Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software

The HFOSS Ecosystem for Sustainability

Despite the best of intentions, volunteerism will not easily deliver to standards and best practices in a sustainable and consistent way. What we often find is that there is a peak in capacity in HFOSS projects during a disaster response event, but it soon tapers away, leaving solutions that are sometimes not being maintained actively. There is also an imbalance in the different tasks required from development, documentation, quality assurance, and training based on available volunteer capacity. There needs to be an economic model to sustain a core group of people around the deployed solution to cater to its stability, usability, documentation, and training.

However, at the same time, it is rather inappropriate to be seeking business opportunities in the midst of a disaster response, where most private and public institutions are found donating goods and services. This is why most of the organizations that work in humanitarian response are non-profits, NGOs, and government funded groups. Some of the HFOSS projects themselves are funded non-profits, such as InSTEDD and Ushahidi, and they sustain core teams for disaster response. However, even they cannot manage all events and there needs to be a transition to other providers, especially in building up local capacity for support. Ushahidi, for example, transitioned the maintenance of the Haiti Ushahidi deployment to a private company based in Haiti.

Thus, business and social entrepreneurship opportunities lie in pre-disaster and post-disaster events, when the efforts of volunteer and non-profit organizations are insufficient to maintain tailored solutions for either the recovery or preparedness phases of disaster response.

A Proposed Public-Private Partnership Model for HFOSS Projects

An effective economic model has still to evolve that sees non-profits, for-profits, corporate social responsibility programs, and volunteers all working towards a common goal in delivering HFOSS solutions. A business model the author would like to propose for this domain is that of an HFOSS project governed by a funded, central non-profit organization with a paid core team to manage contributions and assure the quality of the core product releases. This same team would be funded for disaster response efforts. However, once the initial support is provided, a suitable transition needs to be made, preferably to a local for-profit or non-profit organization that will maintain the solution in the long term. A certification and corporate sponsorship program can in turn help maintain the essential tenets of quality and fund the core non-profit for its maintenance activities.


Delivering global public goods in the form of free and open source products has become a popular norm in the humanitarian response domain. HFOSS projects and the communities that surround them have become the natural homes for the “software engineers without borders” of the world. However, these projects need further growth to assure the sustainability and quality of products being deployed due to the mission-critical nature of the applications and their requirements for a high degree of quality, especially aligned to stability, fault-tolerance, and usability. One approach to delivering sustainability can be through a healthy economic ecosystem around an HFOSS project that involves funded non-profits, for-profits, corporate social responsibility programs, and volunteers working together to bring efficiencies to the disaster response efforts that will help save lives and alleviate human suffering.

This article was written by Chamindra de Silva and is one of several published in the December 2010 issue of the Open Source Business Resource. It is made available under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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