Open source 'split by digital divide'

Local needs are not being met in developing countries, which are consumers not creators of open source software, says the United Nations University

Few programmers in developing countries get involved in the mainstream development of open source software, leading to a digital divide within open source projects, a researcher from the United Nations University (UNU) claimed on Thursday.

Researchers compared the number of open source mailing list postings from different countries with the Internet penetration of each country. When ordered by this metric, Western Europe came out on top.

Norway, which was found to be the country that is most actively involved in open source, has posted six times as many mailing list postings per 1,000 of its Internet-connected population than Brazil, and more than 100 times as many as Vietnam.

Scott McNeil, the general manager of the open computing initiative at UNU's International Institute for Software Technology, speaking at a UNU conference on free software in New York on Thursday, said that as few developers in open source projects are from the developing world this means that these countries have little influence on the direction the project is going.

"It is a problem, as local needs are not being met and developing countries are consumers not creators of open source software," he said.

McNeil said he had investigated the reasons behind this trend and discovered that although people in developing countries are getting involved in open source software development, they are often doing this on a separate fork to the main project branch.

"In developing countries, what we typically see is that a group of individuals take the software, write an enhancement and don't put it back, creating a development fork. That's fine — its free software so they can do it, but they are missing out on other benefits," he said. When the main project progresses "they have to download a new version, patch their software and catch up. They have to keep going back and doing this, so their development is always behind the main project."

This method of working has the disadvantages that the developers put in a lot of effort to play catch-up and have no opportunity to gain influence within project — the people that determine the strategic direction of an open source project tend to be those that have made significant contributions to the project.

Individuals in developing countries are often reluctant to get involved in projects due to their discomfort of communicating in English and their concerns over peer review, according to McNeil.

He said that education and mentoring are vital to "socialise" these developers into the global community of developers. The UNU has set up a project, called the Global Desktop Project, to help more programmers in developing countries get involved in open source projects.

IT services company Metaparadigm, which was also involved in the study on open source software contribution by different countries, has published the results on its Web site.