While narratives around information technology and the internet often focus on its global, universal application and impact, local concerns and structural inequalities render these solutions less than ideal. The Mozilla Open Innovation project aims to place contextual understandings and lived experiences at the crux of any discussion regarding the status of the Open Source Software and the Free Software movement in the country. A deep-dive qualitative research project, Open Innovation spoke to organizations, practitioners and stakeholders in India on their needs, understanding, and use of free and open source software tools and technologies. Supported by the Mozilla Foundation, and designed and executed by Hasgeek Research team.
The Open Innovation project aims to place contextual understandings and lived experiences at the crux of any discussion regarding the status of the Open Source Software and the Free Software movement in the country. For this, we defined open innovation as the creation of technology enabled tools and products contextually relevant to the users of a geographic area that follows principles of the Open Source Software and Free Software movements.
We held roundtable discussions and interviews with 25 participants from four different sectors, representing digitized enterprises, tech adjacent or semi-digitized enterprises and non digitised stakeholders.
We viewed Open Innovation as a stepping stone towards adoption of Open Source and Free Software beliefs and principles. We argue that for many participants in the Global South following certain principles such as the use of legislative frameworks such as Creative Commons and the ability for different users to update the tools, can be seen as important steps that can eventually lead to better knowledge sharing practices in the country. For this definition we looked at four variables: geographical locations, funding, institutional support and role of players. From these angles we found consistent trends in the Indian tech ecosystem. Which we further divided by the principles of Access, opportunity and empowerment.
Almost all respondents to our study felt that tech innovation in the country was limited to urban centres and certain regions. We observed that ‘region’ (largely non-urban regions across different states in the country) were overlooked while ideating technology solutions. Most technology platforms and services were created assuming a one-solution-fit-all approach to solving problems. As participants highlighted, nuance is lost in the process. Often tech enabled solutions that worked with a set of people – used to technology – in a certain region, did not work for individuals even in the next district. And since these tech-aware centres were considered the first movers of the ecosystem, we observed a ‘blind’ tradition of creating products that mimicked or aped the existing services.
This was corroborated by participants who felt that technology enabled solutions often took no account to ground realities of rural spaces and infrastructure requirements of these tools. Thus resulting in a duplication of efforts for users. Large scale technology enabled solutions in the country – created for urban areas from tech hub regions – but were advertised as universal solutions for all groups across the country were consistently found lacking in providing context specific solutions. It also reduced opportunities for the creation of new technologies as many organisations were created to mimic or aid already successful tech enterprises.
As noted already, many in the tech ecosystem mimicked existing products rather than attempt to innovate new products for consumers within the country. This also reflected on funding opportunities for entrepreneurs in the country. A pattern of funding, focussed on profit making and market monopoly, was observed by respondents. Organisations that were focussed on context specific solutions and had begun creating tech enabled solutions for these specific groups were at a disadvantage in gaining substantial funding.
On the other hand, due to the nature of private funding in the country, organisations were incentivized to produce technology enabled tools and solutions that were considered universally applicable. However, from our learnings we have observed that such universal systems often fail. Thus many semi digitized enterprises used their on ground learning to create products that are more flexible and can provide context specific solutions to heterogeneous populations. In fact many respondents actually created tools in place that could be updated to fit different clients needs from administrative softwares to research tracking. Yet, many of these organisations felt that they weren’t supported enough to create awareness about their products, or adoption by more people.
In addition to the other two points, respondents said that policy driven incentivisation was acutely missing in the sector. This prevented more organisations from focusing on contextually driven technology solutions and promotion of open source software products in the market. Many for-profit tech organisations felt that due to the competitive nature of the ecosystem and VC funding there were limitations on how much individuals could be incentivised to create tools for open distribution and absorption by other organisations and individuals.
Similarly, though a few respondents had benefited from government policies in place through partnering with local governments or institutions, many felt that entry to larger projects were often barred for smaller players in the market. Some respondents connected this to funding constraints, as smaller organisations depended on projects for remuneration while larger organisations may be able to offset the cost through other sources of funding. Thus creating more opportunities for larger organisations to build larger networks increasing their hold in the market. There needs to be better policy and systems in place that allows for smaller players and upcoming players to actively participate in projects and see opportunities for the promotion of their work.
