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.
|Larger themes||Subthemes||Specific problems||Possible solutions|
|Access||Hierarchical Structures||Infrastructural Irregularities||- 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|
|Access||Hierarchical Structures||Digital Divide||- 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.|
|Access||Funding Opportunities||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.|
|Opportunity||Funding||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.|
|Opportunity||Policy Ecosystem||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.|
|Empowerment||Hierarchical||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.|
|Empowerment||Funding||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: Large-scale digital public infrastructure
From the other two sections we see two large forks in the road of the tech ecosystem in India, with VC funded startups whose focus is on growth and profits and semi-digitized entities that work with final stakeholders to create tech enabled solutions. However, according to our participants funding alone does not guarantee success and the absorption of a larger stake in the ecosystem.
Respondents argue that larger players often grow beyond VC funding and can access more powerful roles through their networks. Thus social capital and internal networks play a huge role in the success of an organisation and the products such an organisation creates for its consumers. Providing them opportunities to create larger tech enabled services that affect a wider variety of stakeholders. This in turn has often led to the absorption of such technology for government projects which is then centralised leading to the problems highlighted in the sections above.
The creators of large scale public digital infrastructure such as India Stack and other platforms have a unique role to play in India. For this study, with the review of experts of the domain, we defined Large Scale Digital Public Infrastructure as any combination of software platforms and products that intends to provide services to the general Indian populace. However, it is distinct from the “walled garden” approach of private BigTech driven ecosystems, as it would have open standards defined through a statutory process which may then be adopted by different stakeholders. The main distinction between traditional enterprise ecosystems and such infrastructure is the “public goods” nature of the latter. While enterprise ecosystems have a clear and central profit motive, transparency, accountability and governance are additional drivers of such a model.
|Name||What is it for||Country||Agency|
|Aadhaar||Biometric based unique identity||India||UIDAI|
|UPI||National scale payments framework||India||NPCI|
|NDHE||National digital health ecosystem||India||NHA|
|Ag NODE||NODE for Agriculture||India||MoAFW|
|Ed NODE||NODE for Education||India||MoE|
Table taken from unpublished document in circulation
If implemented in the manner promoted by the government, other entities can provide large-scale solutions to the problems faced by different communities. Yet even in it’s ideation, the goal for a centralised tech enabled solution continues to be the focus of such infrastructure.
Thus from previous stakeholder responses we first argue that a centralised solution or a centralised framework often implies two relatively large issues for the final stakeholder. First it often requires the final stakeholder to impart large amounts of personal information for these tools. Secondly, with the focus on a large scale digital solution such infrastructures again create products that fail to identify various contextual nuances of different stakeholders and produce tools that often enable only certain centralised solutions. In doing so we observe from our previous interactions that this continues to enhance further digital divide with our final stakeholders.
An important aspect to take into account is the use of the term open by the team creating India Stack. As per the definitions under the Open Source Software movement an integral part of the definition of open requires larger frameworks in place for access. Yet India Stack despite having used the term in it’s promotional material, often does not enable access according to our respondents. As one participant highlighted,
I think that conceptually, who got to participate in Indiastack is a big problem. And the modes of and the norms of that project are also important. But the idea that you had something like UPI pushed by India Stack which became the motivation for Aadhar…the interoperable protocol in and of itself is fine. The problem is that in the garb of openness, the governance structures are completely missing. So I don’t really think of …Yeah, I don’t really think of India stack as an open source project.
Other respondents in the study also felt that the access of smaller entities using such platforms were often quite unlikely, which again led to the issue of calling such platforms as open source enabling infrastructures. It led to further discussion of who gets the access and who gets the seat at the table. As our participants highlighted further, the networks that enabled the creation of the infrastructure also seemed to act as a barrier for smaller entities to use the platform and promote their work without such networks.
These networks would often create almost adversarial market structures for up and coming enterprises who required adequate payments over larger entities with already established market strengths. A participant working in the education sector highlights that the same players often get the larger contracts available due to their ability to negotiate further, they explained,
So I think that when we showed [Product K] to CBSE, they were really interested in it. But the next thing we knew is this other organisation came in with their free offering. And so there is no question of us getting any kind of buy on this. And I think that’s the kind of thing that I was saying that if there was a new person coming in, I would sort of strongly recommend that they actually don’t, they don’t bother to build something of their own. Because it’s not worth it… And so it’s very peculiar, it’s like building a lovely, like college or something where you are not going to get students because the government is mandating that they all go to somebody else.
What the comment highlighted was that there were two large obstacles that often dissuade organisations from participating and creating their own technology products and solutions, the first being funding. A larger organisation has the ability to argue for lesser remuneration for their work due to the existence of existing funding and the second that such organisations also appear to have the inside advantage of networks and contacts that create opportunities for monopolisation of markets.
This is further bolstered by the promotion of large scale problem solving requirements of the projects available in the market. This provides further disadvantages for the smaller digitised enterprises as their strengths (which were highlighted in the previous examples) was the creation of nuanced tech enabled solutions for final stakeholders in different sectors.
This is further highlighted with the manner in which final stakeholders were situated in the creation of tech enabled solutions in the country. As highlighted in the previous sections an important aspect of providing a tech enabled solution or product by enterprises was by availing the adequate data for problem identification. However, many participants also highlighted that the final stakeholders themselves were often not included in the creation of such solutions. A participant working in the design and technology space highlighted the lack of large scale checks in place for the creation of tech enabled solutions under the platform model,
And the more digitization and enumeration was kind of clinging to the back end to citizen participation. It felt like that exploitation had no leash and every time we spoke about leash as a concept, they would basically say that it would be internally managed. So in that discussion, like where it became very clear was that they were fairly closed off to having a third party watchdog that would kind of arbitrate between technology abstractions and physical world implementation. So that is a project that kind of still continues because they are, like, kind of everywhere in bits and pieces.
Similarly, other participants highlighted that in addition to having no checks and balances in place with the collection of final stakeholder data, solutions regarding the use of such data weren’t openly discussed with such stakeholders. A participant working with farmers in the country explained,
We were also discussing another whole idea pay consultation paper, which is pushed by the government and land would be totally, all the land would be surveyed by drones and, based on that and other some field follow ups, land rights would be given. Right, based on that, you know, farmers’ data would be shared with various corporations and you know, of course, it doesn’t say directly but that is how it is. Based on that they will track what these farmers are growing, based on that market model will grow and all this insight. That is how the current government is looking at it. The reality is farmer is not at the centre
This example highlights what other participants spoke of, with regards to how the tech ecosystem under the guise of government projects for large scale infrastructure often alienates the final stakeholder from the design process, while simultaneously collecting their data for the benefit of larger corporations in the country.