Open Source Mobile Tools 4 Development - Why They Are Important

I am a member of the Working Group of the Open Mobile Consortium, a now publicly launching collaboration among organizations around the world focused on developing open source mobile solutions for social impact and change.

There have been many myths surrounding open source software and little conversation in this field why open source software is important and successful, especially in the context of developing countries and in the field of mobiles for development. I'd like to debunk some of these myths and clarify why the Open Mobile Consortium is focused on open source mobile solutions that build on, and talk to one another. I also invite comments for anything that I have missed or differing point of views.

Firstly, No Dogma

First of all and for the record:  I am not a rabid open source or free software propagandist.  Far from it.  I welcome and like some of the commercial proprietary mobile solutions in this field, built by enterprising companies in South Africa, India, and other places. Mobile Researcher, a hosted mobile data collection solution, is one of those tools, for example. Tools like these enrich this ecosystem of applications and solutions available that those interested in social development and social change can choose from.

However, for those applications funded by donors and developed or propagated by NGOs relying on some form of public support, I see both practical and ethical reasons to open source the code.

Commercial Versus Nonprofit/Non-Governmental Projects

A thriving ecosystem of applications in the mobile-for-development field does not mean that there can not be commercial enterprises.  Open source does not equal nonprofit project, nor does proprietary software equal commercial.  There are plenty of successful open source, money-making, commercial enterprises and there is no reason to not have lots of varied organizations and companies in this field either.  Simply put, business models differ for companies producing open source solutions. Take Trixbox, for example, a voice-over-IP solution that I have been exploring recently as an inexpensive voice/SMS solution for information services, for example.  Trixbox is a line of Asterisk-based IP-PBX products ranging from the open source 'community edition' to a hybrid, hosted, enterprise solution. Using open source applications, this company has built a following for those who want readily-configured VOIP boxes but the flexibility to fully configure the code to their needs. 

What is Open Source?

Open source software technically simply describes computer software for which the source code and certain other rights, normally reserved for copyright holders are provided under a software license that meets the Open Source Definition, or that is in the public domain. This permits users to use, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified forms. Open source software is very often developed in a public, collaborative

Open Source in the Mobile 4 Development Field

As the world has become mobile with more than 4 billion phones in circulation in every country in the world and explosive growth in Africa and Southeast Asia, many NGOs are exploring how mobile phones can advance health and social development, particularly
in developing countries. As a result, there has been a proliferation of mobile software applications for data collection, patient management, data mapping, emergency communications, human rights monitoring, and many other areas in which civil society organizations work. Many of these, of course, are profiled here at where we track this emerging field closely.


As we are seeing this proliferation of applications, there are many instances where relevant tools for an organization do not talk to one another -- a mobile application may not talk to another back-end tool needed to parse the data efficiently, or two applications that have
complementary functionality are not able to interoperate. With closed solutions, those where the source code is held by one company or organizations, there is often not an easy way to combine complimentary applications to derive maximum benefit for an organization. With an open source application, users can tailor the products as necessary to meet their needs in ways not possible without source code. Those that wish and have the capacity can tailor the product themselves, or hire whoever they think can solve the problem
(including the original developer).

Leveraging Donor Contributions

As more and more applications get developed in this 'mobile for change' field, inevitably there are redundancies and inefficiencies. This should particularly concern donors who fund
the development of mobile applications. There are now at least ten mobile data collection tools built by NGOs available, all with similar functionality. While we think that variety of offerings is great for organizations, there is a point where this is simply not good use of
donor and development resources.

Inversely, open source tools allows organizations to leverage developer resources outside of the organization, stretching donor contributions farther. For example, in the mobile space, there is often a need for comprehensive handset libraries that allow tools to run on the hundreds of different handsets and on different operating systems. Open source applications can, for example, leverage shared phone libraries that no one organization has to painstakingly and expensively build.

JavaRosa, By Way Of Example

To illustrate this, let's take a look at JavaRosa.  JavaROSA has emerged as a prominent open source software for data collection on a wide range of Java-enabled phones. It is under ongoing development by members of the OpenROSA consortium, a group of organizations working together to foster open source, standards-based tools for mobile data collection, aggregation, analysis, and reporting.  No other open source mobile data collection software has attracted such an active, broad community of software developers.  JavaROSA has active developers in Bangladesh, Kenya, India, Norway, Pakistan, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and the United States. 

