Leveraging Open Source as a Public Institution — New analysis reveals significant returns on investment in open source technologies

This post was cross-posted from the World Bank Group blog page. It was co-authored by Vivien Deparday and Robert Soden.

GeoNode welcome screen

GeoNode, an open source resource for geospatial imagery, achieved a nearly 200 percent return on investment in its first 8 years of operation.

Examples abound of leading tech companies that have adopted open source strategy and contribute actively to open source tools and communities. Google, for example, has been a long contributor to open source with projects – such as its popular mobile operating system, Android – and recently launched a directory of the numerous projects. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is another major advocate, running most of its cloud services using open source software, and is adopting an open source strategy to better contribute back to the wider community. But can, and should, public institutions embrace an open source philosophy?

In fact, organizations of all types are increasingly taking advantage of the many benefits open source can bring in terms of cost-effectiveness, better code, lower barriers of entry, flexibility, and continual innovation. Clearly, these many benefits not only address the many misconceptions and stereotypes about open source software, but are also energizing new players to actively participate in the open source movement. Organizations like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) have been systematically adopting and leveraging open sources best practices for their geospatial technology, and even the U.S. Federal Government has also adopted a far-reaching open source policy to spur innovation and foster civic engagement.

So, how can the World Bank – an institution that purchases and develops a significant amount of software – also participate and contribute to these communities? How can we make sure that, in the era of the ‘knowledge Bank’, digital and re-usable public goods (including open source software, data, and research) are available beyond single projects or reports?

The Need for, and Return on, Open Source Investment

At the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) team just reviewed more than seven years of strategic investment in open source in a new publication called OpenDRI and GeoNode: A Case Study for Institutional Investment in Open Source. The publication examines the history of the GeoNode software project – a web-based geospatial management and visualization tool – from its inception, tracing how GFDRR contributed to the project’s success. The report also examines the technical and the social aspects of creating and participating in an open source ecosystem, paying particular attention to how OpenDRI’s investment strategy encouraged the arrival of outside institutional investment from both non-profit and for-profit organizations.

The practice of disaster risk management requires multiple types of data in order to better understand and assess the risks faced by countries and communities, but the lack of available and accessible information hinders efforts in resilience. GFDRR recognized a widespread need for a web-based, open source software that enables organizations to easily create catalogs of geospatial data, and that allows users to access, share, and visualize that data widely within and between client countries, and began supporting the GeoNode project in 2009. Since then, GeoNode has become a successful software project supported by actors from private and public sectors.

The report found that GFDRR has, conservatively, achieved at least a 200% return on investment in its open source software efforts. While meeting project goals, the GeoNode software also became a popular tool among dozens of organizations around the world from the public sector, private sector, academia and civil society. This virtuous circle of win-win relationships can be summarized best by Paul Ramsey: “You get what you pay for, everyone gets what you pay for, and you get what everyone pays for.”

However, using open source is not the same as supporting open source. Genuine support involves the contribution of time and resources. While releasing source code publicly under proper license is a good start, it is often not enough to reap the full benefits from an open source software development approach, which requires active collaboration among various users and developers. Open source software, therefore, has a cost, and in certain cases proprietary software can be a more effective solution. However, there are best practices and strategies to maximize the return of investment and effectiveness of open source, some of which are explored in detail throughout the report.

Open source best practices

Best practices for open source technologies

Leveraging Open Source Investments

Often times, the most difficult part of open source is not the software; it is the process of stakeholder engagement, institutionalization, capacity building, and long-term sustainability. However, open source makes this process easier and more sustainable as it lowers barriers of entry to communities of practice, encourages local entrepreneurship and innovation, reduces licensing costs, and promotes interoperability. There are a few ways the World Bank can encourage this kind of buy-in, including:

  • creating guidelines on key topics such as procurement, licenses, standards, and data formats;
  • educating staff internally around the value open source software;
  • scaling up engagement with standard-setting organizations to ensure interoperable solutions; and
  • identifying tools that are cross-cutting either within or across GPs.

  • Internally and in support of our clients, we can effectively adopt a combination of proprietary and open source tools where best suited to reduce risk, add value, and create public goods. It’s time for the World Bank to become a leader in leveraging the returns on investment in open source.

    If you have questions about the report or would like to talk more about how the World Bank and other large institutions can get involved with open source software, contact us at: opendri@understandrisk.org