Based on the above findings and the possible solutions suggested by our respondents, we have compiled the problems and proposed solutions in a tabular format for practitioners to review and respond. Using the definitions of access, opportunity and empowerment we have collated possible courses of action for government and private entities, to ensure better promotion of OSS and FS creation in the country.
|- Government Intervention: To invest further in telecommunication and electricity infrastructure in rural, semi rural and peri-urban areas in the country for easier absorption of technology solutions - Private Intervention: Organisations must be incentivised (either through schemes or funding requirements) to ensure that the tool can be used with a wide variety of infrastructures in place
|- Government Intervention: There must be a policy incentivising further promotion of locally created technological tools that enable interaction based on the large heterogeneous population in the country. - Private Intervention: Product creation must take into account culturally relevant iconography as well as different languages and literacy levels while creating a product or tool for the Indian market.
|Monopolistic Market Structures
|- Government Intervention: There must be more programs and schemes focussed on the incubation of smaller firms in the same field. Similarly, there also needs to be more projects geared towards the financial capabilities of smaller firms to enable them to start building networks to help them in the longer run. - Private Intervention: Larger players in the markets must be incentivised (through legislation or policy) to create strategic partnerships with smaller players that can create more contextually relevant products. Thus ensuring that smaller players can avail network connections and projects.
|Obstacles for Smaller Players
|- Government Intervention: While creating pilot programs for the testing of new technological tool or attempting a fact finding mission of ground realities of a sector, the government must ensure that final stakeholder and smaller players in the market have reservations within the programs for them to test out the feasibility of a tech enabled solution.
|Enhances Digital Divide
|- Government Intervention: Create incentive mechanisms that promote organisations to release certain software or tools to the public. Either through tax reductions or through creating OSS as CSR funded projects. - Private Intervention: With government enabled benefits or schemes organisations can dedicate a wing to the OSS development and distribution across the country.
|Alienates Final Stakeholder
|- Government Intervention: There must be a policy in place that ensures that final stakeholders must play a central role in technology tools promoted by the government, with direct representation and representative groups playing an integral part in the process. - Private Intervention: Final Stakeholders should be clearly highlighted while creating any type of technological solutions, taking into account the variations of such a group in a country like India. Thus a Anganwadi worker’s needs in Rajasthan will vary from a worker’s needs in Tamil Nadu, thus there needs to be tools to create further decentralised and updating of technology from the final stakeholder’s perspective. Final stakeholders must also play a larger role in the design process of any tools to be able to effectively absorbed into their work.
|Monopolistic Market Structures
|- Government Intervention: There must be government schemes that promotes smaller tech firms to avail government projects taking into account their capacity. Maybe more funds towards local government authorities to invest in local tech innovation in the country. There must also be incentives for philanthropic organisations to invest in smaller technology firms that specialise in industry.
Individual chapters and sections of the report are presented as submissions. Scroll down to read them.
Bhavani S is a Research Associate at Hasgeek. She has previously worked for the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies (CBPS), Microsoft Research India, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
We would like to thank the following individuals who provided feedback during different stages of the research. Their feedback helped fine-tune and bring rigour to the research process.
Srikanth Lakshman: is a public interest technologist who researches on digital platforms and data economy ecosystems, with a specific focus on fintech.
Hackergram, a network of individuals and groups working towards sustainable civic spaces.
Findings: Digital divide
Clarity is required, when looking at the role of open innovation in the tech ecosystem in India, on how the ecosystem affects different stakeholders in different contexts and what innovation means in such situations. As highlighted in our sampling and methodology section we viewed three large demographics: undigitized, semi-digitized and completely digitised stakeholders in the tech sector in India.
Based on our discussions with our participants, we observed that there were large scale issues that affected access to technology and created further digital divide among the population in India. Looking at the experiences highlighted by the respondents we believed that there exists certain hierarchical preferences in the creation of technology enabled solutions, especially those that are aimed at centralising and smoothening the access to services in different sectors. Thus affecting innovation in the sector as it exists today.
From the discussions and interviews we observed that there were three main axes upon which the technology enabled solutions often created hierarchical difficulties for stakeholders in the country. Namely region, rural and urban variations and cultural structures often promoted a hierarchical stance when creating technology enabled services and the creation of large scale public digital infrastructure.
