What New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern means by developing an "open source" app for COVID-19 contact tracing with Singapore

Posted on: April 9, 2020 - 14:59 By: tim

In today's press conference, the Prime Minister mentioned that the New Zealand government is expressing interest in collaborating with Singapore while they "open source" their COVID-19 contact tracing app that's Bluetooth-enabled.

What does "open source" mean? And why is it important?

All software has two forms: one form is produced by people with text and the other is made up of zeros and ones for computer. The first form is known as "source code". To make an app available as "open source" means that Singapore government is allowing other governments--and civil society--access to the human-readable source code.

Open source has two significant benefits: it decreases the cost of development and increases the public's trust.

An open source app allows all collaborating governments to make improvements, amplifying each other's investment.

Most importantly however, the app's capabilities are able to be validated. Civil society is able to verify political promises that their data is safe. Open sources allows civil society to inspect the actions of the app. Using an open source model is a strong protection against the risks of devolving into a police state.

Collaborating internationally also acknowledges that this is a global issue. Open source software allows governments to share best practice rapidly.

But where is the contract? That's the trick. There doesn't need to be one. Copyright law allows creators to grant others access to their works. A list of accepted, pro-forma open source software licences are provided by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) at https://opensource.org/.

Permissionless collaboration and permissionless auditing allow the benefits of technology-enabled contract tracing, while mitigating its severe risks. An application that tracks citizens' interactions could easily be misused by 3rd parties or overreaching government agencies. Without public trust, the app won't be installed. We hope to see more public sector adoption of open source software and open standards as we all adjust to a new normal.
 


View the Prime Minister's statement: