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: Role of smaller players and semi-digitised organisations
Beyond the digital divide and the enablers of such division there exists further stratification in tech based organisations in the country. As highlighted in the previous sections, funding plays a large role in the creation of tech organisations and their products. Often leading to the mushrooming of organisations that propose solutions mimicking or aiding a well funded tech company.
Hence the role of smaller players and semi-digitised organisations that use both technology and other resources to develop tools for final stakeholders are essential to the current ecosystem. Through the work done by these enterprises local innovation shifts from a product oriented mindset to a stakeholder driven mindset. In doing so semi-digitised enterprises provide context specific solutions for their clients. Respondents from such organisations often use other models of funding which are revenue based, though some organisations did have some VC funding but it wasn’t consistently observed in such groups.
Like in the sections above, larger players perpetuate the hierarchy already in place. Like with the ASHA workers experience, other sector stakeholders such as farmers in agriculture are given a lack of context while providing technology solutions. Thus organisations that are tech focussed but exist as relatively smaller players or are semi-digitised are crucial to the development of tech enabled solutions for different communities. A respondent from an agritech company highlighted the requirement of in-depth data collection to produce a relevant technology enabled service to their stakeholders,
Yeah, so, so the, I think the biggest problem is that farmers, especially smallholder farmers, don’t get solutions that are contextually relevant to them. What they get is more of a prescriptive solution. So I am sitting here, I have some understanding that there will be this thing, you should do this thing, right? And how do we create a contextually relevant, you know, solution for them. And for that, what we need is the information about the farmer, which includes about the farm, about the farming activity, about the community, and so on and so forth.
From our responses we noticed that smaller organisations use partnerships, using client focussed and existing eco-systems to produce contextually specific solutions. Some organisations used existing government schemes and local government bodies to hire participants to collect their data or use their technology services respectively. In doing so problems of digital divide were reduced for the final stakeholder.
Along with this we observed that fieldwork and client interaction was also an important tool for the building of technology solutions for different enterprises, often with different sources of funding rather than solely VC funded enterprises. As one participant working in the CiviTech space focussing on the rural parts of India explained,
So one of our projects managers visits the field location to gather the details of different operations. Based on that we understood their expectation, what do they want to digitise, what are the problem statements they’re having. And then we prepared a proposal with the approach note and the solution, which we submitted to them with costing, which ended up in negotiation. And after that, once it was approved, we were on boarded as a tech partner for them, then a project manager was assigned to the project. He or she came from a background where they could understand the field scenarios, and articulated into a tech specification for the software team. And then they took around two weeks time to articulate those things after field visits.
Thus through continuous engagements with the client, fieldwork with the final stakeholders and the on ground realities of collecting such data the organisation was able to create a context specific technology enabled solution. In doing so, we see that larger organisations (not necessarily digitised) were also able to outsource specific tasks to smaller players for a more nuanced tech enabled solution.
Other organisations use their own experiences to create technology products and services to provide contextually sound solutions. Some respondents after years of working in the field were unable to find technology solutions for their specific needs and thus took matters into their own hands. In one such instance an organisation was unhappy with the available tools for the creation of workflow mapping for their organisation. Hence, they built their own proprietary tool which they now distribute to other organisations who require similar solutions. The respondent explained,
So for example, the simplest thing, being able to define your own workflows, right? Typically, a lot of products are set up as forms. And you can adapt the forms, but you can’t do workflows. So what a [Product Z] does, when [Person A] interacts for the first time with a household versus the second time versus the third time versus the tenth time? Right? They’re supposed to, they’re actually different, right? Because she’s building on a relationship. Right, who defines that? Now, who defines that in my programme, I define it. And the way I define it may not be acceptable to somebody in the next organisation, because the way they do it is different, right? But is there a way that you can make it a solution that allows me to do it within my own organisation without having to go back to the developer to actually customise that.
From these experiences we see that smaller players in the ecosystem provide an integral role to the local innovation of technology enabled solutions and services in the country. However, calling them small might be considered inaccurate as some organisations have also grown through these methods to enable further work in other countries outside of India. Nevertheless, their work continues to focus on the final stakeholder instead of producing an overarching solution to be implemented by all.