Policy makers from across South India and academics participated in a two-day seminar on “public sector and software” that concluded here on Wednesday. The conference deliberated on the need for “public sector principles” such as universal access, participation, transparency and social justice to be reflected and influence the design and architecture of ‘public software’.

But what does a principle or an ethic have to do with what programme runs on an office computer? It matters, advocates of Free and Open Source Software argue. As officials pointed out during the seminar, everything from the government’s e-Granthalaya project launched for college students in Karnataka to the software that runs in general government departments are meant for the public. “For universal access, public software would need to be freely shareable and locally customisable,” said Nagambika Devi, Commissioner Collegiate Education. Proprietary software, which is closed in nature and does not allow for modification to suit technical requirements, do not fit well for ‘public use’.

In the field of computer education, education technologist Manas Chakrabarti pointed out: “Privately owned learning material and software will not only impose huge costs on the large government school system, but also deprive the teachers and students of the opportunities to modify, enhance and customise the tools for their local use.”

The workshop was co-organised by UNESCO, e-Governance Department, Department of Public Instruction and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Government of Karnataka), Karnataka Jnana Aayoga (Karnataka Knowledge Commission) and a non-governmental organisation IT for Change (ITfC). Workshop called for support to “Public software” - that is, software developed for the public good, which is publicly owned.

Cecilia Barbieri, Education Sector specialist from UNESCO, in her opening address, stressed the importance of using free and open source software in the public education system, on pedagogic apart from social and economic grounds. The event also saw sharing of experiences and lessons in “public sector software” development and implementation programs and highlighting of potential areas and challenges. Anvar Sadath, Director of the IT @Schools program in Kerala schools, explained how the adoption of freely shareable and customisable software in their program has greatly reduced program costs and teachers were freely customising the educational tools for their own use.

Participants emphasised on the fact that the software that is used in public sector organisations for the public good should be owned by the government and a national repository of such public software should be maintained which can be shared by all states, avoiding repeated development of the same applications, wasting public funds. Private ownership over software used would put public system at risk and make it vulnerable to exploitation when the vendor keeps raising his charges. “This has happened in several cases including the NREGA software used in Andhra Pradesh. Since this software is not owned by the government, they cannot enhance it or share it with other governments,” said Gurumurthy Kasinathan of the IT for Change.