conditions, including local languages and culture (Mtsweni and Biermann, 2008; Mutula, 2007). FOSS allows users who require certain additional features to be implemented to do so without hindrance (Bjorgvinsson & Thorbergsson, 2007; Hwang, 2005; Simon, 2005). There is an example of a Luganda web browser developed in Uganda called ‘Kuyangirizi’ which has been translated from the Mozilla browser. A Zulu version of OpenOffice is available in South Africa. These local language versions are examples of how FOSS can be geared towards supporting developing countries to create technology products that fit their specific needs (Camara and Fonseca, 2007). A further benefit specifically for developing countries is that FOSS can result in the development of a domestic ICT support industry that can provide employment opportunities. It enables developing countries to bridge the digital divide (Cook & Horobin, 2006; Mutula, 2007).

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