JavaROSA has greatly reduced the duplication of effort among groups developing solutions for phone-based data collection. For example, EpiSurveyor and EpiHandy, the two largest open source applications for mobile data collection in low-income countries, are both focusing on JavaROSA as their mobile phone platform. JavaROSA is one of few open source health applications in use in sub-Saharan Africa that has substantial code contributions from multiple institutions. JavaROSA was launched with funding from the Canadian International Development Research Center (IDRC) and has received direct core funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the World Health Organization, and EpiHandy.

But We Just Want To Have the Tools

The availability of open source software readily available without any licensing costs is, of course, also critical for the many more organizations that do not have resources to build or modify tools but simply want to be able to use ready-to-implement applications.

This is an argument that has often been brought forth -- organization, especially small ones -- really do not need the code, they just want to use the tools that should be easily deployable, and ready to use.  

While this is entirely true and should encourage any developer to make products as easy to use as possible so that any organization and especially small ones without much IT capacity can use them, it is certainly not an argument against open sourcing the code.  In fact, it conflates two issues that have nothing to do with one another.  

Should any organization at a future point need to adapt any of the mobile tools to specific circumstances with custom modifications, this process is much easier with an application for which the source code is available.

Local Innovation Communities

Open source software encourages, not quashes, innovation. It has been said that "the open development model opens up the ability to contribute to innovation on a global basis. It recognizes that the distribution of natural intelligence does not correspond to the monopolization of innovation by the richest firms or richest countries [or organizations]. In fact, there are a number of organizations that are building active local developer communities with talented developers in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya, to name just a few.

In fact, I was told this: Proprietary models are anathema to capacity building in developing environment. Local pro-business ecosystems will emerge with open source solutions--something that many development organizations should be delighted about. In fact, the Rwandan government will in fact soon provides incentives to people to do build on OpenMRS, a medical records management system that OpenRosa and JavaRosa build on, in turn.

This point is an important one especially for small organizations without in-house IT staff in developing countries -- the many organizations that work at a grassroots level.  Precisely because they do not have IT capacity in house, they should be easily and inexpensively able to hire local talent in their communities and countries to build on, enhance, or customize the functionality and code of mobile solutions if they so desire.  This not only make sense from a development perspective, it makes sense practically and can build precisely the technical capacity of small organizations.

User Support

One argument often brought forth against open source software is that it is not supported. I am not sure where this argument is coming from but the evidence is simply not there.  Take JavaRosa again, by way of example. JavaRosa has a vibrant community of users and developers who help each other in a peer network, online and at regular meetings. Especially for small organizations this is a much better way to get support that does not rely on support staff that can be a bottleneck to real help. This is why other organizations, such as FrontlineSMS, for example, have begun user support networks for its users to help each other. 

If you add developers to that mix who can then build on mobile solutions to configure and customize software for local needs, you get an ecosystem of support that is good news for NGOs large and small.  And of course, if a company or organization that built a tool ceases to exist for whatever reasons, the mobile application does not go away. Open source code is in the public domain - in escrow, if you will - that allows continued development and use even if the parent organization is no longer.


Lastly, some have argued that open source software does not comply with standards. Again, this is an argument which has no basis in reality whatsoever. JavaRosa, for example, is developing open source solutions conforming to standards that are based on the W3C XForms specification. As a result, many projects can interoperate their components with JavaROSA. 

This is not to say there are not problems with open source software and issues that need to improve. Often documentation is poor, and there are indeed some projects where user support practices are not as they should be. Usability of open source tools can be lacking. 

But none of these issues are inherent to open source code and practices, nor an argument against open source solutions.  It is incumbent upon all of us in this field, as open source mobile tools get build, to make all solutions as easy to use as possible for people and organizations without deep technical knowledge and to document applications well. It also behooves those developing mobile applications to think about user support and processes for building supportive user communities.  

