How countries are tackling Covid with open source

By Jaz Low

Interview with Debashis Nag, Regional Digital Transformation Lead at UNDP Asia-Pacific.

“The power of open source is the power of the people,” said Philippe Khan, inventor of the first camera phone. His creation allowed individuals to share warm memories with others – the same way open source enables tech builders to get in on good code.

Many countries are increasingly turning to open source software to plug urgent problems and speed up development. This has become even more crucial during the pandemic, when governments have been stretched thin on all fronts to protect citizens.

Debashis Nag, Regional Digital Transformation Lead at UNDP Asia-Pacific shares how open source has helped governments manage Covid-19 and roll out digital identity systems.

Open source software in vaccine roll-outs

Countries are looking to open source software to manage the ongoing public health crisis.

India’s fight against the pandemic is in part thanks to CoWIN, a web portal built on open source software for Covid-19 vaccination registration, immunisations, and appointments.

The biggest advantage of CoWIN is that anyone can register themselves on the portal, even if they do not have access to the internet or an identity card. This is thanks to the government setting up e-service centres in rural areas for households in need.

As part of its efforts to boost vaccine accessibility around the world, the government of India is offering this system to other countries.

CoWIN is built on open source software with UNDP’s support and countries can quickly customise it for their own vaccination programmes. So far, 142 countries have shown interest in adopting it, Business Standard reported.

Open source software can be publicly accessible, and governments can tap on it to expand and replicate the good work in other regions. This could save them time and energy as countries can adopt tried and tested practices.

“When agencies publish their source code for tech applications in an open forum, others in similar need can access these resources for free,” he explains. Conversely, countries that are overly dependent on a specific vendor to develop tech solutions will likely face high prices.

UNDP has joined the Digital Public Goods Alliance, which aims to help more countries benefit from open source software by accelerating investment in these platforms. “UNDP will contribute to the Alliance by giving advice on advocacy, implementation, empowerment, and scaling of open source software,” Nag says.

Vaccine supply chain management 

India’s vaccine supply chain management system also helped India in its fight against Covid-19. The Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network app has supported continued immunisation across India during the pandemic by digitising information on vaccine stocks, the UNDP wrote.

Similarly, the UNDP helped Indonesia to launch the SMILE app to monitor vaccine distribution throughout the country.

SMILE records the storage temperature of vaccines as well. Since vaccines have an optimal temperature range where they work best, this will make sure that vaccines reach their beneficiaries in a timely manner.

“Our support for digital solutions in vaccine delivery and management improves the overall efficiency in the distribution of vaccines, reduces vaccine wastage, and contributes to achieving equitable access to vaccines,” Nag says.

Apart from the successful implementation in these countries, the UNDP had a hand in supporting other vaccine roll-out programmes in countries such as Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Bangladesh’s Surrokha and Bhutan Vaccine System are web portals that provide information on vaccine registration status and vaccination schedule. These allow people to book their appointments with ease.

Vaccine certificates

Open source software has enabled countries to issue official Covid-19 documents more smoothly. Indonesia, for instance, used a public code to issue digitally authenticated pre-departure Covid-19 test results and vaccination certificates.

First created in India, the open source software known as Digital Infrastructure for Vaccination Open (DIVOC) has launched 1.1 billion digitally signed vaccination certificates in the country, its website wrote. DIVOC was first introduced in one region but eventually reached the entire country.

Digital identity

Governments have established digital identity systems using open source software. The Philippines is one example.

As of April 2021, the identification system has helped 2.4 million unbanked registrants open bank accounts free of charge and without any initial deposits, according to The Manila Times. This brings the Philippines one step closer to ensuring that no individual is deprived of financial resources.

“Persistent digital divides act as amplifiers of existing social, cultural and economic inequalities,” Nag shares. “Going digital, if not designed appropriately, can leave the most vulnerable further behind. In this context, digital identity systems can aid financial and social inclusion initiatives,” he adds.

With the help of open source software, authorities managed to resolve delays when sending one-time passwords to citizens who were registering their personal details. The government also referred to the platform’s resources to adhere to data security and privacy guidelines when capturing biometric data.

This particular open source software is known as Modular Open Source Identity Platform, which allows countries to freely build their own digital ID systems.

Countries with more resources may have a head start in dealing with the worst of the pandemic, but open source solutions have helped many nations catch up quickly. They say openness breeds openness - may it be so.