Can open source liberate Africa?

Americans don't consider the localization or development benefits of open source. Idlelo, which means common grazing ground, is all about those benefits.

Last month's Idlelo conference in Ghana was a small thing, but it may have been the most important open source conference so far this year.

That is because open source can do far more for Africa than it can any other continent.

Americans think of open source mainly as a business model. It reduces development costs, reduces marketing costs, and brings more of the money you do bring in to the bottom line.

What we don't consider, as Americans, are the localization benefits of open source, or the development benefits of open source. We tend to think of it in terms of the latest-and-greatest platforms, not in terms of old tech.

But Idlelo (it's said to mean common grazing ground) is all about those benefits.

Take for example Ushahidi (it means testimony in Swahili). Originally created by Kenyan programmers around that country's 2007 election, it was deployed in South Africa and Uganda during 2008, and was used to crowdsource reports on the Haiti earthquake this year.

The software maps SMS text messages. Even people in the Sudan have access to text messaging now. And the benefits flow worldwide -- here is a crime map, created using Ushahidi software, covering my own part of Atlanta. I know exactly where my neighbor hoods hang out.

Because open source gives you equal rights with other software developers, it can be used effectively to localize software in small language groups, such as those found across Africa. And the applications can be deployed using technology that is already in place, so the results are truly independent.

In fact that was the theme of the Ghana conference -- development with ownership.

It's true that some speakers at Idlelo, like Cliff Schmidt of Literacy Bridge and John "Maddog" Hall of Linux International, were Americans. But the majority were Africans -- government officials, development experts and (perhaps most important) entrepreneurs.

The numbers being discussed here are, in American terms, pathetic. But the impact on people who have so little can be enormous. And what they have, with open source, they hold.

It's this kind of thing that brings me the most joy in covering open source.