Open Access to Knowledge

"Information technology, together with the ability to use it and adapt it, is the critical factor in generating and accessing wealth, power and knowledge in our time."  Manuel Castells.

Access to knowledge depends on a whole range of things, including the copyright and patent system, the availability of scientific knowledge, and ownership and access to computer technology.

Our policy influence work around this theme can be discussed under the following headings: open source software, open publishing, and access to ICTs

Open Source Software

In the economies of the North, where labour costs are high the costs of software support, customization and integration are high (reflecting the labour intensity of these components) relative to the licence fee for software. Therefore when the total cost of ownership (TCO) is calculated the cost of the licence fee is not a crucial component. However, in developing countries, where labour costs are low the cost of the software licence becomes a relatively more important cost component.

This can be illustrated by using GDP per capita, as a proxy for average income to illustrate that in developing countries the price of proprietary software (in this case Windows XP together with Office XP as representing the minimum general business office requirement) is high in purchasing power terms. As an example, in Kenya the price of Office XP is the equivalent of 18.12 months of GDP per capita. This is the equivalent of charging a single licence fee in the UK of £31,342, and for that price anyone in the UK can buy a new BMW 525i car.

The case for a developing country to adopt an open source software driven ICT strategy is compelling when the above argument is combined with the ability of open source software to encourage local skills and for local languages to be used.  A fuller discussion of the issues can be read in the following Briefing Paper: 

The Intermediate Technology of the Information Age? An Assessment of the Implications of Open Source (Free) Software for Development
Grimshaw, DJ (2004) - PDF, 795K
This paper reviews the role that open source or free software (here referred to as OSS/FS) can play in developing countries. After a review of the definitions and histories of both the free software and open software movements, the paper considers the main issues of OSS as they impact on development. According to six criteria, used by Schumacher to define intermediate technology, our analysis shows that OSS/FS can be viewed as an intermediate technology.

 In our project work Practical Action has used Open Source Software to develop the Janathakshan web portal in Sri Lanka (This uses the Drupal Content Management System).   We also held capacity building workshops on the use of open source software in our CSTC project in Southern Africa.

Open Access Publishing

"Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"   Elliot, T.S. (1934)

Access to scientific journals and other sources of written material are an important source of knowledge.   Traditional models depended upon copyright and then publishers being able to charge for access.  A conventional argument that is often put forward is that the ability to place a copyright on a work serves to protect the intellectual property rights so that it can be exploited for monetary gain in the secure knowledge that others are prevented from doing so. In this way copyright plays an important part in promoting innovation. Recent debates (e.g. Dantas 2005) suggest that traditional models of innovation do not necessarily apply in developing countries. There is a need for a systemic approach to innovation.  A further argument put forward is that knowledge is inaccessible to poor people in developing countries because of the protection afforded by intellectual property rights. Some scientists, aware of these issues, are now publishing using a creative commons approach. An example of this is the Public Library of Science which states its policy as: “PLoS endorses this definition of open access publication drafted by the Bethesda Meeting (2003) on Open Access Publishing. However, PLoS has chosen to apply the less-restrictive Creative Commons Attribution License to all works we publish” (PLoS 2005).  A fuller discussion of the issues can be read in the following Briefing Paper:

Publishing in the Information Age: Becoming a Leading Authority on the Use of Technology to Reduce Poverty
Grimshaw, DJ (2005) - PDF, 410K
The purpose of this paper is to explore the issues around publishing content in the era of electronic media where the ease of copying, re-using, and printing are available to anyone who has access to computing facilities. It recommends the use of the Creative Commons Licence, with attribution, non-commercial, and share alike features.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence.


Access to ICTs

Over the past decade or so the approach that Practical Action has taken to work involving ICTs has changed and evolved, mainly due to the lessons that have been revealed.   In our early work on ICTs Practical Action established telecentres in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and Peru.   The initiative in Peru was funded by the World Bank under the InfoDev theme which led to the establishment of eight rural telecentres in the province of Cajarmarca.

This work has now evolved into the "Local Content in Local Voices" theme.

The policy lessons learnt have been used in the following ways:

  • Feedback to World Bank at an invited workshop held at ODI, London, in 2006.
  • Presentation made at DSA Conference on: Local Voices, Local Choices: Redressing the Balance of Power, DSA Conference, University of Sussex, September 2007.
  • Evaluation of the Bridging the Digital Divide research at a workshop in 2008 and the presentation of a Keynote address to the same group of researchers at Cambridge University in January 2007.



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