Law in the Internet Society

Bazaar Expanding : Encouraging Developer Communities in the Developing World

-- CrystalMao - 1 Nov 2011

While the interconnectivity of our digital economy provides many positive opportunities for the sharing of global expertise, it is also important to recognize and incorporate the role of local, community driven efforts in ushering technological change. This is particularly true as socially conscious developers increasingly tap open source to address developing world needs from afar. Open source (hereafter FLOSS) solutions targeted to developing economies have long been embraced, but many ultimately suffer from lack of a dedicated community of local developers who can support the code long term. See Nah Soo Hoe, Breaking Barriers: The Potential of Free and Open Source Software for Sustainable Human Development, UNDP-ICT4D (2006) (noting the difficulty of building local FLOSS communities as a common theme across projects); See generally FLOSS Survey and Study (2002) 2.7 (finding that nearly 90% of FLOSS developers hail from a handful of western countries / India). This paper explores the unique challenges confronting open source developers in emerging economies, and suggests ways to incentivize developing world production of FLOSS despite these challenges.

A. Financial and ICT Resources

A study of (largely developed world) FLOSS contributors confirmed that open source junkies are, for the most part, not in it for the money, with 70% contributing <10 hours per week and over 65% maintaining full-time employee status at day jobs. Nonetheless, over 50% of contributors received some income from their FLOSS work, and open source companies have the potential to be profitable and sustainable. A “part-time” approach is less feasible in developing economies where many programmers do not have access to computers or the internet outside of school/employment. As mobile devices leapfrog traditional computers to become the dominant computing devices in such societies, FLOSS developers should focus on projects for both the current and the next generation of local mobile platforms (while Symbian is still the dominant OS used in developing countries, Android is positioned for an aggressive push). This helps alleviate the lack of ICT resources that programmers face, and ensures that software products can reach the local community. In regions where the only computing devices programmers have consistent access to are their phones, it would be wise and convenient for these phones to allow for self-programming (perhaps runnng their own SDK and API tools within the operating system). Symbian and Android (let alone iOS) does not allow this without hacks. A second machine should not be necessary for developing world programmers to begin programming the traditional way, by fiddling around. While Symbian, Android, and iOS all provide versatile SDKs for developers once they are on a separate computer, Canonical’s planned Ubuntu mobile OS may be the best bet for fostering a versatile programming environment that requires the least amount of capital investment and confusion.

For experimental programs that are not yet deployed, project founders should also make financial incentives available to at least a core group of local contributors who can then personally recruit and manage the needs of additional local volunteers. Boot-strapped projects may find that their cash goes further in the developing world, and can seek additional funding from programs like Google Summer of Code, project competitions/fellowships, and Kickstarter to support local developers (GSOC summer funding amounts to over 300% of median annual salary in many developing countries). Depending on the target user, local contributors eventually can experiment with selling their code and services.

B. Education

Encouraging student developers from local universities is a powerful way to promote FLOSS development in emerging economies. The average CS education in the developing world tends to be heavy on theory, light on practical experience. FLOSS projects that engage and train students transform education from a barrier into an incentive. Contributing to FLOSS is rewarding hands-on programming education for beginners, and engages advanced students who out-grow the expertise offered by their local institutions. Pieces of FLOSS projects are also effectively pitched as practical-minded masters or Ph.D. theses. Projects looking to partner with universities may find it helpful to have an academic on their own team to serve as a credible liaison. To enhance the mutual value of working with student contributors, pieces of the overall project can be split into manageable pieces for various skill levels. In-country trainings / meet-ups should emphasize developer education as much as user education.

C. Community

FLOSS project leaders should take care to avoid using a cookie cutter approach that ignores cultural, historical, and political nuances affecting FLOSS adoption from country to country. For example, projects operating within countries with a dearth of private enterprise and where government contracts dominate technology deployment require different longterm planning than projects in countries with grassroots economies. Community attitudes towards technology and technology education also have a huge impact on the availibility of local programmers (In India, fairly easy to convince average people to learn programming. In the Congo, not so much).

Despite inevitable culture differences between countries, there are positive, non-culture specific steps that developers can take to encourage FLOSS development. The major way to avoid faux pas in cultural planning is for project leaders to spend extended time on the ground in the countries they are deploying in to familiarize with the local environment. Aligning projects with educational institutions is also a good way to address, or at least identify, cultural obstacles that are unique from country to country. Local academic collaborators tend to be valuable advisors who can shed light on the state of FLOSS development in their communities, including key players and challenges. They can also facilitate legitimacy and community acceptance, characteristics that foreign projects often lack.

