Software owned of the people, built by the people for the people

Why all Government and election management software should be built the Free and Open Source way

Wednesday, 19 February 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

ICT is increasingly playing a larger part in lubricating the democratic process and has tremendous potential to further enhance it if used the right way. Much has also been said about the exploitation of software such as Facebook and Twitter to spread fake news and negatively deviate the public opinion of an electorate. We sometimes lose sight of the tremendous good software can provide to improve transparency, bridge communities and bring more power to the people. However, software is complex for the lay voter, so how do we make sure it does the right thing and has no Wizard of Oz behind the scenes pulling the levers of bias?

In this article I hope to explain that a software development paradigm that has its origins in freedom and giving more power and rights to software users (aka ‘the people’) is also conceptually aligned with building our government systems in a democratic nation or republic.  

This software is called Free and Open Source software (or FOSS or Open Source for short), where Free stands for Freedom and its examples include popular browsers like Firefox, Operating Systems such as Linux and free online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Firefox might not be your preferred choice for a browser and you might be using Chrome or Internet explorer, however there is a big difference in how Firefox is built. While the other two browsers are built by companies such as Microsoft and Google who have the final say, Firefox is built by a diverse community of volunteers and while the aspiration of the former two companies is to make a profit, the motive of the Mozilla Foundation which coordinates Firefox is to protect your privacy and to make sure the Internet is kept free. So if privacy and protection of your rights is your priority, then I recommend you go with Open Source Firefox.

To pick an acute example in Government, if there is any software that should go through similar scrutiny in a democratic nation it is election management software. No bias should be introduced into the election process and that includes the software which runs it, lest it be accused of playing a role in king-making.

Such software should not belong to one company; it cannot be opaque on how it works and it should be built by a representative diversity of people representing the electorate. Such is not possible with popular software that you use from companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft or Apple. They do not satisfy any of these 


Such software should adhere to three principles of the title above that I slightly modified from the famous Gettysburg quote by the great democratic forefather Abraham Lincoln.


Principle 1: Owned of the people

While most software in the world that you are used to such as Microsoft Office belongs to one company (you never own it, instead you lease it), who decides how the software should work. The software which runs Government policy should ideally belong to the people. Any citizen of a nation where it is being used should be able to get a copy of the code and analyse it or get someone to analyse it on their behalf. For them to do this freely they need to have ownership of the software for free. Open Source software is built on the premise of using copyright law to make sure that all users have the right to get the software code and inspect it freely by law. 


Principle 2: Built by the people

This software cannot be built by one company, one ethnic group or one political party. Rather, it has to be built by a diverse group of interested parties. Any citizen who has the required software development skills should be welcome to participate in its development as a public service. The entire process of decision-makers should be very transparent so any biases are removed, if they get introduced intentionally or unintentionally, as often is the case. But one problem is that opening up so largely leads to analysis-paralysis which occurs when there are too many decision-makers (or naysayers) and less actual doers. This is the political equivalent of a hung Parliament. Instead, what has proven to work time and again in Open Source is a meritocracy of doers. In other words, everyone is welcome to participate but those who contribute the most get greater power to make decisions.


Principle 3: For the people

The entire electorate should be invited to test the software if they wish to make sure it is suitable for their understanding of what a democracy should be. They should be welcome to provide feedback as users and be able to review the decisions made transparently. Only through this public trial and review will trust in the software 

be built. 

Open Source makes the users (voters) a valued part of the community and your inspection here does not have to be at a skin-deep level. You (or a developer you trust) have every legal right without asking for permission to take it apart and inspect it for anything you are unhappy with.

Free and Open Source software and the foundations that operate them follow the principles above and though the exact process by which the Open Source software is governed might vary slightly, it is by far better, more transparent and much more auditable by the public than proprietary software.


Sri Lanka’s history in Open Source Software

Sri Lanka happens to be a renowned international hub for Open Source developers. We have some very talented Open Source developers and award-winning Open Source projects like Sahana that have helped save lives around the world. The country boasts of universities like the University of Moratuwa that have provided the largest number of selected Open Source students for Google Summer of Code, foundations such as the Lanka Software Foundation which nurture Open Source developers and internationally-renowned companies like WS02 that support Open Source software commercially. 


Sri Lanka elections, Lanka Software Foundation and Open Source

I have been observing recent public commentary on the Lanka Software Foundation’s involvement in building election management software and felt the need to explain the importance of Open Source in this context.  

The Lanka Software Foundation is a not-for-profit foundation operating with the goal of creating Free and Open Source software and Sri Lankan talent. In the interest of full disclosure, I must reveal that I was a fellow of the Lanka Software Foundation in the past and have been an Open Source project lead there.

Any decisions made consist of a layered set of choices and sometimes you have to pick which layers got it right and which could do with improvement. The important thing is to have a foundation for improvement and feedback and this is what Open Source Software projects provide. Below are some concerns you might have and how Open Source handles them:

Is Open Source or Proprietary Software the best for this? For the many reasons I have already articulated above, I would choose Open Source software to promote the freedoms and transparency we need of such software.

Who are the people building this? I don’t know if I can trust these people. There is nothing stopping you from contributing and becoming one of these people yourself and getting to know the others on the public mailing list used to build, test, audit and transparently document the software.

I think the way they have built is not right. It is biased! Feel free to join as a citizen tester and give your feedback. Spend your energy contributing and getting involved to correct anything you do not like. Participation is what it is all about. No one here is going to build biased software in plain sight, where every decision and every piece of code is transparently made in a public place as is mandated by Open Source.

The people developing this software are from one ethnic group or one political class. So join and make sure your group is represented and I am sure others will do the same to represent themselves, but first represent yourself.

Person X knows Person Y and Person Z probably bribed Person Y. Well do you know for sure that this is what happened or is it some fake news being spread? The important thing is that at the end of the day what is produced is transparent in its working, and if there is any undue influence you can work to correct it.

It does not matter how the software is built but rather how the data is handled when it is run for the election. There is technology today like blockchain and quantum computing that can even address this from a software design perspective. However, the Election Commission needs to not treat this any different. Just apply the same process they do for the current proprietary systems they have been using. I believe this is what has taken place but the Election Commission team needs to upskill their development team to adapt to this new technology.


In summary

Progress is about moving forward. We need to work together to build the nation to compete in a very competitive global economy. The choice to go with Open Source was a good foundation for election software and is a good step forward. I believe better ICT solutions, especially with Open Source technology which fuels some of the latest innovations, is critical for our country to move forward 


If you don’t like it, you are free to participate in Open Source design, development or testing. There is nothing stopping you. I am not just talking, I am walking the talk. I have started contributing to election software testing.  

(References: Definition of the Four Freedoms of Free and Open Source Software

(The writer has been working in the ICT industry for 20 years, predominantly with Virtusa where he is presently a Vice President of Engineering based in London. After the Asian Tsunami in 2004, he got involved in Open Source software which was applied to the humanitarian response and led the Sahana Disaster Management project which has been deployed to support disaster response around the world and won this Sri Lankan innovation many international awards. He continues to be a Director on the Board of the Sahana Foundation. He is a graduate of Oxford University with a degree in Engineering and Computer Science).

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