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Free and Open Source Software represents a paradigm shift in the way software is built. The development of software is not by strict commercially or government driven hierarchies, but by global communities that structure themselves in meritocracies based on contribution. Such communities are a global melting pot of diverse professions and skills that contribute to the progression of the goals represented by the software. Such projects not only engage developers, but also the users themselves in the direction and improvements of the product. The Free and Open Source Licenses also provides certain freedoms and access to the product that become critical in the quick turnaround times required in humanitarian or disaster response. This makes the software available as an irrevocable global public good available to anyone who wishes to use it.
Humanitarian FOSS (H-FOSS) is simply the application of Free and Open Source Software to be of support in of the Humanitarian Response. In alignment with Humanitarian response aspirations, FOSS offers the following advantages:
- No Discrimination on Access: Once available under a FOSS license, the software effectively become a global public good, available for anyone from around the world to download and use freely. Thus there is no inherent discrimination on the access to this software.
- Transparent and Trustworthy: As the software design and mechanism for building FOSS is transparent it becomes more trustworthy. Additionally with truly global and diverse FOSS communities, the software becomes resistant to any particular political agenda. Particularly in conflict such software can serve as a transparent mediator
- Low Cost and Local Capacity: FOSS helps reduces the digital divide as there is no additional cost for the product itself. However you still need people to maintain the software, and if this service is costly the nation has the freedom to promote local capacity development within the nation and such local capacity development is encouraged by FOSS communities.
- Global Reuse and Shared Inter-Org Development: NGOs and Humanitarian Relief organizations all need software tools to be effective, however not all have the necessary funds to disburse to purchase the tools they need. FOSS can easily provide a vehicle for inter-org development of tools in the Humanitarian domain, where each can contribute a fraction, yet benefit from the whole.
- Adaptability: No nation handles the humanitarian response the same way and there are many variances expected of software including translation for it to be usable in a nation. With FOSS as the blueprints are also available freely, anyone is able to modify the software as required to suit the problem.
Recognition of Humanitarian-FOSS concept
The concept is recognized by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) where such ideals are a specialization of the FSF goals to "help thy neighbour" with software. The FSF has created a new Award for Projects of Social Benefit that was inspired by this concept and the Sahana project. The concept is also accepted by the UNDP IOSN network which as a section deadicated to Humanitarian-FOSS. An article was also published on the Humanitarian-FOSS concept in the Peace IT journal published jointly by the Crisis Management Initiative and ICT4Peace. The H-FOSS project is a grouping of academic institutions in United States that organizes and funds H-FOSS student projects.
Alignment to the Red Cross Code of Conduct
Most organizations and movement in the Humanitarian sector reference and adhere to the Red Cross/Crescent Code of Conduct. The concept of Humanitarian-FOSS is aligned to this code especially in the following areas:
- 1. The Humanitarian imperative comes first Projects like Sahana have this as the primary goal irrespective of the Free and Open Source aspirations.
- 2. Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind. Aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone. There is no restriction on who downloads, modifies and uses Free and Open Source Software.
- 5. We shall respect culture and custom. Free and Open Source communities are most often global communities and thus represents an integration of various cultures. The tools are often deployed by locals in the region of the disaster or crisis.
- 6. We shall attempt to build disaster response on local capacities. Local communities are encouraged to build capacity on the knowledge of FOSS tools. A good example are the LUGs (Linux User Groups). The Humanitarian-ICT community also promotes the concept of HUGs (Humanitarian User Groups), which help to build capacity on the understanding and use of Humanitarian-ICT tools.
Global Community Oriented Development
Free and Open Source Software is by definition transparent as the global public has access to the source code (the blueprints), which is usually published on any of the popular repositories such as Sourceforge. Around this transparent software (especially the most successful ones) there is a usually an open, all inclusive development methodology surrounded by a diverse global community represented by the users, developers, experts, practitioners and academics all providing their leadership, input and contributions to the project. This open global melting pot of skills of people who care about the product is what attracts the best to successful projects and helps deliver world class software. Not all FOSS development models are alike though, but the key principle most obey is that FOSS communities are meritocracies on contribution. More important than what your credentials are, is how much you have contributed to the project that positions you as a leader in the project hierarchy.
As software does not need to be built specifically for the humanitarian domain for it to be useful for this service, there exist multitudes Free and Open Source projects that can be found in repositories like Sourceforge that can be freely accessed and applied by Humanitarian practitioners. There also exist projects targeted specifically for the Humanitarian domain like the Sahana, Ushahidi, InSTEDD, Dynamic COMPAS Humanitarian Project Quality Assurance, Benetech's Martus and HRDAG Human Rights Database Analyser or a compilation of FOSS tools for NGOs in the NGO-in-a-box to name a few. A directory of H-FOSS project is being built by the Humanitarian-ICT community and Trinity College, US.
History of Concept
The Humanitarian-FOSS concepts and community were inspired by the Sahana FOSS Disaster Management System which was a leading example where Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) was used to help alleviate human suffering during the December 2004 Asian Tsunami. The Humanitarian-ICT community was started with an informal Yahoo! group that was open for anyone to join. The original Humanitarian ICT community consists of a global group of emergency management experts, humanitarian consultants, interested members from the NGO community and developers that strive to build applications to address the ICT needs of humanitarian problems. At its peak the members in this community amount to about 250+ people from around the world from countries such as Australia, Sri Lanka, UK, US, Germany, Thailand, Netherlands and New Zealand. The community was founded initial as a mailing list by Paul Currion a humanitarian consultant and Chamindra de Silva, the project lead of Sahana FOSS disaster management system to address the need of critical software (especially FOSS) in support of this domain. The H-FOSS concept has thus spread to many other groups and has also inspired an academic initiative called the Humanitarian FOSS project.