Another strategy is to use trajectories from similar “sister” countries as blueprints for the target country. For example, Kenya’s path towards economic and technology development is both praised and critiqued as a standard-bearing example for its East African neighbors (In this vein, Google’s Nairobi office currently serves as a experience-gathering hub for Google’s eventual expansion into surrounding countries).

Projects should also consider supporting the creation of open technology “hubs” where local technologists can gather to use shared computers, internet access, and collaborate with like minds. Beyond providing tangible tech-enabling resources, countries whose citizens have not converted to living on the internet as the norm can use such centers to foster hacker culture in a physical space, and promote innovation from within the community.

II. Final thoughts

While my discussion in this paper is limited to FLOSS communities in the developing world, but there is ample evidence to suggest that similar principles and benefits apply generally to the generation of information tools and collaborative content. Truly democratized innovation requires input from all of its users. The culture of the digital economy should not omit creative participation by those with the most to gain from its success.


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Comment:

First, I think a system that requires "core" information to be given freely but allowing creators to charge for "bells & whistles" could work in theory. But, the problem with implementing a system like this might be defining core vs. not core. With free software, seemingly no money is derived from distributing the product itself - its free. But, my understanding is that, as you noted, a lot of companies charge for perhaps consulting on how to use the software, and how to set up the software. Free software, as you mentioned in class, is not readily usable by people who aren't technologically savvy and thus need others to help them learn. Many companies charge for these services. But shouldn't that service be considered part of the core or not part of the core. Free software is only good if you are able to use it so it is essential for many that they get that service. Thus it could be deemed "core." But, its technically not the software itself but rather what you might consider a premium (something on top of the core software). So, if this system is to work, there needs to be a good way of defining what is core vs. not core. I think you thought about this when you said "at which point do services become or equal content."

Further, if people are only going to make money by charging for bells and whistles, might not this lead to a system in which people derogate from the core and make content part of the non-core (by whatever method) in order to make more money? What in the system will prevent them from doing this?

I think that this system can work - if what's important to us is getting as much information to as many people as possible, for the lowest cost possible, then the core information really is what matters. If people want premium, they can pay for it. But the fact that something is a premium means it is extra, it is on top of the core information we truly care about. So even if we charge for the premium, even its MC=0, i don't think that's an injustice. If people want extra, they can pay for it. Since its extra, there is less demand for it and the price might go down to close to 0 or even 0 in some circumstances. The system you are proposing really relies on the definition of core vs. not core, and how we are to prevent creators from abusing these definitions to maximize profit.

-- AustinKlar -- Oct 19 2011

. I just wanted to chime in to note that if you want to frame your paper around the question of what justice requires, you will probably need to develop an account of what justice is. That will be a fairly serious undertaking. It seems like most of the material you've got here is less about normative questions, and more about the business side of things, the empirical question of "what works" rather than normative question of "what justice requires." Rather than asking if justice will allow or disallow companies monetizing content through advertising, you might want to narrow down to the question of: does an advertising or other premium type thing work as a business model to a) generate profit and b) actually increase access to content. One potential issue there is the question of how much longer content-embedded advertising will exist as a business opportunity. Bitstreams are easy to filter, as the folks at AdBlock? have demonstrated. This is not good for people who want to make money off inserting things people don't want into their bitstreams.

However, the 'accompanying services' model has worked well for many free software companies, eg, RedHat? , Ubuntu, etc. The concept of "accompanying services" can also be extended, as Austin suggests, to include customizations - charging customers for special customizations of material. However, while this applies to software, it is difficult to see how it would apply to books and music.

-- DevinMcDougall - 19 Oct 2011

Austin + Devin, thanks for your thoughtful comments. As you can see I've decided to scrap my initial idea to write about something nearer-and-dearer to my heart and work (Devin, you're right that I'm not really a fan of normative thinking and much prefer empiricism / case study type analysis).

But! I stand behind my original idea . . defining core vs. non-core could come down to a distinction between the information itself vs. things that enhance or detracts from use / enjoyment of that information. Content-holders can generate positive non-core (for software: service contracts, custom code development, for media: enhanced layouts, better HD/bitrates quality for movies/music) or negative non-core (ads) complements to try and extract some kind of revenue stream. Core vs. non-core can also change depending on the type of good, the degree of segmentation preferred, and current market climate. In general I think that segmentation is a good compromise: an ebook on .txt versus one that has been beautifully laid out, with thought to typeface and perfect kerning do have different market values (to typography lovers, at least). As long as the essential ideas are available without restriction, people should be able to profit off of providing enhanced enjoyment. But yeah, there would need to be a good business case (increased user base?) for rights-holders to release basic content in the first place. . . the NYT / Hulu have headed other way, so perhaps that is not a good sign.

-- CrystalMao - 1 Nov 2011

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