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Open Source Microcredit, Revisited
Jamais Cascio, 10 Feb 06

panaceatamilweb.jpgSteve Jobs once said, "real artists ship." He meant that no matter how elegant or useful the computer code, the only way it has value is if it gets into the hands of users. We could say something similar about open source software for NGOs: real activists ship. No matter how important or beneficial the software, the only way it has value for the people who need it is if those people can use it. In fact, nothing is more depressing for a digitally-empowered activist than to stumble across a brilliant piece of software, only to find that the web page hasn't been updated in a year and the code itself remains both unusable and unavailable. And nothing is more exciting than finding that another solution is available.

Way back in August of 2004, Alex pointed us to the Microfinance Open Architecture Project, an open source effort to develop tools for NGOs trying to manage microcredit services in the developing world. The developers understood the needs of the users, and had the right philosophy around the value of open source. Potential users of the code may have grown more excited at its potential when the Grameen Technology Center adopted the code (PDF), renaming it Mifos -- the Microfinance Open Source project -- in January of 2005. Work progressed through September of last year... then stopped. There's no software yet available, only a quiet Sourceforge site.

Let me be clear: this is not a criticism of the Mifos project. Stuff happens, and all-volunteer efforts are often difficult to sustain for reasons that have nothing to do with dedication. Grameen clearly has not forgotten about Mifos, as they listed a job opening for a Software Development Manager for the project at the end of January 2006. But the fact remains that a project that seemed to have enormous potential a couple of years ago has yet to get into the hands of people who need it.

Fortunately, there's another option -- one that also happens to be open source. This one comes from a part of the world that has seen the value of microcredit: Tamil Nadu, India.

The interestingly-named Panacea Dreamweavers Software Private Limited group of Chennai, India, offers a mix of open source and commercially-available software. The two commercial applications provide administrative support for schools and NGOs, with a focus on organizational accounting; much of the free code provides basic Tamil language tools such as a web browser, word processor & fonts, and an address book. But smack in the middle of the list of open source tools is something called Sangam Pro.

Panacea describes Sangam Pro as "Self-Help Group Managing Software for NGOs (in English)," and the more detailed description shows that its focus is on microfinance:

Self-help groups have been the cornerstone of social change and women's empowerment in Tamil Nadu. Panacea's Sangam Pro is designed to help umbrella NGOs assess and evaluate the performance of the SHGs under them by providing single-click access to information and updates on loans, repayments, meeting schedules, deposits, training programmes and membership details.

That's the extent of the description; the link to the software on that page is to the (Windows) executable file itself. Even the link to the full source code has no separate documentation. A "tips" file gives some sense of the program's scope -- as does the fact that it could fit on a single floppy disk (ask your parents).

By all appearances, Sangam Pro is narrowly focused, allowing management of loan information but not much else. Mifos is intended to be a full-featured NGO tool, with modules for client management, general accounting and survey assessment, alongside the robust loan and finance code. But Sangam Pro is available, and Mifos remains a hope.

Real activists ship -- because that's how you make a difference.

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Comments

While I don't want to be critical of Grameen, which seems to be doing something good, the mantra of open source is "release early, and release often." If you don't put the code in the public domain, you can hardly expect developers to leap on board! I put my own open souce project (unrelated) on sourceforge 8 months ago, and I've been amazed at how many people have jumped in to help. It *seems* as though Gameen is trying to develop behind the curtain, which is hardly the open source model.

Are there other WC readers who'd be interested in starting such a project? It seems like there's an intense need, and if the project were truly open source, I think it could get some serious traction.


Posted by: neil on 11 Feb 06

I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Bladin recently, the head of the Grameen Technology Center. Smart guys, but their scale is a bit more "corporate" than what it usually takes to start a strong, viral open source community.

The theory of building enterprise software, then opening it up to community participation only takes you so far. I tend to believe open processes from day one yield better outcomes.

With CiviCRM, open source constitutent relationship management software for nonprofits/NGOs, all of our design docs we avaliable from day one. If someone wanted to make a substantive contribuition and change the direction of the platform, they could.

But more importantly, we actively invested in building a community around the software. I'm not sure the rest of world understands how hard you need to work at openness to build an effective open source project in areas that fundimentally don't understand open source nor have an incentive to understand open source (microfinance, nonprofit effectiveness, etc.)


Posted by: David Geilhufe on 11 Feb 06

The key problem with Open Source projects is that Open Source software developers need to meet basic human requirements: Food, Shelter and Caffeine. :-)

If a project attracts people whose needs are met, they will get production. If they pay the people such that their needs are met - they will definitely get people, but maybe not the right people (true of any form of paid software development).

Neil's right - the code should be out in the public domain under an Open Source license *now* for there to be additional development. Saying "We'll release it under Open Source" isn't the same as "We're working on an open source project, here's the link if you want to look around".

The latter makes me think of a proprietary model that's using 'Open Source' as a selling point to attract venture capital - which I have seen too many times, and have seen venture capitalists fall for (hook, line, sinker, cleaned, fried) too many times. Be honest. If you're going to develop it proprietarily - do that, it's OK. Say you *want* or *intend* to make it Open Source - that's OK too. But don't call it open source and not have a link to an active project. Thou shalt be spanked for that.

I'm guilty of the latter with the MAHIN project, but hey - my basic needs ain't met right now, and I'm waiting for Drupal 4.7 to come out so I have a steady base to mess with. Once the stars are aligned, I'll get back to it. :-)


Posted by: Taran on 11 Feb 06

It's not enough to just ship; even if you get it to a release, your software can sit in obscurity on SourceForge forever if nobody knows about it.

If you really want to make a difference, you have to get the software out into people's hands, and that's almost as tough a nut to crack as sheperding the code to its release.

We used to hope technology's A-listers would sit up and take us from (relative) obscurity, but that really hasn't worked out as planned.

Instead, we're spending a whole lot of time out in the field, leading trainings and implementations, taking it one user at a time.

I guess it's the social source equivalent of having a modest-but-positive cash flow, as opposed to having a wad of VC cash and a huge burn rate.


Posted by: Douglas Arellanes on 12 Feb 06



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