Open source, open data: challenges and opportunities

The Caribbean Open Data Conference began across the region on 26 January. Some insights from the first day of talks in Jamaica are discussed.

With the proliferation of mobile/cellular phones over the last few years, there has been a growing focus on using ICT to foster national development. As discussed in Where is the Caribbean on the apps bandwagon?, the creation of mobile applications has been widely embraced as an effective and powerful tool to improve prospects for persons at the Bottom of the (societal) Pyramid.

ICT as a tool for national development is a core premise of the Caribbean Open Data Conference that is being held simultaneously in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, with virtual sessions also occurring in Cuba, Barbados and Guyana, on 26—27 January. In addition to a full slate of talks and discussions, the Conference includes a 24-hour Developer Code Sprint, which began yesterday and ends around midday today (US Central Standard Time/GMT -5), and should result in software applications for select industries.

Two critical tenets for the Code Sprint are that open data resources are used and that the code for the resulting software applications must also be open source. These two requirements were widely discussed during the first day of the Conference. Some of the benefits, challenges and opportunities of open data and open source, as highlighted during the talks, are summarised.

Open data

Open data is non-personally identifiable data produced by a public body in the course of its ordinary business, which has been released under an unrestricted licence.  (Source: LinkedGov)

While data is important, in and of itself, it has little value until it is required for a purpose, e.g. to answer a specific question, or as an input into decision-making. Hence access to open data can promote (among other things):

  • transparency
  • greater participation
  • innovation
  • self empowerment, and
  • improved efficiency and decision-making.

However, to realise those benefits, the data must be captured in a manner that is useable. Moreover, it must be comprehensive and must be made publicly and freely available. Caribbean governments, along with other developing countries, face a number of challenges in their efforts to transition towards open data. These include:

  • maintaining high quality datasets
  • balancing the right to information with the right to privacy
  • persons being non-responsive to surveys/data collection
  • dated legislative frameworks
  • organisations hoarding the data
  • exorbitant prices being established to access the data.

However, having released the data, the question that ought to be asked is: how can this data be used to foster national (or even sector) development? In many instances, the persons who possess the skills to collect the data will be only able to suggest a few ways in which the data can be used. Hence there are opportunities for persons that are software developers who also have specialist skills in other field, such as in Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), to assist  in identifying the value and usefulness of certain types of data.

More importantly, this is where the rest of society – technical specialists, special interest groups, etc. become critical, as reflected in the Ideation/Think Aloud session that preceded this Conference to generate ideas for the Code Sprint. Problems and needs must be articulated; then developer teams can work out the best solutions and create them.

Open source software

When a software program is open source, it means the program’s source code is freely available to the public. Unlike commercial software, open source programs can be modified and distributed by anyone and are often developed as a community rather than by a single organization.  {Source:

The term “open source software” (OSS) has been around for a number of years, and the average computer user has enjoyed access to a number of popular products, such as Mozilla Firefox (web browser), Linux (operating system) and OpenOffice (office productivity). However, invariably and perhaps not consciously, most of the software we use is proprietary – from our operating system (e.g. Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS), to our web browser (e.g. Microsoft Internet Explorer and Google Chrome) and antivirus (e.g. Symantec Norton’s Antivirus).

In most Caribbean countries, where we have the choice of using OSS or commercial and proprietary software, we still tend to choose the latter. Although we have difficulty with the price, but appreciate the feature–rich content of proprietary products, for many of us, the disadvantages of open source applications usually outweigh the benefits (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Perceived pros and cons of OSS (Source: ICT Pulse)

However, if we lived in Cuba, which has been subject to a US embargo for over 50 years, and where US-copyrighted software cannot be sold, OSS becomes a critical foundation upon which to develop that country’s Information Society. To that end, there is an on going initiative to adopt Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in the Cuban public sector, which should be completed by 2014.

Referring back to some of the perceived limitations of OSS, it might not appear wise to adopt a policy of using FOSS as the basis for ICT/tech development. However, Cuban universities produce thousands of well-trained and experienced software developers, who work on international projects, and who can customise existing products – and create new ones – to address local needs. Equally important, Cuba has identified the benefits and opportunities that arise from using FOSS, which are captured in four principles that govern the development and use of ICTS by its government (Table 1).

Table 1: The four principles (4S’s) of ICT development and use in Cuba (Source: Government of Cuba)

It is stressed that these four principles all hinge upon having access to the source code, which is possible with FOSS. Further, although, depending on the vendor, it might be possible to get access to the source code for proprietary software, the licensing fees can increase development costs considerably, which for smaller developing countries can make that option prohibitive. Hence using FOSS/OSS tends to be the most viable when a more independent and self-directed approach has been adopted.

What’s next at the Conference?

The Conference continues today, 27 January, with discussions from the developer’s perspective in Jamaica. Live streaming and clips from earlier talks are available on Ustream. Across the region, the Code Sprint ends around midday (GMT-5), and the participating groups will present their outputs for judging soon thereafter. It will be interesting to see what problems the applications have been designed to solve, and how well they have been executed within the limited time allotted.

Congratulation to all of the teams and good luck!