As open as it can be

Preference to open source software in all government projects is the first step. The key to an open government, however, lies in the vigorous implementation of the new policy

Venkatesh Hariharan | April 13, 2015




The winds of openness are sweeping through the portals of government. Recently, the government has released a triumvirate of policies around open source software (OSS) for e-government applications, for hosting all government applications in an open source repository, and for opening up the application programming interface (API). All these policies are set to have a far-reaching impact on e-government in India.

Let’s take a look at ‘policy on adoption of open source for government of India’. This policy takes off from the National Policy on Information Technology, 2012, which specified that one of its objectives is to, “adopt open standards and promote open source and open technologies”.

The open source policy builds on this by stating that the “government of India shall endeavour to adopt open source software in all e-governance systems implemented by various government organisations, as a preferred option, in comparison to closed source software (CSS)”.

Compliance with this policy will be mandatory and all suppliers will have to consider OSS along with CSS, while responding to the government’s request for proposals (RFPs), and provide justification, if they exclude OSS. This makes OSS the default choice for e-government. According to Open Code Hub, a search engine for open source software, there are 21 billion lines of open source code that exist in the world. This code can be freely shared, reused and remixed.

What’s more, the equivalent of most of the CSS now exists in OSS world. In emerging areas like big data, cloud computing and analytics, most of the innovation is happening in OSS. In some areas, the innovation has been so rapid that there are no proprietary equivalents for OSS programmes.

An open world

OSS is also being embraced by countries around the world. The UK, Brazil and many other countries have well formulated OSS policies.

The Australian government recently decided to standardise all its government websites – around 4,000 – on Drupal, the popular OSS content management system. It is good to see that India is also embracing OSS fully. The second policy, which the government calls, ‘policy on opening the application source code of the government for collaborative development’, aims to ensure that e-governance apps developed with government money are properly archived and reused. For simplicity sake, we shall call it the Open Code Policy.

In the past, the government had no system for archiving source code, with the result that applications developed by one government department could not be reused by another government department. For example, a friend of mine who runs a government academy, wanted to install an office management software developed by another government department, and requested access to the source code.

A year later, he still does not have that code, and has been managing with other software. Once this policy is implemented, he would be able to go to the government repository, and simply download the software, in a matter of minutes, and start using it.

For many years, those who have seen e-governance at close quarters have rued the perversity of government departments reinventing the wheel a thousand times over, by developing their own software, instead of reusing the existing code. Many years ago, RS Sharma, now secretary of the department of electronics and information technology (DeitY), said as much at a panel discussion consisting of state IT secretaries, and chaired by the then DeitY secretary, R Chandrashekhar.

At that time, Sharma had just taken over as the IT secretary of the newly created state of Jharkhand, and had to set up the IT infrastructure for an entire state, with a very small team. Speaking at the conference, Sharma had said that he had written to different state government IT departments, requesting them to share their source code, so that Jharkhand could reuse it, and speed up its IT deployment.

It is good to see that Sharma is leveraging his authority as DeitY secretary now to implement a progressive policy that can save precious time, which is otherwise wasted in reinventing the code, and to speed up IT deployments, make efficient use of the taxpayer’s money and reduce failure rates of IT deployments by replicating code that has been successfully implemented elsewhere.

The power of five

Completing this trinity is a policy called the ‘draft policy on open APIs for government of India’. This policy aims at ensuring that APIs are published by all government organisations for all e-governance applications, enable quick integration with other e-governance systems and make information available to the public. Many e-government systems, even from departments that are closely interlinked, do not talk to each other. For example, a celebrated land-records system from one state government did not interconnect with the revenue department’s software. Open APIs will enable e-governance systems to talk to each other and could potentially save the country thousands of crore by helping plug revenue leakages. For example, if the software from the mines department interacts with software from the octroi department, a check can be kept on how much of mineral resources are actually mined and transported. Today’s e-government is a mish-mash of incompatible systems, but this policy could change all that in the next few years.

Another benefit is that citizens could get faster access to data without having to wait for the government to process, interpret and present the information to them. For example, much of the data from Census 2011 is still not available. Therefore, anyone who wants to find out how many Indians speak each of the official Indian languages, and how that number has changed from the 2001 census, has no option but to wait for the office of the registrar general and census commissioner to declare that data. It is 2015, but we are still waiting! If the open API policy is well implemented, accessing such data would become much faster and easier.

These three policies build upon two other policies that have been approved over the last few years – the open standards policy, which ensures that all e-government data is stored in royalty, free open standards so that they can be easily accessed, now and forever; and the open data policy (National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, 2012, to give you the official name), that enables open access to data.

Together, these five policies – open standards, open data, open source, open code and open API – lay the foundation for a truly modern era of open government. India’s IT policy makers deserve kudos for drafting such progressive policies. However, as with any policy in India, the real challenge is in implementation. Therefore, one hopes that these excellent policies will be followed by with vigorous implementation, so that e-government is revolutionised and made more efficient and citizen-centric.

Hariharan is director of Alchemy Business Solutions LLP, and consults with open source organisations.

(The article appears in the April 16-30, 2015, issue)

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