NOBODY expects the Spanish inquisition, but whether it’s a tropical typhoon or an outbreak of malaria, accurate information in a disaster situation is the most important thing to have and the hardest to obtain.
Such scenarios often become a game of Chinese whispers – the more people are included in the haphazard chain of information, the further that information becomes distorted.
So at these times, when resources are stretched to their absolute limit and panic takes over from rational thought, effective rapid response communication systems can mean the difference between containment of an outbreak, or catastrophe.
And unfortunately, these are not the types of systems you expect to find in low GDP, developing countries such as Cambodia, countries that often bare the brunt of the world’s disease outbreaks and environmental disasters.
But a different philosophy to the monetisation of software may be about to turn that situation on its head.
InSTEDD, the philanthropic brainchild of Google and the Rockfeller Foundation, in partnership with the Ministry of Health and local telco Smart Mobile, have developed precisely such a system – built on existing open-source software – for a total outlay of zero dollars to the taxpayer.
Open source refers to software bundled with source code data that allows users to make modifications. Linux, for example, is a well-known open source operating system designed to rival other major operating systems such as those produced by Microsoft and Mac.
Open source flexibility
Suy Channe, product manager at InSTEDD, says that by using this leeway to modify software, her organisation is able to develop communication systems that answer the needs of developing countries, and that do so in the native language.
Geo Chat is the end product, a system that keeps rural chiefs and village volunteers in a constant real-time exchange with anyone in a specific group – in this case all 1,200 employees of the Ministry of Health.
“Let’s say an outbreak happened in village A – They have the suspected case of cholera. Then every other village can know immediately and this then feeds up to the national level so they can have a better plan,” she explains.
At the national level the information also arrives via Google maps, pinpointing the location of the sender so authorities can map the spread of an outbreak or environmental disaster visually.
The user is only charged for one text message, no matter how many people it goes to and, thanks to the deal with Smart Mobile, people using their company as a service provider don’t even have to pay for the text.
Smart Mobile CEO Thomas Hundt says his company is spending capital on integrating the system into their network to fullfil corporate social responsibilities.
“We believe that such a system is substantially beneficial for the country in regards to preventing diseases and national disasters, and we believe we can help limit the effects of these problems by informing people,” he said.
Geo Chat has been deployed across mainland South East Asia, he explains, helping develop the information technology sector to an extent that otherwise would not be possible.
But as Javier Solá, program manager of the ICT Association of Cambodia points out, open source software initiatives backed by corporate capital aren’t just motivated by altruistic virtues.
“Open source was started in universities and then some of these people moved to other companies but they kept free time to work on open source projects,” he explained. “But open source really developed when corporations started to find it commercially viable.”
He explains that in many cases open source has been used by rival companies to disrupt monopolised markets, such as Microsoft’s stranglehold over operating systems and office software on IBM – and IBM clone – computers.
Industry rivals such as Sun Microsystems and IBM supported the development of free, open source software because it gave them a chance to challenge rivals in markets where the likes of Microsoft couldn’t be hurt by licensed alternatives.
And in doing so adherents to open source could charge users for enhanced versions of their products, allowing them to gain a foothold in otherwise impenetrable markets.
For developing countries such as Cambodia, an offshoot of the open source model is that the software can adapt to specific local needs which rarely register with major licensed software developers.
“It’s a more distributive business model, many people work together to produce something that has value to all of them,” Solá says.
The unicode developed by Solá’s company makes it possible to use the likes of the open source Open Office application by Sun Microsystems in their native language.
According to Solá, the government is now mandating the use of open source programs supporting Khmer unicode across the whole of the national school curriculum.
The Ministry of Health has also built its own systems based on the open source language Java that allow health experts to send weekly data by SMS, which is collated by a central server and analysed to reveal health trends.
In Brazil the use of open source software by government departments has been mandated by federal legislation ever since the left-wing Lula government took power in 2003. Even Brazilian ATMs are built on open source thereby extending the model to areas often controlled by the private sector.
The emerging pattern is clear – developing countries seek software that can develop with them and in that arena, open source is king.