By Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa @eliz_tanya

The UNICEF Innovation Fund invests exclusively in open source solutions. Our first class of tech start-ups have all chosen to follow this route and are placing their solutions on open licenses. We asked them one key question: what value do you see in being open source?

Open source is not just about making your source code, blueprints, designs or content available in the public domain or selecting the most appropriate license. Although this forms the foundation of any open source solution, it offers opportunities that span far beyond these formalities. According to interviews with these five companies, being open source is also about the community, growth, and impact and this indisputably makes business sense.

Community

Open source allows a community of developers to contribute to your technology, combining both knowledge and expertise from a diverse pool of contributors. GitHub, the largest open source community in the world, has more than 18 million users and hosts almost 50 million projects. By putting your project on a public repository like GitHub, you get to work with some of the most talented developers in the world at a negligible cost to your company. In simpler terms, you get to engage talent that you otherwise would not be able to afford at the early stage any enterprise. SayCel highlighted that being an open source company allows them access to a network of academic and human resources who share their vision of bridging the communications gap in developing countries. This adds greater value as it significantly increases the resources available to SayCel.  According to Somleng from Cambodia, the open source community makes the development of any solution more representative of a broad range of needs.

“We believe that the real power of Somleng is in being open source. By being open source, Somleng’s direction and features are determined by the community and not by any one individual or organization.” Project Somleng

Growth

Open source creates a knowledge base that can be used to develop other projects thus creating a generation of open source public goods. In 2012, UNICEF’s Office of Innovation released RapidPro, an open source platform that allows anyone to build interactive messaging systems using an easy visual interface. Using RapidPro, we have now created other open source products to solve a different set of problems in different region across the globe. These include U-Report, a platform that gives young people a voice to influence the way governments and policymakers make decisions; Edutrac to help improve data collection systems in schools and mHealth to improve information for healthcare delivery. RapidPro has been used to address different problems, been worked on by different teams and has been adopted in over 30 countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Australia.

Who ever thought a messaging system could help teachers, healthcare workers, and policymakers?

The role of RapidPro’s original team did not end with its launch as an open source platform. The team’s comprehensive understanding of how the source code was built and how best it can interact with other features made their involvement essential when Edutrac and mHealth were developed. Being open source offered opportunities for them to offer consulting and other services, to the organisations working on other platforms that use RapidPro as their underlying software. As the software and its influence grow, it also increases the business opportunities available to its developers.

Blockchain technology has been widely known for disrupting the way we make financial transactions, underpinning the technology behind Bitcoin. According to Wall Street Journal, today more than 40 top financial institutions are experimenting with blockchain to reduce the cost and increase the speed of transactions, to track the ownership of their assets and to improve transparency and security. Similarly, 9Needs from South Africa is aiming to build the infrastructure that will allow other organisations and individuals to build their own applications in an independent way, applying the same technology to a different use case that could potentially change the way public and private sector institutions deliver early childhood development services. 9Needs are using blockchain to build a new industry thus presenting endless opportunities for their business to offer additional services and tap into a diverse number of revenue streams.

“Open Source makes business sense for us because the value of our proposition increases as personal data grows with each new service that connects to the platform. Our vision for Amply to provide the tools and expertise for anyone to build decentralised applications that can amplify early childhood development impacts.” 9Needs

Impact

When asked why being open source was the pinnacle of their software, the team behind project Rah-e-maa from IPAL described how innovative approaches are needed quickly to help reduce the alarming global maternal mortality rate. The team knows it may not be able to scale to different countries quickly – each of which would require customized content and design – so they decided to make the product open source. In doing so, Rah-ee-ma hopes others can adopt the technology, improve upon it, and build a virtuous cycle of learning for the community at large.

“We believe the fight to reduce maternal mortality will be accelerated by sharing technology and best practices – it doesn’t matter who does it, it just matters that it gets done.” Rah-ee-ma, IPAL

Solutions like Rah-ee-ma’s allows organisations and companies to adapt their technology – improving the efficiency, impact and scale of their own programs and in strengthening their policies and products. As a business, it offers opportunities to engage with these stakeholders and offer services such as customising the platform to meet their individual needs, hosting and offering additional proprietary products that enhance the open source solution. These 5 companies believe their goal to achieve widespread impact offers opportunities to build a sustainable business.

Different companies, institutions, and individuals have different motivations for why they have chosen to open source their technology. For our first 5 startups, they have made their product bigger than their venture and are tapping into a potential that is bigger than their abilities.


Are you a tech start-up looking for seed funding? Are you working on a solution that could improve the lives of children? Make a submission for investment to the Innovation Fund. Find out more on www.unicefinnovationfund.org

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