Open Source Society and Central Asia

Last March the 3rd annual Regional Open Source Conference of Central Asia was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. The choice of Dushanbe as the host city (Tajikistan has the second lowest internet penetration in the region after Turkmenistan) made an important statement about how the conference organizers viewed the use of open source technology in Central Asia. The topics ranged from development, persons with disabilities, e-government, and education but carried a central theme of “Open Data, Open Systems and Open Technology”.  An underlying current within these topics is the idea that through open source technology we can bypass existing infrastructure to create projects which directly affect the people they are intended to benefit.

Open source technology offers more potential to more people more quickly than any other infrastructure project has before. This is because open source technology is quickly expanding outside of the world of software into a world of things. Two works, Cory Doctorow’s Makers (the book is itself free for download), and Chris Anderson’s Makers: The New Industrial Revolution offer the powerful suggestion that with 3D printing technology and individuals will be able to develop their own hyper-specialized niches –  fabricating themselves the things that their community needs. Websites like Thingiverse are full of open source designs and plans that anyone can fabricate or customize to their specific needs.

I discuss this technology specifically because the cottage industry model suggested for 3D manufacturing is one which fits well in the market economy found frequently in Central Asia as well as many other regions. On any given day at one of the bazaars in the region you will find hundreds of individuals doing one specialized thing – somsa makers, key cutters, the melon guys, etc. It is not hard to imagine a small booth making plastic replacement parts for cars or household goods that would otherwise be too expensive or inconvenient to find. The exponential decrease of technology costs could make such a business model possible in Central Asia by the end of the decade. This combined with the free and open source community makes such technology an attractive opportunity for investment.

While creating physical things with open source technology might be a few years off, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is gaining increasing popularity in the region. A recent study from UNPAN highlighted the strengths of OS resources in Kyrgyzstan. The study addresses the fact that OS offers opportunities for local ICT development, reduction in costs to developers, and promotion of legal infrastructure. The legal infrastructure point is particularly salient for two reasons. One observed result of an increase in open source use is an increase in awareness of copyright restrictions and stronger protective measures for creators. Johnny, Miller, and Webbink offer a  synopsis of copyright for FOSS, but the strong reliance on the OS community structure for help and support,and the ability of the community to blacklist users who misuse the sources, creates a self-correcting system or “netiquette“.  This phenomenon has been observed frequently in online learning communities, but is also attributed to other online commenting communities (Ziewitz, 2013).

The second major impact of open source on the legal infrastructure in Central Asia has been the development of e-government systems. Every state in the region (some relevant articles: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) has given more than a little attention to the idea of using e-government to provide information directly to citizens. The benefits of e-government (reduction in costs and physical infrastructure, increase in direct access to citizens, etc.) are obvious and projects to develop these resources are frequently funded by foreign NGOs. While creating e-government does not necessarily imply the adoption or use of open source technology or principles, e-government cannot successfully exist if there is not a free exchange of information. Bhuyian, in reference to Kazakhstan, observes:

It is widely believed that e-governance is promised to reduce corruption, which displeases corrupt political executives and bureaucrats, who, in turn, create building blocks to the implementation of e-government programs.

This reaction to e-government and open source and information access is observed in many instances in the region such as the case of Turkmen and Uzbek website content, where a hesitation to release information to the public results in poor e-government sources. The irony of this is that the websites and systems used to create these e-government sources are supported by open source software communities. Open source technology combined with the rapid adoption of technology are the greatest threat to repressive regimes. The ability to control the flow of information completely is not possible in the digital world. A single person is able to change the landscape of development across Central Asia. As web-based communication becomes more common place in the region people will be able to collaborate, invent, and revolutionize more easily.