Open source could be Africa's technological solution

The technological community in Africa is strengthening an open source alliance and recognizing the power of the community.

That major computing companies are unlikely to want to invest heavily in Africa is not lost on the continent's brain trust.Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa is fine with that. OK, perhaps "fine" would be overstating it, but FOSSFA knows that's the reality and so is bringing together the most skilled computing minds together to develop and distribute applications throughout Africa in local languages.Idelho conference in Ghana. It could be the launching pad for future projects in the vein of Ushahidi, a geotagging mapping program with roots in Kenya. Ushahidi (it means "testimony" in Swahili) didn't directly come out of FOSSFA, it was a " collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis" and was built to help map reports of violence in Kenya in early 2008. It maps data submitted via the web and mobile phone.

Sure, there could be some investment in major cities, but for the most part, the continent's on its own. The

The group has been getting some attention lately, as it just wrapped up its fourth


Its usefulness was apparent almost immediately and the code was shared with a group in South Africa. The platform is fully open source and available for download. It's recently been used in Haiti for mapping areas where need is most desperate since the devastating earthquake this fall.

Fact of the matter, even though open source isn't always free (as in cost), it can be. And it also doesn't presume what the needs of the community are - the community has the chance to contribute to the solution and find the right solutions for them.

It says something about the problems in Africa that Ushahidi is probably the most well-known open-source project to come out of the continent. But it also shows the power of the community to find solutions to problems using available technology.

Dorothy Gordon, director general of the Kofi Annan Centre of Excellence in ICT in Ghana, where the Idelho conference was held, told the BBC:

"If you look at the national level, or even if you look at the whole continent, you'll see that many of the technologies we use are imported. That means that you are vulnerable. If all your systems are imported, it creates a new kind of dependency, because you're dependant on those companies to keep your country running."

Right now, the average person in Africa can't afford the technology owned by average Westerners. But cell phones are pretty ubiquitous, and all it takes is an SMS text to add data to a Ushahidi project.

Open source projects are far more accessible to technology- and income-poor Africa. And they allow exactly what so many both on the continent and off it want for the populace: the ability to decide for themselves what resources they need and build them.

Hard to argue with that.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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