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Global Health and Open Source in Africa—Why Is It Important?

The term open source refers to software source materials or source codes made freely and openly available with permission to be redistributed, customized, repurposed and rebuilt, legally and most often without fees—as opposed to proprietary software where the codes are kept private, must be bought, and usually cannot be significantly modified by the user. Here’s a good definition from the Open Source Initiative

IntraHealth is an avid supporter of open source systems because we have found that they encourage collaboration, transparency and efficiency, while investing money into local capacity-building instead of software licenses.  Open source allows for collaborative creativity as well as localized customization, and adaptation, while promoting independence and local enterprise.  Even better, when significant contributions are made they can be shared openly and easily with others.

According to independent market research, more than half of the world’s largest companies have implemented, are piloting, or are expanding their use of open source computing other studies put the number at 85% with continued growth expected. The Department of Defense uses open source, as does the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education, the US General Service Administration, Google, Yahoo, Firefox, Wikipedia, Canada’s Federal Government and Ticketmaster. Even software is open source.

The UK government recently published an Open Source Action Plan stating:

Open Source has been one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades: it has shown that individuals, working together over the Internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations; it has shown how giant corporations themselves, and Governments, can become more innovative, more agile and more cost-effective by building on the fruits of community work; and from its IT base the Open Source movement has given leadership to new thinking about intellectual property rights and the availability of information for re-use by others.  ( )

When it comes to global health, the open source emphasis on collaboration, local capacity building and system strengthening is helping to create a new kind of 2.0 national health system. With targeted training and support, open source solutions enable African developers to create, customize and grow systems themselves based on the specific needs of local health workers.

 Already across Africa open source technology is being used to collect patient data and medical records, recruit, train, deploy and support health workers, assess and assign resources, track diseases, ship medical supplies and develop and cost national health strategic plans.

 The proliferation of mobile phones ahead of desktop or laptop computers means many countries in Africa are already ahead of much of the rest of the world when it comes to using mobile phones for a wide range of everyday transactions and this has been used to great benefit in global health as demonstrated in the recent mHealth events at the World Bank and National Institute of Health’s mHealth Summit where a number of the latest mobile health systems for providers and patients were presented, many of them open source.

Broadband is moving fast across the continent and connecting more and more countries with faster service (see IntraHealth’s recent video on Faster Broadband and Global Health above). On the most basic level this means African ideas and ingenuity can move faster and be shared more easily.  Take a look at this fantastic graphic map created by TED Fellow and Appfrica founder Jon Gossier called “The Infostate of Africa” to get a sense of the rapid growth in access.

connectivity growth in Africa

Eric Hersman, another TED Fellow and one of the founders of Ushahidi recently featured an analysis on his blog of the International Telecommunications Union’s annual statistics on the state of mobile and internet data around the world titled “Internet & Mobile Stats: Africa Grows Fastest in the World.” It is filled with great data and links for those who are interested.

With increasing connectivity comes increasing local development with African software developers and ICT4D (Information Communication Technology for Development) specialists holding regional bar camps, trainings, workshops and seminars. As local developer communities grow and focus on global health issues, open source systems using web-based interfaces, mobile phones and PDAs can provide far-reaching and innovative tools to support increased efficiency, productivity and performance of health services and information to meet the needs of families and communities across Africa. With open source as a principle, those new innovations can be shared with others and built upon, updated and tailored from country to country with resources going not to western proprietary software corporations but instead into building the local infrastructure and economy and supporting the next generation of African global health leaders.

Find out more about what IntraHealth is doing with open source technology through the OPEN Initiative and read about our open source eHealth projects.