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What vaccines teach us about open source innovation

By GREG GATHERER, account manager at Liferay Africa

Mention open source to most people and they’ll probably conjure up images of geeks in Linux shirts working on operating systems that are unfathomable to the average person. But in truth, open-source is crucial to so much of the way the world operates. 

All of the top tech giants, Amazon, Google, IBM, and even Microsoft are built on top of open-source platforms. Additionally, there are more than 3-billion active devices running Android, Google’s open-source operating system. And Github, the world’s largest source code repository is also open-source. 

Open-source is, in other words, all around us. It’s so ubiquitous that many of us don’t even notice it. But its importance is once again being underlined during the pandemic and the development of the vaccines which offer the best path back to any kind of normal. 

Fast, agile collaboration 

The speed with which the various Covid-19 vaccines currently in use were developed is nothing short of astonishment. It would also not have been possible without unprecedented levels of funding and urgency and, perhaps most importantly, global cooperation and sharing of knowledge. The last of these is a central tenet of the open-source community. 

It should hardly be surprising then that even before the vaccine, open-source was being used to understand factors that drove the spread of Covid-19. RapidPro, for example, is a free open source software that allows users to easily build and scale mobile-based applications from anywhere in the world. works via simple text messaging (or platforms like WhatsApp), so organisations can gather crucial data directly from individuals, even in hard-to-reach places.

Among the cities which are using the app for their Covid-19 response is Mexico City, which is the sixth-largest metropolitan area in the world. There are similar stories with many other platforms, data sets, and tools around the globe. These tools are only able to be rapidly adapted to different local conditions and needs because they’re open-source. 

There is now a strong argument for this kind of open-source approach to be taken with the vaccines themselves. Taking a fully open-source approach, some have argued, would open up access and end vaccine inequality, just as it did with Polio. In a significant step towards this, India recently made its vaccine platform open-source and is reviewing more than 100 applications from private firms for their integration with the platform. 

Lifting everyone 

The broader point, and lesson for business, is that everybody benefits when we innovate openly. We’d all be in a much worse place when it comes to Covid-19 if people weren’t willing to share knowledge and data. And there can be absolutely no doubt that the internet would be poorer without the likes of WordPress and Github. The really big thing in open-source’s favour is the fact that lots of people are working on it all the time. Most open-source platforms are backed by vibrant communities that quickly identify problems and build solutions. Liferay is no exception. Our community has more than 180 000 members, who actively contribute to the Liferay platform. 

Far from discouraging innovation, open-source inspires it, not least because it allows organisations to focus on what really sets them apart. Whether that’s writing, ecommerce, or insurance, open-source allows them to always be current from a technology perspective. Moreover, it allows them to operate knowing that if they have a technical challenge, there’s a strong chance that someone’s faced it before. Additionally, they know that they’ll be able to reciprocate the favour down the line. 

The past two years have shown us just how rapidly the world can change. But amidst even the most difficult changes, we’ve witnessed unprecedented innovation across a wide range of fields. That won’t slow down. If you want to embrace that innovation, you need to embrace open-source.

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