Free Open Source Software could help Third World development, experts say.

In many developing countries, whether in Africa or elsewhere in the countries formerly referred to as the “Third World”, few people have access to computers and the Internet. Experts concur that this is hindering development and preventing students from being able to compete for jobs.

At a conference in Dakar, software experts, government officials and students came together to look at how open-source software, which is free for anyone to use, could make technology available to more people.

Experts say that open source software is not only good for Africa and other areas of the developing world because it is free, but also because it allows users to make changes to the source code, which in itself can provide a lesson in technology. The code and the programs can then be adapted and modifies to local requirements, even.

Derek Keats, a professor at the University of Western Cape in South Africa, says that free, open software is having the greatest impact on average people, non-governmental organizations or NGOs, and small, medium and micro businesses, which he calls SMMEs.

"I think the real key to the success of free and open source software is to imagine all of the smaller scale activities that are program happening within Africa: the SMMEs [small, medium and micro enterprises] that are deploying free and open source software, the Internet service providers that are making abundant use of free and open-source software in creating opportunities for connectivity, the NGOs that are enabled through free and open-source software," he explained.

Keats says being able to see the software's source code, or computer language code, and being able to rewrite or make changes gives users a sense of ownership. He says explaining to people how open-source software works and how it can help them is one of the biggest challenges.

"By having access to the source code it gives them power they would not otherwise not have," he added. "And that power, when you do not have access to the source code, is taken away from you. How do we make people understand that free and open source software is as much about democracy as it is about technology?"

Government officials at the conference said they hope free, open-source software will allow them to use computers in more of their work to increase efficiency and in the long run save money. Students said they hope learning to write computer source code will give them an advantage in job markets where there are few opportunities for employment.

Hassan N'diaye is a university student who attended the conference. He says he believes open-source software could be helpful for students like himself. But, he says, that when he watches European students walking around with personal laptop computers, he realizes that software is not enough. He still cannot afford the price of a computer or an Internet connection, but, he says, at least it is a start.

But why should just the Developing World and NGOs from there be able to make use of Open Source Software in such a way. Everywhere this could happen, in my opinion, and everyone who can should be doing it. Then again, why should not everyone can. Start by getting an older PC for cheap, nearly free or even free and install upon its hard drive one of the Linux operating systems and play with it. Even on Microsoft Windows we all can use this or that Open Source program, such as, for instance, Open Office. Beats MS Office hands down in many things, not at least in price. While MS Office sets you back 100s of US Dollars Open Office is free for the download.

Michael Smith (Veshengro) © April 2008