Your View

I welcome your views and reflections on this as we publicly launch the Open Mobile Consortium aims precisely at streamlining, making interoperable, and improving in a collaborative fashion such promising solutions as Mesh4x, GeoChat, Ushahidi, CommCare, JavaRosa, Mobilisr, RapidSMS and RapidAndroid, all aimed at providing critical open source mobile solutions for social development and social impact. 

A means to an end or an end in itself?

This whole debate been interesting to me, as has moved ahead with its open source EpiSurveyor project for Windows and Palm, and now with the JavaROSA client and our web application. The discussions I've had with people have often turned to the example of Android and iPhone (open and "closed", respectively).

I've got nothing against the potential of Android -- hey, the more competition the better -- but am at the same time in awe of what Apple has done with the iPhone. In fact, it seems that Apple's managed to do what open source has always said it wants to do: produce an incredible array of affordable applications from an amazing and growing group of developers while lowering the bar to contribution AND actually providing an economic model of sustainability.

So far, Android has not managed to do that to nearly the same extent, and I'm not convinced it ever will.

Yet I know a lot of open source developers who are mildly hostile to the iPhone model despite the advantages I've mentioned above. To me, they're forgetting that the point is to encourage sustainable innovation from as broad a group as possible, with as few barriers as possible. IF an open source model does that, that's great, but if a non-open-source model does it that's great, too.

Very importantly, this anti-iPhone bias doesn't seem to exist among the USERS, many or most of whom (including me) are very, very happy with the device. And to me when the users are extremely happy but the CODERS don't like the model then it's the coders who need to change, not the users.

Open Platform vs Open Source

There are some great points in this article Katrin. I think it is important that people understand why there is a push towards open source software in development circles. There is a lot of unjustified and dogmatic (to use borrow your phrase) opposition to commercial, ‘closed source’ models. In many cases it is more efficient and more affordable to simply pay for a commercial solution that works.

Although not contrary to any of your points, I think it should be noted that software can be open for interoperability and customization without being open source. With Mobile Researcher clients who have specialized requirements, developers can leverage the Mobile Researcher API to receive field data in real time as well as to dynamically update survey questions on fieldworker devices. This ‘platform approach’ makes the service extremely flexible without requiring external developers to understand and get into the details of the actual code.

In the long term, the benefits of using tried and tested, free, open source solutions are clear. There are however a lot of cases where the risks and costs of open source solutions make them less suitable than the alternatives. Andi and I have been discussing putting our points down in a blog article - We’ll keep you updated.

Hello Katrin, Okay, I'll

Hello Katrin,

Okay, I'll bite and make my questions public... But first, a big congratulations to all on the launch of the Open Mobile Consortium!

For those who don't know me, I edit a small news aggregator,, that focuses on health issues (defined very broadly - microbiology to planet health), humanitarian work and technology. I am not a programmer, so although I have deep interest, I do not have nearly the level of expertise all of you do.

Katrin - you covered quite a bit of ground here, making some very techie concepts accessible. Bless you. Now here goes:

1) Can you talk about security issues and open source - How might it be more vulnerable / less? This is particularly critical issue given the sensitive nature of the kinds of information often gathered (health records, for example). A "postcard" article in the New Yorker makes a passing reference to economic disincentives for disease reporting: The implications of sharing / protecting information can be pretty far-reaching.

2) Re your point about duplication: "There are now at least ten mobile data collection tools built by NGOs available, all with similar functionality. While we think that variety of offerings is great for organizations, there is a point where this is simply not good use of donor and development resources." Marketers have long noted that faced with too many choices, consumers tend to walk away So, how can not terribly techie NGO staffers figure out what to use? Is there any work being done to come up with simple metrics that can help match user needs to tech options?

3) Which leads me to a parallel question about quality. Does the Consortium see itself developing metrics for quality and/or issuing an imprimatur that can give consumers a level of confidence? It might be done a la Consumer Reports with best, okay and not so good ratings across categories (e.g, documentation, user support groups).

4) This last question doesn't directly relate to your article, but is an issue about which I would be very interested in hearing more discussion: Although Mobile4Dev work is aimed at the greater good, it can also be used for the greater bad. Technology itself is neutral, so this is a risk with any technology (see Taliban and terror radio in the Swat Valley). Is there any way, though, to help ensure open source software does more good than harm?

That's enough for now. Have at it!


Janet (@TrackerNews)

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