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Open Development - Avenues of Research

Open Development - Avenues of Research

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Published by Stephen Song
This paper was commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). It explores a number of potential research avenues into Open Development.
This paper was commissioned by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). It explores a number of potential research avenues into Open Development.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Stephen Song on May 20, 2013
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Open Development Avenues of ResearchSon
What is Open Development?
I attribute the origin of the term Open Development to my former colleagues at the InternationalDevelopment Research Centre (IDRC) who have taken it as a kind of unifying rubric for their work funding research into ICTs and development. They define Open Development as
“an emerging set of possibilities to catalyze positive change through “open” information-networked activities in international development.” 
 A fuller explanation can be found in the introduction
i
to the ITID Special Issue on OpenDevelopment (http://itidjournal.org/itid/issue/view/40).
The Digital Era and Intellectual Property 
The growth of digital networks over the last 50 years has profoundly challenged our basicunderstanding of the nature of information and knowledge and their place in society and incommerce. Digital networks have facilitated the spread of ideas and led to a pace of innovationthat is now bewildering fast. Today it's hard to think of an aspect of life that hasn't beentransformed in some way by the digital world. In the pre-digital era, knowledge moved about soslowly that it was easy to misunderstand its fundamentally social nature. Organisations oftenmade the mistake of confusing information, a knowledge by-product, with knowledge itself whichis intrinsically connected with “knowers” i.e. people.The organisations most challenged by the digital world have been those that depend in someway on the control of information, whether text, audio, or video. Newspapers, libraries, musicpublishers, and movie makers, to name a few, have been profoundly challenged by the ease of replication and difficultly of controlling the spread of digital works. This has led to something of astand-off between those who believe that that loss of that control is a good thing and those thatbelieve it is a bad thing.On the one hand, there are interests protecting traditional information industries thoughintellectual property (IP) laws, especially copyrights and patents. They argue that the authors of new ideas and works have the right to have their ideas and works protected from exploitation.They are argue that the protection of intellectual property rights is fundamental to ensuringcontinued investment in research and innovation. They have a point.On the other hand, there are those who have experienced the power of collective contributions,collective scrutiny, and/or collective action via digital networks who recognise that smallcontributions when shared can become massive. They wonder how much we might achieve if we shared even more. They are sceptical of the individual nature of innovation and invention,choosing rather to believe that all creative works build on the past. They too have a point.Unfortunately the debate between these two perspectives does not occur on a level playing field.Interests that represent the status quo, namely industries that have become wealthy thanks toclosed IP regimes, have a significant stake in maintaining and even increasing controls over intellectual property. Their wealth affords them the time and resources to influence politicalregimes and to defend their position in the courts.
 
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Open Development Avenues of ResearchSon
The Digital, the Developmental, and the Open
What relevance does this debate have to the developing world? The history of digitalconnectivity in the developing world is comparatively short. Until fairly recently the lack of communication infrastructure has limited the possibility of any digital services going to scale. Asmobile networks and, more recently, broadband infrastructure have begun to spread throughoutthe developing world, there are signs of real impact occurring as a result of pervasivecommunication infrastructure. And where does the term “open” come into this? Integral to the phenomenally successful growthof the Internet have been the notion of open licenses and open standards. The GNU PublicLicense was the first open license which stood traditional copyright on its head by entrenchingthe right to view, modify, and share modifications to software code among programmers andensure that the results could not be closed again. This was the first serious leveraging of collective interest via digital media and its effect was profound. It enabled the building of aglobal distributed communication infrastructure which we know as the Internet.Just as important as the open license is the concept of open standards. An open standard is aclearly articulated, consensually agreed-upon description of how heterogeneous digital systemscan productively interact with each other. An open standard can describe the format of adocument or the way in which email is exchanged between servers. It can describe almost anydigital interaction where multiple parties want the freedom to evolve their work but to ensure their ability to continue to inter-operate with other digital systems. An open standard in the digital world can be proposed by anyone. The success of an openstandard is based on one metric: use. Useful standards get used. No one is compelled to usethem. Internet standards are referred to by their RFC number. RFC stands for “Request for Comment” which implicitly recognises the evolving and consensual nature of Internet openstandards. Open standards ensure interoperability without top-down control.These two concepts, open licenses and open standards, has been such a profound enabler of the growth of the Internet that it was inevitable that people would begin to apply the “open”paradigm to other fields. Soon open licenses began to migrate beyond software to all other kinds of content from the written word to photos to movies and beyond. In the last 15 years, ithas become clear that distributed collective action can do what was previously unthinkable.Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org) is perhaps the most famous example of this and has supplantedthe most successful traditional encyclopedia in the world (Encyclopedia Britannica).When talking about open, innovation and the Internet, there is some confusion between openinitiatives that use explicitly use open licenses as an alternative to traditional IP regimes (OpenSource, Open Access, etc) and initiatives that focus on creating a more permeable membranearound organisations which facilitates the flow of ideas and innovation across organisations as ameans of catalysing innovation. Crowdsourcing is an example the latter: open innovation. Whilecrowd-sourcing is a collective approach to problem-solving there is no particular obligation thatthe results be shared as would be the case under an open license.The open nature of the Internet has meant that anyone possessed of sufficient technologicalunderstanding and comparatively modest resources can connect to the Internet. South Africa is
 
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Open Development Avenues of ResearchSon
an illustrative example. In 1989, while still under extensive international sanctions, academics atthe University of Stellenbosch forged a digital link to the University of Oregon and suddenlySouth African universities were on the Internet.In spite of this, the growth of Internet access in Africa has been slow as challenges ranging froma lack basic access to power, to high communication access costs, to lack of human capacity tobuild and manage networks have slowed the pace of Internet growth.
The Mobile Miracle
Standing in stark contrast to the open manner in which the Internet has evolved are mobilephone networks. The high level of investment involved in setting up a mobile phone networkand more recently the scarcity of available licensed spectrum have set up high barriers toparticipation in mobile infrastructure markets.The result has been the creation of walled gardens by mobile operators which restraincompetition and consumer choice. This constrained environment has stifled innovation and keptprices artificially high for users of these networks.Yet, mobile networks have grown faster in the developing world than the Internet grew in theindustrialised world. Part of this can be explained by the fact that mobile technology is better adapted to regions without other well-developed infrastructure, by the evolution of innovativepay-as-you-go services, and by communication technologies simultaneously becoming morepowerful and less expensive.This is a powerful counter-example to the open example of Internet infrastructure growth. In Africa, mobile operators have argued
that the lucrative profits they make are necessary tosubsidise the roll-out of infrastructure in under-serviced areas that would otherwise beeconomically non-viable. Researchers have produced evidence to the contrary
 but the factremains that mobile networks in the developing world remain an extraordinary
 proprietary 
success story.
Connectedness and Generativity: Openness versus Price
 Another way of looking at the role of open in development is to examine barriers to participation.Digital connectedness facilitates human communication. Sometimes that communication can beinformal in the form of conversations, ideas, etc., and sometimes more formal through publishedworks which are governed under intellectual property laws. Because the cost of digitalreproduction is close to zero and because the reach of the digital world has expanded sodramatically, it becomes increasingly challenging to apply the notion of property in its traditionalsense to digital works.When Thomas Jefferson said “Knowledge is like a candle. When you light your candle frommine, my light is not diminished”, it is hard to imagine that he had an inkling of the billions of potential candles that could be lit by one bright spark via the Internet.The term 'open' has become so powerful because of the millions of individual thinkers and actorsat the end of every Internet connection. Open approaches to development whether through
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