Open Source Incentives

My recent visit to Brazil was a wonderful validation of the belief that I’ve held for more than 20 years: if you give people a better way to do things, they’ll do better things. The Brazilian government continues to expand its adoption of open source, both across more and more ministries and deeper within each ministry. I had the pleasure of talking with one of Brazil’s top IT strategists, and she told me some very interesting things, both encouraging and alarming.

The encouraging thing she told me was that open source adoption continues to accelerate in all dimensions of the government. Whereas in the past government agencies were very conservative about choosing and changing software product decisions, open source has created a new paradigm. Proprietary software quality is so unknowable, and interoperability so suspect, that even simple decisions require extensive analysis and contingency planning. And indeed what possible process of evaluation could lead anybody to willingly increase their usage of proprietary products that are known to be defective by design, delayed in shipment, and dead on arrival? Open source software has upended conventional wisdom and process by simply working at the outset and then not failing in production. And Brazil is beginning to realize this means they can put better technology to work sooner, at lower cost, with less risk.


Now the biggest question is not whether or how to use open source software, but how to ensure that well-intentioned national policies don’t destroy what seems to be working so well. I shared an insight that I learned while visiting the Malaysian Open Source Competency Center in Kuala Lumpur last year. What I learned is that the government is focused on rewarding the use of open source software, not merely it’s creation. How does this work from a sustainability point of view? After all, if there are not greater incentives for risky development, what will ensure that users will have what they need?

One of the greatest problems facing any technology that delivers value through interoperability with other system is the scourge of fragmentation. When governments do too much to incent development, they often create an over-supply of conflicting ways to solve a problem. One of the greatest examples of this in recent times was when President George Bush pushed to approve between $100M and $200M to create an electronic health record (EHR). It turns out that the US government already created one in the 1970s that worked perfectly well, and is working so well that the entire nation of Finland is happily using it. Predictably, all the money recently allocated to lots of different EHR efforts created competing and conflicting standards that do not interoperate. Thus the blind incentive to create new technology has no real social reward.

On the other hand, when there are incentives to use technologies, and when those technologies are (1) free to access, and (2) provide the freedom to modify and adapt them to a specific purpose, a whole new form of innovation, coupled with beneficial use, arises. And indeed, when the incentives for use are high enough, then would-be users will become developers of their own right, so that they can become users. And once there is a solution, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, because there’s no artificial incentive to do so.

Thus, the policy lesson is that when you want to use technology in a new way, incent the users, not the developers.

On the alarm front, I heard specific confirmation of a storyline I’ve been following, which is that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is basically telling governments: if you want contributions/investments from us, then you’ll give Microsoft cabinet-level access to inform policy, and you’ll use Microsoft products. For example, donations to educational initiatives require installing and teaching Microsoft products. It is similar to another story line reported by Roy Shestowitz. My informant told me that she was fortunately able to point out to the President that this was against Brazil’s sovereignty and interest, and is one of the reasons that President Lula came to FISL, to show is support for the freedoms that “software livre” (aka free software, aka open source) mean to Brazil.

Would that all Presidents and all ministers of all countries were so concerned about the sovereignty of their nation and the fiduciary care of their people!

Reunião com Lula (Foto de Ricardo Stuckert) and Michael Tiemann on Twitpic President Lula with Michael Tiemann at FISL 10 Conference