Mar 07, 2017

India's GitHub-like software repository for government apps is here

BYRamarko Sengupta

The Indian government will unveil its first ever open source software repository called OpenForge on Tuesday.
Union Minister for IT Ravi Shankar Prasad will launch the GitHub-like platform at the 10th International Conference on e-governance to be held in Delhi later today, according to officials. The website, is already live.
GitHub and SourceForge are popular online repositories for software code, that can be shared and customised by people.
The project has been in the making for more than 2 years now. The repository is aimed at avoiding duplication and building a software assets bank of the government where outsiders can also collaborate to build or innovate on the existing codes.
OpenForge product architect Amit Ranjan said the platform will primarily focus on e-governance software. OpenForge’s project director, Debabrata Nayak, said that 80% of e-governance software that’s required across the country is similar in nature and could be used from a central repository by state governments and local bodies, rather than developing it separately everywhere from scratch. For example, the e-governance software requirements are fairly similar in municipal bodies across the country, or even across universities/ schools.
“Every (state) government and even municipalities are developing software. The same software is being developed across the country. If you look at the central government agencies even they are doing the same repetitive work. You are spending money on repetitive tasks,” he added. The platform is aimed at saving redundant effort and costs towards software development.
In 2015, the IT ministry had launched a policy that stated that if the government spends public money on developing customised software, the people should be able to reuse it. “If the government has spent money on custom developed code then the government owns the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) and they can open the source code. The policy also states we should have a platform that should enable collaboration,” Ranjan said.
OpenForge is the first tangible product based on this policy. The team had been testing it internally with some government departments as well a few private players.
Why OpenForge when Github and SourceForge already exist? Nayak believes that although platforms like GitHub and SourceForge are very popular, they don’t focus on government applications. Amit Ranjan commented on the already existing platforms and said that “certain government departments may not be able to use these external platforms due to restrictions on sharing of code/data on foreign hosted servers like GitHub and SourceForge; OpenForge will enable these departments to collaborate and adopt open sourced development.”
Bengaluru-based open source warrior Thejesh GN however says he doesn’t find OpenForge interesting as it’s not different from platforms like GitHub. He concedes though that for functionalities across government and various municipal bodies within the country, a platform like this makes sense as it will indeed cut down repetitive work and save costs in turn.
“One of the things they (government) say is about GitHub being hosted outside the country and will there be issues? I don’t see that as an issue, because if it’s an open source it’s an open source. Whether it’s hosted within the country or outside shouldn’t be a problem,” he says.
As far as collaboration with private entities as well as citizens is concerned– something OpenForge is envisioning — Thejesh points out that the basis for any collaborative platform is community. Suggesting that there may not be real incentive for citizens/partners to collaborate, he comments, ”Everybody is on Facebook because everybody else is on Facebook. So it’s the same thing with GitHub. Everyone’s on GitHub and wants to develop code there because every other developer who contributes to open source is on GitHub.”
A possible suggestion emerging out of this is that the government, if it wants to involve citizens as far as code development is concerned, “should go where citizens are already there rather than trying to bring people on their own platform.”
Internet giant Google used to have its own platform for open source called Google Code which was shut down last year. Google moved its open source code development to GitHub.

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Ramarko Sengupta is a writer of FactorDaily.