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.
Possible solutions according to stakeholders
There is much that needs to be reformed for the promotion of local and open innovation in the tech sector in India, as per our respondents. Taking into account the larger definitions of access, opportunities and empowerment we have collated suggestions that for possible changes that can be implemented.
An important aspect in the ecosystem today is to understand the ground realities of different stakeholders, specifically the needs of final stakeholders for tech enabled solutions that exist in the market today. As explained earlier, issues of public infrastructure need to be improved further, which needs to be done through government interventions. However, it is also important that the tools themselves are easily accessible for the average user. This means that players in the tech ecosystem must look at the vast heterogeneity of users in the country and take into consideration their needs prior to the implementation of any tools. Some respondents have already invested in tools that can be used despite the lack of connectivity and provide nuanced solutions to specific problems faced by stakeholders, however larger players in the ecosystem must also work towards such goals. As described by one participant working in finance, there are design changes that must be focussed on in the creation of tech enabled solutions by larger players, they explain how design changes can enable smaller entrepreneurs to use these technologies,
One is, audio goes a very long way, when working with this group, they are used to listening to things that’s why you will also often see them, they don’t send messages, they send voice recordings. So enabling audio, for example, where possible and enabling your technology to understand the Indian voice to understand the Indian accent. For example, India Mart has an audio, like speech to text feature, but it doesn’t really work well with the Indian language. The other is the imagery, for example, these icons that are there, this audience doesn’t understand that icon. They don’t know that means you put a recycling bin and call it trash, they don’t understand that. They don’t understand that the mic button is actually a mic. So you need to have imagery and icons that are actually more suitable to this audience.
Another large issue that also exists is the closed networks that enable and incentivize access to projects, grants and schemes. Even revenue model based organisations require networks to enable an initial set of projects to stay afloat. However, these networks are often closed to newer and smaller organisations, thus possible solutions may include incubation firms, policies that specifically target smaller players and require barebones infrastructural requirements. A respondent highlighted how incubation firms may provide aid to smaller organisations,
The kind of resources and support they need varies from pure capital, you know, hire people to build, pay, salaries, support and marketing support in connecting to larger players in the ecosystem, you never do it alone, you’re always looking for good partnerships. And I think those are all places where institutions like [Company J] can help, right? And we help connect to investors, we help them understand the problem that they’re solving better, we help them understand their users better, we help connect them to potential partners who are looking at the same user base, and so on.
Thus with the combination of policy and infrastructure solutions at a macro level and further introspection regarding design solutions more tech enabled solutions and businesses may be able to create more access for largely alienated groups in the country today.
Once individuals are able to gain some type of foothold in the market, the tools through which they can participate in the structures in a fair and equitable manner are also important and relevant. Many respondents felt funding alone wasn’t enough to ensure promotion of open source software projects in the country.
This was further highlighted through the nature of the ecosystem as it exists today. Participants felt that under the various privately funded models there currently existed little-to-no scope to promote open source solutions for the larger public. As a respondent working in tech enabled solutions for the social sector explained,
Whereas in the general world, in the non social sector world, open source has quite broad adoption, acceptance and awareness, social sector is very new to tech itself. So open source is still a long term thing here right now. But we also are in that direction that how do we manage open source and resources required for open source are required to be more mature programmers or developers and more mature project managers, because open source requires a lot of standardisation, code standardisation.
Respondents thus argued that the lack of maturity in the sector to truly embrace the larger goals of open source software movements. Another important aspect was the creation of government enabled funding for research and systems in place to promote it, as a respondent working in the civitech space highlighted
The first way I would like governments to lead in the open source movement is to ensure that a lot of let’s say research funding and their own procurement, and their own software actually becomes open source, right. You can’t be based on open source, as sort of an afterthought, and not understand what it’s about, because it’s not about control.
Similarly, while looking at ways to expand the open source movement in the country, others argued that giving back to the community must be enforced through policy interventions. As a respondent at a private for profit company suggested,
So if you ask me, government can get involved and change the whole ecosystem. So say, they can make a rule like, every once in three years or five years, a company should provide some some bit of their thing, open source, mandatory else you will be taxed extra or something, so that everyone contributed, it’s not like one person does, and the other person doesn’t, because everyone has to do it
Additionally other participants also felt that the government itself must build its project on open stack and enable open source contributions by other entities. Thus many stakeholders believed that in such a situation in the Indian ecosystem, government enabled solutions for both incentivisation and enforcement of certain practices were seen as a possible solution.
As highlighted in the previous sections there are many gaps between access and opportunities for many firms to enter the field in a competitive manner. Participants argued that it wasn’t just enough to create a product and enable solutions for specific stakeholders. They believed that through their learnings they were equally able to produce better solutions than the one’s being monopolized by larger organisations. Thus they felt that there needed to be further spaces to acknowledge their work than what currently exists in the country today. A participant from the education sector explained,
So I think it would need government to a) acknowledge that we are all players, you know, there is this huge problem that money begets money and we don’t come with lots of money. So that’s where the problem comes in. And I really don’t know how that legitimacy is going to come in in a place in a situation of that kind. Or it could be that you kind of have people who are philanthropic who will support people like us to say, say, if I had a big organisation that came in and said, Don’t worry about the cost, we’ll underwrite that piece, you know, like tell, CBSE, its going to come to them for free. But it does require somebody who’s willing to say that no, there is something that can become a public good even if it’s proprietorial. We need that kind of support. I think it just has to exist otherwise I don’t see how!
Channels must be created for smaller enterprises to enter the markets today. Though some have argued that the stacks should enable organisations to produce more services, that has not occurred on the ground. However a few participants believed that there is a slow and limited progression towards the promotion of networks for enterprises, as described by a participant in the health sector,
So I think there’s a common set of things there that can be made available. And there are now networks that are trying to enable it like Tech Soup. And in India with NASSCOM, the whole effort to make a certain suite of products available or solutions available to the nonprofit sector in a cheap manner and things like that. Now, the question, of course, is that these are for operation, right? What happens for programmes, what happens for who is designing that? And then that is where I see that there’s quite a bit of what do we say, everybody reinventing the wheel. Because everybody, like I told you is like, oh, but this is a problem that I see. And this is the way I’m trying to solve for it. Nobody has a product.
From these experiences it is important to understand that there exists no clear and effective space for interactions between different stakeholders in the industry and even less so for smaller players in the market. There is huge dependence on networks for empowerment opportunities in the country. Therefore there needs to be systems in place for continuous network building in the country and a focus on the dismantling of power structures that are enabled through those networks. This is unfortunately observed in great detail in the cases of India Stack, which despite being promoted heavily by the government is essentially a private entity that still do not enable opportunities and empowerment for all organisations in the country.