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Becoming a Digital Global Good, Open Access, and Thoughts on OpenFn’s Long-Term Sustainability

Digital global goods are adaptable, interoperable, open source software or content designed to meet the data and management needs of country health systems. Incredible software tools like CommCare, a mobile data collection and service delivery platform, dhis2, a health management information system (HMIS) used in over 40 countries, and OpenLMIS, a popular logistics system, are digital global goods. OpenFn is proud to now be officially joining them on this list.

Bridge as public good

The imperative for digital global goods

The story of digital global goods began in July 2018 when the Secretary General of the United Nations convened a High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation to strengthen impact and better direct global efforts in the digital arena. What motivated this panel’s formation was a growing awareness that as digital technology reshapes economies and society, it is imperative that the technologies deployed do not exacerbate global inequities, but instead seek to address them.

Co-Chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the panel’s final report provided recommendations for how the international community could work together to harness digital technologies for positive change. One of the key action items that emerged in the report’s aftermath was a call for global investment into the creation of digital public goods to help attain the sustainable development goals. Specifically, availability and accessibility to digital public goods—and the data they collect—was introduced as being essential to address issues of digital inclusion for all regardless of location, race, gender, religion or socioeconomic standing.

What is open source?

Not all open source projects are digital public goods, but all digital public goods must be open source. Open source software is code that is publicly accessible—anyone can see, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit. Many governments and international NGOs prefer open source software because of customization and data residency requirements. Since our founding in 2014 OpenFn has been committed to open-source software development and the source code for most of the products we’ve built is freely available on Github.

Notably, even though open source software is “free” the cost of deploying it and maintaining it carries costs that are sometimes comparable to commercial software licenses. Digital Square explains this dynamic further: “The misconception of open source as ‘free’ may be better understood through the Romance languages. Open source is libre, not gratis: free as in speech, not as in lunch. In the case of many low resource settings, this is the right kind of free. The need for adaptability is balanced by the ability to adapt a software.”

An example of a successful open source software project that is also classified as a digital public good is OpenLMIS. OpenLMIS is the leading logistics system used to track health products across national supply chains and while they credit their open source approach as being responsible for their deployment success to date, they have also experienced challenges related to their business model. Business model challenges force open source project maintainers like OpenLMIS and OpenFn to explore different types of revenue streams that ensure long term sustainability of the projects.

How OpenFn’s business model will enable long term sustainability of its open source project

Historically, lacking grant funding and without outside investors, OpenFn decided that the best way to continue delivering high-impact implementations and keep a laser focus on the needs of real-world NGOs that we serve was to build a licensed, closed-source software-as-a-service (SaaS) product offering (see openfn.org). This product is dependent on the huge suite of open-source software that we continue to invest in for the good of the larger community—“core”, “adaptors”, and almost all of the software we build is open source—but by licensing our SaaS we’ve been able to create a steady stream of revenue that is only dependent on real-world customers seeing and paying for the value they get by using the product. Selling subscriptions to the OpenFn platform has not only helped it grow into a strong, trusted, enterprise-grade product, but it has bootstrapped our implementation arm, subsidized our “free forever” enterprise tier, and funded the further development of our open source tools.

Thanks to recent support from DIAL, DFID and Digital Square, OpenFn is now able to invest more time and energy into our open-source tools—building new software to compete with and complement more directly our licensed platform and working to make the existing tools more accessible to a wider audience.The licensed platform and our open source project have a symbiotic relationship with one another. Open source innovation drives platform innovation and vice versa. Crucially, both rely on each other.

With a more robust open source offering and a heavy investment in documentation, it will be easier than ever for organizations to get up and running with OpenFn and then choose whether they want to scale their solutions on the platform or deploy them on their own infrastructure using nothing but free open source software (FOSS).

Some will still choose to use our hosted offering, and we’ll be encouraged to further differentiate that offering through the value that it provides—_not _merely by virtue of it being proprietary. In fact, we see a future in which NGOs and governments may shift seamlessly between all of our tools. We’ve developed them with exactly this in mind, ensuring zero lock-in despite the varying licenses.

What does this mean, concretely?

In the past it was quite challenging to use OpenFn’s open source tools, and we feel that they didn’t provide enough functionality, out-of-the-box, to our users. It’s not surprising to find, then, that almost all of OpenFn’s users were on the proprietary platform. Going forward our open source integration toolkit, including OpenFn/devtools, OpenFn/core, OpenFn/engine, and OpenFn/microservice, will be more robust, user friendly and accessible. This means that anyone, anywhere can build integration and automation solutions more quickly and interoperability solutions will be within reach to organizations with varying technical capabilities.

Versatility is a key component of our open source vision. We are constructing a system that users can grow and mature with. While our enterprise platform might be right for your organization today, 5 years from now, once your organization has its own dedicated IT team and server infrastructure, local deployment via microservice might make better sense. The good news is that OpenFn integration portability will make these transitions easy. Your integration will run just as well on your servers as ours.

As the diagram below demonstrates we envision two main pathways for OpenFn integrations. The tech savvy project manager will configure their workflows via our intuitive platform, while the power IT user will configure their workflows from the command line. Regardless of the chosen approach, there is flexibility to change paths whenever required.

Deployment Paths

Again, concretely, this means our users will have more and better options for how they run their data integration solutions. While they might use OpenFn/platform to build and test solutions, they could easily choose to run those same solutions on their own servers via OpenFn/microservice. Visit OpenFn’s Planning for Deployment page to learn more.

Open source is about more than code

An open source project is nothing without a strong community underpinning it. Led by a steering committee of stakeholders that represent our different users, we are activating a diverse community around our products that will help guide and power their direction.

This community of “citizen integrators” (people familiar with processes and data, but not software development—e.g., program analysts, clinic data managers, operations leads) will provide their valuable and diverse points of view and will be equipped to design and build robust solutions to automate processes and integrate systems.

To join our community please sign up to our community page and feel free to contribute and ask questions on the forum.

If you’d like to learn more about this

If your organization is thinking about interoperability and would like to learn more about OpenFn’s platform or open-source offerings please contact services@openfn.org for a free consultation.

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