We observed that region (specifically regions across different states in the country) often were overlooked while looking at technology solutions. Most technology platforms and services were catered assuming a universal approach to solving problems. However as participants highlighted much nuance is lost by the creation of such solutions. A participant working with community health systems and technology highlighted that even in districts within the same states there is much variation to how health resources are used and thus there needed to be further understanding and approach to tackling such nuance in the creation of technology enabled services. As they spoke about health tech services being used in the country, they said,
...But what these platforms do, is they, they are into the business of centralization, because that’s how they make their money. Yeah, so and that collapses, a lot of, sort of these very specific boundaries that are set up for appreciating the local regional issues. So, that creates a lot of problems. So I’m not even talking about privacy, I’m talking mostly in terms of efficiency of services, right. Now somebody sitting somewhere else in Gurgaon or somewhere else, which is cheaper, will now be interacting with a patient in Patna and look at the cultural barriers, then how will you? So those are the issues with such platforms.
What is interesting about the comment is it highlights the limitations of tech enabled solutions within the country but also further argues for the need for previous analog solutions to be integrated into the solution creation of any of the technology enabled solutions proposed by the entrepreneurs in the field.
Thus local innovation in its current variation in India, focussed on certain regions which already had infrastructures and human resources in place. Often focussing on centres considered as tech centres such as Bangalore, Secunderabad and Chennai. We see that these centres were often relegated to the southern parts of the country, though this does not mean that northern parts of the country did not have tech centres of their own; merely it articulates that a predominant amount of technology firms were situated in the South of India.
In doing so tech enabled solutions often worked with a populace used to certain region based solutions that needn’t be amenable to even individuals in the next district. And since these centres were considered the first movers of the ecosystem what was observed was the blind tradition of creating products that mimicked or aped the existing services. As one participant who works within the fintech space pointed out,
So the success of a [Company A] in terms of fundraising or capital means that there are many more startups who are in that space. And that there are many more people funding in that space. Right? So yeah, so you see that I think it seems to be correlated to the large guys getting funded. Those same spaces end up with tonnes of small companies starting up or in adjacent spaces getting, again, a lot of funding from smaller investors. So I don’t necessarily know if there’s a sectoral trend, I would follow, but it does seem to follow, you know, big capital moves are echoed in that space.
Thus we see that not only are tech enabled solutions affected by initial successes often located in tech hubs, but also that the trajectory of these successes are further incentivised by the funding mechanisms currently in place for private participants. This is observed irrespective of sectoral variations or the final users in place. Hence creating a continuous cycle for tech solutions to follow first movers in providing tech enabled solutions or services without looking at regional cultural requirements.
Similarly, we observed that beyond regional differences we found that rural and urban demographics were not taken into account during the creation of technology enabled solutions. Such comments were observed with other participants who saw firsthand the variations in the access to resources and the technology solutions in rural spaces. As a participant working on edtech programs centred in rural areas pointed out,
I’d like to add one thing that we are working in remote parts of the country, one of the things that we’ve seen is, no matter what technology you’re using, often you don’t have, like [Participant B] just said, there are a lot of connectivity issues. And we’ve also seen that you know, there is a general idea that if you introduce certain tools the work of the people in that area, becomes easier however, this often results in resource dumping. The problem with this is that while there may be organisations or rural entrepreneurs who have access to it, there is often lack of knowledge with how to use these and difficulty in training the community on how to use this. > - Participant_3_Education
This was further corroborated by respondents from undigitised groups based in rural areas. ASHA workers articulated that most times while conducting their work, which involved inputting data to an app or using an app to collect health information on the ground (such as e-sanjeevani), the tech enabled solutions didn’t take into account the public infrastructure required for the products to function. As one such worker explained,
Since we are in a tribal area it is very hard to go from our villages to the tribal area, then its hard to motivate them. Then they don’t learn anything easily. You asked us if we need phones, yes we do need phones but if it rains then we don’t even have electricity for 3-4 days sometimes a week also. Yes we need apps, but if you ask us what we need we need 24/7 current.
Oftentimes the apps required workers to collect data through notebooks or other analogous systems before having to repeat their tasks again once they were able to avail digital infrastructure. This not only led to duplication of data work but also physical fatigue with workers required to walk across districts to collect the data and being forced to walk back. Thus in such instances due to the lack of understanding of on ground realities tech enabled solutions required the workers to do more work. The training for such programs were also done via zoom or other remote facilities and only or two individuals were able to avail such training. Hence, even public digital infrastructure required further work to enable better tools for workers on the ground.
