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  • Africa Analysis: The benefits of open source software

Africa should embrace open source scientific software, cutting costs and boosting IT skills across the continent, argues Linda Nordling

Restrictive academic software can be a pain. The message "please do not hog the Mathematica licence" greeted anyone logging onto the mathematics department's website in a prominent UK university a few years ago.

Mathematica — a computational software package developed by Wolfram Research, a private company, is widely used by academics. But it can set a department back US$1000 per licensed copy. A medium-sized mathematics department might buy 10 licences to service 100 users, so it is not surprising that researchers jostle to use it.

But what may be an eye-watering expense at a top Western institution becomes a full-on barrier at a poor African one. Few institutions on the continent can afford proprietary science software. And that  leads to rampant software piracy.

Software piracy is not only illegal, potentially landing universities in trouble if they ever want to install legal copies of software on their computers. It also means users don't get security updates or support services.

But software piracy is becoming unnecessary. Open source software packages are becoming as user-friendly and adding as many features as proprietary packages — even in scientific circles.

A software revolution?

Open source software, which is usually free and differs from proprietary software (such as Microsoft Office) by publishing its source code, has come of age. The open source web browser, Firefox, has almost a quarter of the world market, according to online technology news site Ars Technica.

In science, open source software users are still a minority, but such programmes are no longer the exclusive preserve of those who love to tinker with computers.

In maths, the SAGE programme is gaining ground. In chemistry, the Blue Obelisk group provides a range of open source chemical informatics software. Open source software also exists for physics, bioinformatics, finance and geographical information systems.   

"The open source stuff is generally better," says Rob Beezer, a mathematics professor at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and an avid SAGE user and promoter.

A natural choice for Africans

Cash-strapped African universities could be fertile ground for such open source packages, yet few academics know they exist.

"It's difficult to say whether Africans are using open source chemistry software as it does not require users to register," says Egon Willighagen, a Dutch chemist and Blue Obelisk member. "But based on the questions coming to the group, there are none outside South Africa. "

"I've seen more illegal copies of software than legal ones," says Jan Groenewald, IT manager for the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Muizenberg, outside Cape Town, South Africa, and a leader in open source software adoption.

AIMS runs SAGE on computers loaded with the Linux open source operating system. Coupled with Open Office and other free software packages, it saves the institute over a hundred thousand South African rand per year.

But the cost saving is not the main reason AIMS uses open source software, says Groenewald. "The real cost (of conventional software) is in the lock-in and proprietary nature."

Not so for open source. Students can download these programmes free of charge and take them home with them — that would be illegal with proprietary software.

Open source also invites users to adapt the software to their own needs. This can improve IT and programming skills that in turn promote innovation. "It's a catalyst for development," says Groenewald.  And in countries where bandwidth is a problem, users can run SAGE from a web interface without downloading the programme.

Barriers to uptake

So why hasn't open source science software reached more Africans?

Barriers include a lack of advocacy, poor internet connectivity and aggressive marketing by proprietary software companies, says Mixo Shiburi, a senior software developer and researcher at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

"Companies like Microsoft have an aggressive strategy where they give away their products, making people hesitant about adopting open source," he says. Many do not realise that once locked in to the software they will have to pay for updates and other services.

Many African governments and intergovernmental organisations, including the African Union, want to promote open source programming and software. But the political support rarely filters down to institutional level.

What is needed is an awareness campaign, perhaps driven by researchers themselves, to raise the visibility of open source software at the coalface of African science. Research funders should also come onboard, so that they can encourage applicants to use open source packages where suitable.

Wider uptake of open source science software, especially to train young academics, would not only halt software piracy, it would also train a new generation of tech-savvy programmers able to modify software to meet the needs of African researchers, governments and even businesses.

Faster internet connection and mobile internet technology is helping African researchers onto the information age bandwagon — open access software will allow them into the driving seat.

Journalist Linda Nordling, based in Cape Town, South Africa, specialises in African science policy, education and development. She was the founding editor of Research Africa and writes for SciDev.Net, The Guardian, Nature and others.