Today Brazil is the ninth largest economy in the world and the largest in Latin America. With an Internet penetration rate of almost 60%, including 42 million inhabitants with 4G connections. Brazil is definitely a digital leader in the region.

Despite good urban Internet access, Brazil faces challenges such as connectivity in remote areas, provision of universal eServices and accessible education to all of its citizens.

In this past decade the Brazilian government launched numerous digital initiatives, based on open source software, but few of them have been successful. Indeed, no national strategies or action plans have been deployed to outline the role of each stakeholder. Defining a clear strategy, based on open source software, could be the foundation of an open knowledge society. The strategy should support innovations, create a more efficient nation, empower citizens and boost the economy.

Thus, building an open knowledge society in Brazil could spread knowledge through the country, bring Brazilians closer to each other and facilitate business opportunities. Open source models could be used to strengthen organizational structure, allowing the government to coordinate stakeholders, ultimately shaping a more efficient nation.

The Concept of an Open Knowledge Society

In an open knowledge society, the state becomes a partner empowering civil society and regulating the market. An open knowledge society uses open data, open standards, open content and open source software as the basis of its foundations. Very often these concepts are developed through public collaboration to create digital commons like the Wikipedia encyclopedia or the Linux operating system.

Furthermore, an open knowledge society should be technologically neutral while individuals and organizations should have the freedom to choose the most appropriate and suitable technology, standard, or content for building their initiatives. These requirements should be free of any lock-in to avoid dependency and give the opportunity to organizations or individuals to improve their societies.

Open Source in Governments

Spreading open source software in governments is the first step to build an open knowledge society. Open source software is computer software with its source code made available and licensed in a way that allows the copyright holder the right to study, change and distribute the software to anyone and for any purpose. Several countries have been working on open source initiatives during the last decade. Some of them, such as Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Mauritius and the United Kingdom, have been making impressive efforts using open source software inside their governments as well as promoting open source software in both the education and private sectors.

Australia: The government has defined in its open source software policy that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) procurement processes must actively and fairly consider all types of available software, government suppliers must consider all types of available software and Australian government agencies will actively participate in open source software communities, and contribute back where appropriate.

Canada: The Canadian government issued an official request for information on open source software to gather feedback and public guidance to help shape procurement policies. This move has been a prelude to broader adoption of free and open source software in the government’s IT infrastructure.

Ecuador: The National Plan for Good Living of Ecuador recognizes and stresses that the global transformation towards knowledge-based societies and economies requires a new form for the creation and distribution of value in society.

Mauritius: The Open Source Policy for Mauritius states that the future development of information society in the republic of Mauritius shall be based on a shared and open knowledge-based society, open standards, technological neutrality and broadly available ICTs to empower citizens and the private sector.

United Kingdom: The key points of the UK government’s policy are that the government will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions.

Advantages of Open Initiatives for Governments

A digital economic policy based on open initiatives increases transparency and makes governments more accountable to their citizens. Open sourcing allows nations to tailor solutions to their specific needs and include citizens in the design of their society. For most governments, the newest technologies are piled on older technologies creating layers of trouble while obsolete closed information systems offer barriers to integration with other agency systems because they fail to respect open standards and interoperability rules.

A well-tailored open source software policy could support governments in developing adapted open information systems where they could maintain control of the information systems’ functionality and methodology. That requires governments to have dedicated teams working on the political, functional and technical aspects of such policy.

A government should make decisions that maximize developer productivity, minimize total cost of ownership, avoid lock-in and make it easy for the government to share software that it creates. A proper policy should define open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats. These definitions should encourage collaboration, transparency, due process, fair access, market support and proper rights for implementation.

Policy implementation should increase citizens’ access to information and enhance public trust, allow citizens’ participation in decision-making, reinforce public officials’ accountability, strengthen civil servants’ integrity and boost innovation.

A Brief History of Open Initiatives in Brazil

In 1997, the National Educational Technology Program (ProInfo), an educational program, was created to promote the educational use of ICT in public schools. E-Proinfo has trained 50,000 students.

In April 2000, the government launched the Electronic Government Program with the creation of a working group to propose policies, guidelines and standards related to eGov services.

In May 2000, the first Free Software International Forum was organized at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Su. It is an interesting example of a mainstream event focused on open source, which is now in its 17th edition. This national event brings together universities, entrepreneurs, public authorities, users, groups, hackers, NGOs and activists for freedom of knowledge.

In 2003 the government of Brazil urged ministries and other agencies to use open source software.

