Leveraging Knowledge Using OSS
The long march toward a knowledge economy in developing countries must be accelerated along three dimensions: improving infrastructure, facilitating learner readiness, and easing the production of knowledge itself. Each key to building a viable knowledge economy — infrastructure, readiness, production — requires resources whose effectiveness can be amplified by adopting open source innovations and methods. OSS tools and techniques lower the barriers to building sustainable knowledge economies and offer the maximum potential for novel forms of public-private partnerships between the government and commercial sectors.2
“By basing efforts on open source and open knowledge, each solution, whether from government or commercial sectors, can be applied, leveraged, remixed, improved and multiplied by every participant to create win-win partnerships and benefits for everyone.”
Better infrastructure requires improved resource mobilization. For example, last-mile network access in developing countries can be made more practical using open source wireless technologies like mesh networking. However, while mesh networks have been around for a number of years, they have not been promoted or widely deployed, in contrast with the pervasive voice cell phone networks. But mesh interconnect technology still holds great promise for building affordable networking fabrics in developing countries. Now a new demonstration of the potential benefits of large scale mesh networks looms on the horizon with OLPC’s out-of-box mesh networking. The impact of the OLPC program on networking infrastructure should be carefully evaluated. Meanwhile, additional innovative open source strategies can be employed to improve the odds for success in developing countries. For example, stand-alone, non-PC information appliances built from pedagogical applications embedded on single chip computers can fulfill a surprisingly rich variety of educational needs cheaply. As another example, common open source techniques such as “Live” CD/DVD distributions can be easily customized to meet the challenge of knowledge dissemination while harnessing a percentage of existing infrastructure by re-purposing computing equipment already on the ground.
Facilitating learner readiness
Readiness is the ability of the recipient, or learner, to comprehend appropriate levels of knowledge. Access to software and hardware tools can improve the learner’s skills set for knowledge acquisition and use. Distance learning, ease of use, local language interaction, audio/video presentation, expert and peer mentoring can all be implemented cost-effectively by existing open source tools. The most important readiness skill, however, is learning to share and collaborate, which embodies the very attitude underlying development and dissemination of open software and, more generally, open knowledge. Innovative open source tools like wikis are providing the learner with profound knowledge repositories that are easy to search, use and contribute to. SchoolForge, and practical Linux-based distributions like Edubuntu, are distributing a wide range of powerful open source educational applications. Other examples include the innovative OLPC platform that is designed to teach and inspire young students and provide easy access to educational content with a built-in local-language Wikipedia together with access to dynamic knowledge resources through the Internet.
The same open source tools that aid acquisition of knowledge, also facilitate its production through collaboration and interaction. Content needs to be presented in local languages and must engage the on-going interests of all participants. Development of complex knowledge bases requires input and management by multiple parallel stakeholders who provide constant review, collaboration and improvement. Open source tools for such efforts include learning management systems like OLAT, course management systems like Moodle, and community tools, like Wikimedia, for building vast content repositories through collaboration.
In many cases, the government of a developing country must become the leading implementer of the knowledge economy, especially during initial phases when jump starting solutions is critical. But, simultaneously, the government should balance its contributions with a genuine effort to facilitate the emergence of an organized, competitive and sustainable commercial sector. Solutions for building out infrastructure, for providing training and readiness and for producing knowledge create important product and services opportunities for growing the local economy. Best of all, however, by basing efforts on open source and open knowledge, each solution, whether from government or commercial sectors, can be applied, leveraged, remixed, improved and multiplied by every participant to create win-win partnerships and benefits for everyone.