Additionally it is important to understand the cultural context through which engineers are viewed in India today, the very individuals making the tech enabled solutions for the larger populace. Historically, India had made large investments towards the funding of educational institutions for engineering post Independence which have only solidified a specific identity observed by society in India today, engineers were often seen as a representation of middle class dreams (Mimrot, 2021, The Bloomberg Quint). Thus such an identity often created a perception culturally of an individual placed on a pedestal in Indian society.
Yet, the sector is predominantly male (Ramesh, 2021, Tech Circle), and preference is given to individuals from certain institutions over others (Bhattacharya, 2018, Scroll.in). With the rise of the tech sector in India, we observe that even when Indians are working abroad in the sector they continue to perpetuate cultural hierarchy structures indigeneous to India such as caste into the workplace (Rai, 2021, Bloomberg.com). Thus despite the overall growth and recognition of Indians in the tech sector, we must take into consideration that in it’s spiritual essence the tech sector often continues to propagate social and cultural hierarchy structures, thus leading to questions of how this affects local innovation in India today. When talking to a participant who worked with female nano-entrepreneurs we observed exactly how technology affects marginalised groups on the ground, they said,
So one of the findings of last year was that almost all businesses were moving digital. Now, this audience that we work with was actually being left out of this entire movement…So even right now, the smartphone penetration rate is, while it’s high, at least one family has a smartphone. It’s often shared in the family. So how can we make it work? Then, children are often using their mother’s phones to you know, to attend classes, how can we enable them to do whatever bare minimum they can while keeping this in mind?
From this, we can see that especially with the pandemic the role of technology enabled services had grown in the country, affecting even the smallest of businesses. Yet, despite this large benefit, technology services do not look at the cultural positioning of users. From this quote we see that even the basic smartphone is not easily accessible to such entrepreneurs and it affects female entrepreneurs in different ways than others.
Additionally the participant spoke of how training had to be done to further enable such entrepreneurs towards using tools like WhatsApp, with older participants post 30 years of age struggling with tools. When discussing the difficulties of digital literacy on the population in India one respondent who worked in the space of technology for awareness and public good highlighted that there needs to be further investments made towards understanding what type of digital literacy is essential and important for individuals in the country, they said,
I think we do need, like evidence to understand which of these works in India, clearly, like digital literacy is helpful, clearly, knowing that everything on your whatsapp pages or your WhatsApp is not coming from the publisher, that there is no editorial control. All of that is helpful. But yeah, like beyond that, is it that people are not parsing the information well? Or is it that they need to understand the business logic of media? I actually don’t know, specifically in India, which of those are important?
Thus since there currently does not exist a clear evidence based literature on the role digital literacy plays on different individuals in the country, the creation of technology enabled services also fails to understand broader nuance at play while developing tools. The open source software and the free software movement has the potential to change that by ensuring a larger number of participants take place in the creation and maintenance of technology. Enabling different participants to create specific solution oriented tools for specific populations through the larger sharing of such softwares and tools through licensing frameworks such as the creative commons.
However, as mentioned in the above passages, funding also plays a huge role in what types of services and tools are being created in the market today. Thus affecting which type of stakeholders the solutions and services focus on. As one respondent working in a HealthTech startup explained,
I think if there is an industry wide movement, and they say that, okay, here are some opportunities and here are some requirements, then, once that is solved, and we say, “Oh, you know, people need this, then probably will be far more open to okay, you know, this bit is not really our core IP.” So, you know, I don’t mind open sourcing this, if someone can use this. I think that is just a DNA of an organisation.
Another participant working in the same sector stated that despite many developers in the country preferring to use open source softwares for personal projects, due to the for profit model most startups focus on growth over distribution,
Usage wise, I think there is a wide, a lot of people using it these days, people prefer open source. And one reason might be, everything is transparent, and it doesn’t cost. And so the privacy or anything, anything is it’s you can easily see. So that one part, whereas building open source it as [Participant C] was mentioning, you know, companies are running behind, you know, the growth and the profit, right? So they usually don’t think of, or spend time on these things unless you reach some stage become a unicorn or something, because you need to return on whatever the VC has funded.
Thus we see that despite possible opportunities for open source software to enable further creation of tools that can reduce the hierarchy structures currently governing innovation within the tech industry today, due to the nature of funding and the nature of the sector itself there exists lesser opportunities for such a system to be in place.