In November 2004, the Information Technology Institute (ITI) and the Korean IT Industry Promotion Agency (KIPA) signed an agreement to exchange open source software experiences.

In 2005, the Brazilian Guide of Use of Open Source Software was available online.

In June 2006, the government set up 485 culture points to train citizens in the production and exchange of digital multimedia using FOSS. The objective of this program was to promote social and economic development of the communities, reducing social exclusion and creating digital inclusion opportunities to citizens.

In 2007, the Ministry of Planning, Budget and Management created an Open Source Software portal, which offers open source software developed by government bodies.

In 2008, Brazil's Technical Committee for the Implementation of Free Software was created.  Institutions such as the Ministry of Finance turned open source, and the idea of an open source policy was discussed.

Also in 2008, Brazil started its owned Open Educational Resources (OER) initiative based on a community made of educators, scientists, engineers, ICT professionals, lawyers and OER enthusiasts.

In 2011, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation implemented the Aquarius platform, a Web-based Government Business Intelligence System to enable public transparency on public funding for research and development.

Since 2013, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics has offered several datasets in open formats.

Since May 2016, the Ministry of Transparency, Monitoring and Control looks to improve transparency and fight corruption in public authorities.

Today, Brazil is ranked #12 in the 2015 Global Open Data Index. 1,124 datasets are available on the Brazilian open data portal concerning education, health, transportation, election results and public budget. Brazil is part of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) since its creation in September 2011. Brazil is committed to implement 52 measures of transparency and open government in its second action plan focusing on increasing public integrity, improving public services, increasing corporate accountability, creating safer communities and managing public resources more efficiently. The startup scene is present and dynamic in Brazil to develop adapted services. Some associations are grouping entrepreneurs like ABStartups in Rio de Janeiro.

Currently, the free and open source economic model sounds to be less supported by the Brazilian government. Why should a government import technology and ship billions of dollars outside their economy rather than creating software and jobs locally? Reasons are unclear but could be linked to simple government inefficiency, unwillingness to empower other social bodies or improper alignment with foreign companies’ interests.

Building an Open Knowledge Society in Brazil

In the last decade, Brazil has seen numerous open initiatives, but few of them have been sustainable. Indeed no proper strategy has been developed to conduct institutional reforms in order to build functional capabilities and to spread knowledge in order to build an open knowledge society.

Brazilians needs to reimagine the role of their state in building a society enabled by digital commons, created with public funds to stimulate social goods and benefits. Thus, Brazilians should reinvent a democratic model based on distribution, cooperation, civic relationships and directing governance and economy to social profits.

The government of Brazil should be a leading partner in this transition framework to improve access to technology, empower social organizations, and mutualize or create social infrastructures. Brazil should empower its citizens to build technology adapted to their needs by using global knowledge through the creation of local solutions.

In an open knowledge society, values are created by citizens and enabled by a government, which creates the right balance between stakeholders. The government essence changes to become a platform to coordinate and regulate stakeholders. The government turns out to be accountable to its citizens to facilitate information flows between governmental, civil society and market bodies. Thus, the state guarantees proper public knowledge dissemination in the society.

The Marco civil da Internet is the civil rights framework for the use of the Internet in Brazil, through principles, guarantees, rights and obligations to those who use the network as well as guidelines for state actions. The Marco civil was design in a collaborative manner. The first draft received about 800 substantive contributions to protect privacy rights, net neutrality, freedom of expression and safe-harbors for service providers. This policy also promotes eGovernance, universal access and innovation.

Thus, Brazil already has a clear civil rights framework, an OGP action plan and several digital initiatives, but a methodology is missing to reorganize the current digital ecosystem into an open knowledge society to benefit more from digital commons.

A well-tailored strategy could guide public authorities to build functional capabilities, spread knowledge and empower its population. This national initiative would boost the economy, spread transparency, extend participative democracy and bring each Brazilian to a better standard of living. To reach this point, Brazil should exceed the clan-based interests. Brazilians should support new leaders, who could implement a vision more aligned with democratic principles that could better serve the development of society as a whole.

Olivier Alais is an Affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and a Fellow with the Instituto de Tecnologia e Sociedade de Rio de Janeiro. He is interested in the social impacts of open data and open source. He has been working on numerous public programs such as supporting the Mauritian government to design their Open Source Software policy, improving the Internet penetration in Comoros, designing the eGovernment Web Development Strategy for the Government of Liberia or implementing a low-cost health insurance for migrants in Thailand.