What is Public Software?


Public software is 'software developed or procured, for the public good, which is publicly owned' (Guiding principles for public sector software). It is essential for participating in the digital society and thus needs to be provided to everyone as an universal right and entitlement. It includes operating system, text/image/audio/video editors, email, web browser, search engine, etc. Public software needs to be free software, providing the freedom to use, study, modify and share, to ensure universal access as well as participation in its creation and modification.

IT for Change (ITfC) has been exploring the role of public sector agencies in enabling, adopting and promoting Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). ITfC's efforts focus on the challenges involved in building the ecology for the production and wide scale deployment of FOSS within public sector agencies in India. Over the course of 2010, from our study of FOSS discourse, we felt the need to take a second look at the essential nature of software and its role in the digital society being built. The term FOSS stresses the freedom of the individual to create, study, modify and distribute software with its source code and is in the nature of a negative right. While this right is an important one, we felt that, in a developing country context as ours, there is a need to look at the aspect of ensuring universal access to software that is essential to negotiate an increasingly digital world. As an analogy, in India, with the enactment of the 'Right to Education Act', education has moved from being a negative right (every child has the right to education and cannot be denied it) to a positive right, where the government is now responsible (with support from other sections of society) to ensure children are in school. Similarly, there is a need to look at software essential to accessing and participation by the community in the basic social and public systems as an entitlement of each citizen. Thus, to access information from the government (and other public agencies) websites as well as to provide inputs into government functioning (where for example, feedback is sought on government policies or programmes), web browsers need to be universally accessible. Documents available on government sites need to be in formats that are free and open, created through FOSS.

To bring the term in the wider discourse, we held a South India regional workshop on 'Software principles for the public sector, with focus on public education' in February 2010 where the Guiding principles for public software were conceptualised. In May 2010, the participants of the 'International Conference on Public Sector Software and FOSS in Education', jointly organised by UNESCO and the Government of Kerala in Kochi (India) signed the Kochi declaration on Public Software, committing thereby to take forward the experiences and learnings in Public Software, advocate and support Indian states and South Asian countries to adopt Public Software principles. The declaration recognises that the unique context of public software and its objectives of ensuring equity and social justice has implications for ensuring universal access to such software, as well as transparency and participation by the citizens in its design and use, and urges public institutions in these countries to adopt and promote Public Software.

For more information about Public Software and IT for Change's work in this issue, go here.

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