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Open Source Mentality for Science, Technology and Healthcare in Africa

Africans and their friends will have to adapt to this type of thinking for growth

Advancements in science and technology as applied to health services, agricultural services, business development or any other substantial realm of endeavor have remained the bedrock of human society development in the past. Although traditional civilization as has been documented for Egypt (Africa), Europe and Asia seem to be the originators of philosophical thought, there has been significant advancement in methods and materials of 'doing things' lately. Advances in science and the consequent development of methods seem to be the modern bases of improvement in the societies. Openness in thought and practice is modern.

Classical thinking

The combination of hardware and software to 'speed up' processes and thus actualize visionary thought remains a significant advancement in the last fifty years particularly for non-military purposes (and the like). Thus freedom and flexibility as well as the ability of the individual or corporate body to leverage and adopt the 'open source mentality' for software solutions to scientific, technological, agricultural and health-related challenges have to be placed in focus for many years to come. For science and technology, activities involving data generation, acquisition, manipulation, processing and extrapolation are paramount. Therefore, critical data, based on the objectives of experimentation, have to be systematized and analyzed while allowing for flexibility and innovation. When human thought processes and world outlook of recurrent events take examples for interpretation from far-back in time and space then it would seem more difficult to accept new methods of doing “things.”

Let us examine a current method of thinking, for example. In a scientific study, the objective of experimentation may be to determine the extent to which a food supplement intervention (administered orally) quantitatively affects disease (e.g. Diabetes mellitus) progression. Conducting this type of study in a human population of five thousand will generate data that can be processed, manipulated and extrapolated not only to satisfy study objective but also for use in the future. Such huge data will require warehousing for a long time to enable use and reuse by many people with this type of interest.

Prior to the evolution and modernization of 'open source mentality', the 'big' business of proprietary software for the advancement of science and technology in many spheres of knowledge base thrived and contributed immensely in building human society to where it is as at now. A major limitation for adoption, use and contribution into development of proprietary software became cost and this cost limitation also limited availability and affordability in developing companies mostly located in developing countries of the world.

Now that computer hardware abound everywhere with the capacity to accept any new operating system initiatives, and coupled with enormous human resources for utilization (especially developers), the introduction of open source software as part of open source mentality becomes a welcome development. Furthermore, the application of the inherent diversity of resources of this relatively new method (source and logic coding and other assets) of using a computer remains to be appreciated in the near future. Already new standards and specifications as listed in licensing documents are being set to guide the 'free-for-all' advancement of 'open source mentality'.

Diversity of the problem

Open source software development for traditional sciences at all levels of education and training will now be put in place for a new generation of potential scientists who will meet the challenges of an evolving world with peculiar challenges in science, technology, agriculture and health-related issues. Such challenges include the impact and consequences on environment and society (human and non-human), of climate change as well as on the 'attack and defense' systems of advanced societies. In effect, instead of teaching that, "action and reaction are equal and opposite", we will probably be teaching that, "the rate of melting Arctic ice, the number of Celsius degrees increase in the surrounding temperature and the plasticity of nervous system for adaptation or otherwise of human and animal behavior shifts".

The complexity of factors that will be incorporated into the latter philosophy will therefore require such diversity of opinions as can be easily accepted in the 'open source mentality'. When a workable systematic is developed against this background and a robust and flexible application is also developed providing solution for the potential multiple queries, the technologies would have emerged. The open source philosophy which guides software development and deployment has become acceptable by many more people than was the case for proprietary software and their corporate philosophy usually with an underlying profit motive.

Objectives in open source software development

Software solutions (or applications) are prepared with a view to solving identified and delineated challenges. So, problem oriented logic coding and user interface methods are often adopted. Here, object oriented programming becomes so relevant that equating the 'problem' to the 'object' facilitates formulation of logical solutions. Programming in Java or in Python will be an example of possible methods of developing solutions for identified and delineated problems. The use of open source models and open source databases will no doubt create marked advancements in science and technology in the very near future.

In the health sector of society, there seem to be a strong reliance on database integration technologies. Thus data on environment (e.g. poultry farms, mining sites), human populations (density and sex distribution), disease and risk factors (e.g. malaria, HIV­AIDS, tuberculosis), drugs (e.g. safety and efficacy of traditional medicines) and intervention and prevention approaches and mechanism are well sought after by World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Department for International Development (DFID), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Nigeria Ministry of Health (FMOH). The tortuous and long processes undertaken during development of relational database solutions for these and many more health-related problems will now be shortened because of the creative input of a lot more intellectual activity and so the saved effort may be applied in supporting new health initiatives.

Millennium development goals (MDGs) as outlined by the United Nations (UN) were thought out and articulated for generations to come. Health-related MDGs have therefore become an imperative for responsive governments to continuously focus on and to allocate enough funding and other resources for the benefit of their people. It can be said that the MDGs are people oriented programs. West African countries seem to be doing well towards achieving the MDGs. Advocacy and sensitization campaigns have remained overwhelming since the launching of the MDGs. One point that needs to be addressed, however, will be the jump­starting of processes against a background of an open source global knowledgebase or the cueing from already existing technologies rather than re-inventing the wheel (using old or classical methods). It should also be mentioned here that perhaps the first global blessing of open source mentality is interoperability mechanisms which has been found acceptable by the “big corporate bodies.”

Conclusion

In Africa, the Ubuntu Linux software package has kicked off adaptation, utilization and contributions to open source mentality. There is abundant beauty and functionality in Ubuntu (South Africa). Try it out. Wazobia (Nigeria) Linux as it prepares to make a debut promises to augment open source mentality in Africa. The availability and affordability of these open source packages for development will no doubt go a long way in helping established African scientists to attempt developing empirical solutions for common problems that will impact on science, technology, agricultural practices and local healthcare delivery practices.

More Stories By Uche Alex Osunkwo

Uche Alex Osunkwo, Ph.D. is President of the Abuja Open Source Software Shareware Community, Nigeria.

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