16 January 2003
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has launched an Open Source Centre to help stimulate the adoption of open source software technologies in Africa.
According to the CSIR’s business unit, icomtek, open source software is very much like digital meraka – a Sotho term for common grazing land. “People may engage in private or communal productive activity on this land, but the land itself is kept for the common good.”
Unlike most proprietary software, open source software is available at little or no cost. More importantly, the intellectual property of its inner workings – the source code – is not a closely guarded secret of any individual or organisation.
The free availability of the source code encourages a model of software development, testing and modification based on public collaboration.
icomtek specialises in information and communication technology projects which are geared to development and societal needs. The Centre plans a number of strategic interventions within the private sector, government and civil society, as well as in education and training.
South Africa and Africa, icomtek argues, “will not be able to afford the investments in imported technology that are required to be a full participant in the global information society in future, if conventional approaches are followed.
“Open source software has emerged as a software model that is particularly viable in the developing world, providing local software developers with access to quality code generated by international experts, allowing users to escape from the cycle of ever-increasing international licensing fees, and facilitating the development of systems that address localised needs.”
The importance of open source software within the South African context is underscored by its inclusion as a component in almost every major ICT strategic proposal, such as the SA National Reseach and Development Strategy document, the bilateral Indo-SA initiative, and the proposed Advanced Institute for Information and Communications Technology.
The State Information Technology Agency (SITA) has already helped the government save millions of rands by implementing open source software in the public sector.
SITA spokesman Mojalefa Moseki says the government can save still more money on licensing, software procurement, support and upgrades through the use of open source software.
According to Moseki, the Northern Cape provincial government is the largest user of open source software, while the Western Cape government also uses an OS-based document management solution, and bases its portal on the system’s platform.
“The department of Land Affairs uses Linux and is about to implement Oracle on Linux”, Moseki says, adding: “We believe open source software is as good if not better than commercially available software. In many cases, it’s more stable and more reliable.”
Open Source Centre initiatives include the following:
- Digital Doorway project – An initiative which explores the viability of “minimally invasive education” as an alternative means of promoting wide-scale computer literacy.
- Open School project – Involving the implementation of a platform to facilitate collaborative development of local educational content over the Internet, using open source principles.
- Culturally adaptive software – The development of systems that change their look-and-feel, context, content and language according to the culture of the person accessing the system.
- Open source school management system – The CSIR is part of a consortium, along with the Wits School of Computer Science, Kgatelopele Technologies and NetDay, that are working towards creating a school management system that caters for outcomes based education, and releasing it under an open source licence.
- The Open school initiative – Involving the implementation of a platform to facilitate collaborative development of local educational content over the Internet, using open source principles.
- Cultureware project – Together with South African Tourism, the Western Cape Investment and Trade Promotion Agency and the University of Fort Hare, the CSIR initiated a culture preservation project known as Cultureware, which aims to bringing cultural heritage into mainstream economic activity and commercial exploitation.
- Open source in government – Various proposals have been submitted to the Centre for Public Service and Innovation as part of their open source thrust in government.