The Global South does IT better

by Sebastian Benthall

A few weeks ago I visited the offices of Peru’s Comité Coordinador de la Infraestructura de Datos Espaciales del Perú, or IDEP, who are responsible for building that nation’s spatial data infrastructure system.

They have built a very impressive system with comparatively few resources using a largely open source stack of software–MapServer, MapBender, Mapfish, GeoNetwork, Joomla–and are actively looking for ways to innovate further.

In a meeting there, Max Taico, from the National Office of Electronic Government, explained why they had turned to open source software. It wasn’t just the fact that it was free–ESRI gives them free licenses of ArcGIS Server.

Open source software works for them because their government procurement practices are slow and hard to work with. But with free software (‘software libre’, as they call it), they are able to just install things on a server and get it to work. Indeed, while we were there they logged us onto the server and invited us to look around at the system and install new software if we thought it would be helpful.

Compared to the heavy bureaucracies we are used to working with, it would be an understatement to call this “refreshing.” Governments (including international governments) based in the U.S. maintain strict control over their software inventory and often stipulate what software is or is not allowed on their computers.

This is a crippling policy in a world full of great free software. It’s appalling to guess how much time (and, hence, money) is wasted by, say, the World Bank’s commitment to using outdated browser and office software.

Meanwhile, in Lima, a project with almost no permanent staff working on it was able to develop a system that is truly cutting edge. Their government IT culture there works contiguously with the global hacker culture, which is interested in getting things done with as few obstacles as possible.

An inspiring thought is that because this way of doing things is so much more effective, the Global North is learning that it should change its ways. In her keynote address to this week’s Understanding Risk conference, the World Bank’s CIO Shelley Leibowitz announced to an applauding audience that they were going to drop their mandated use of the universally loathed Lotus Notes.

Times are changing. It’s nice to know that part of that change is a long-due change in leadership.