The Fu­ture of In­dian E-gover­nance Be­gins with OpenForge

In March this year, the gov­ern­ment of In­dia launched as an of­fi­cial plat­form to pro­mote the ‘open, share and col­lab­o­rate’ phi­los­o­phy among its var­i­ous de­part­ments. With a GitHub-like model, hosted within the coun­try, the new plat­form is a

OpenSource For You - - Contents - By: Jag­meet Singh The au­thor is an as­sis­tant edi­tor at EFY.

Col­lab­o­ra­tion and shar­ing are the two an­cient prac­tices among In­di­ans. But when it comes to open­ing up the source code of gov­ern­ment ap­pli­ca­tions, you will rarely find state de­part­ments evinc­ing much in­ter­est. A large num­ber of multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions, on the other hand, ac­tively sup­port com­mu­nity ef­forts today and par­tic­i­pate in sig­nif­i­cant open source de­vel­op­ments to at­tain tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity. This is why the gov­ern­ment has now launched OpenForge.

“The ob­jec­tive of OpenForge is to pro­mote the re­use of ex­ist­ing ap­pli­ca­tions,” ex­plains Radha Chauhan, president and CEO, Na­tional e-Gover­nance Divi­sion (NeGD). “Open source code will help in de­vel­op­ing suc­cess­ful, scal­able, high-qual­ity e-gover­nance ap­pli­ca­tions in a col­lab­o­ra­tive man­ner. It will also en­cour­age cre­ativ­ity in the ap­pli­ca­tion de­vel­op­ment process by en­cour­ag­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive de­vel­op­ment be­tween gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and agen­cies as well as pri­vate or­gan­i­sa­tions, de­vel­op­ers and cit­i­zens,” she says.

The Min­istry of Elec­tron­ics and IT (MeitY) as­signed the OpenForge project to the NeGD team that is re­spon­si­ble for hav­ing in­tro­duced the na­tion’s dig­i­tal locker sys­tem, DigiLocker, last year. Not only has the OpenForge plat­form been de­signed to sup­port open source, but it also hap­pens to be an open source project on its own.

Open source tech­nolo­gies: Be­hind the scenes

The NeGD team has used the open source col­lab­o­ra­tion plat­form Tuleap to build the repos­i­tory so­lu­tion. Un­der the hood, there is the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack.

“To jump­start the process, we wanted to se­lect an ex­ist­ing open source ap­pli­ca­tion rather than build one from scratch. We eval­u­ated var­i­ous ap­pli­ca­tions on mul­ti­ple pa­ram­e­ters,” says Amit Sa­vant, tech­ni­cal prod­uct man­ager, NeGD.

There were two main chal­lenges for the NeGD team in de­vel­op­ing OpenForge as a suc­cess­ful open source

of­fer­ing. First, the plat­form should not be a mere ver­sion con­trol tool but must of­fer rich col­lab­o­ra­tion fea­tures for soft­ware de­vel­op­ment teams. These should in­clude is­sue track­ing, fo­rums, email lists, doc­u­men­ta­tion and re­leases. Sec­ond, the ap­pli­ca­tion must be very cus­tomis­able. It must also have a vi­brant com­mu­nity with fre­quent re­leases to en­sure that NeGD got timely sup­port for any is­sues. Such sup­port, up­dates or bug fixes also needed to be well doc­u­mented if NeGD planned to cus­tomise and own them. Last, but not the least, NeGD wanted to se­lect a plat­form built us­ing tools and tech­nolo­gies that its tech­ni­cal team was con­ver­sant with.

Eval­u­at­ing SourceForge, Git­Lab and Tuleap

To achieve what was planned, the NeGD team eval­u­ated and ex­per­i­mented with SourceForge, Git­Lab and Tuleap.

But Tuleap emerged as the ‘more suit­able’ in the list. "We eval­u­ated and ex­per­i­mented with SourceForge, Git­Lab and Tuleap. And, fi­nally, we found Tuleap the most suit­able as per our eval­u­a­tion cri­te­ria," Sa­vant says.

At­tract­ing 70 projects in less than 100 days

OpenForge cur­rently hosts over 70 ac­tive projects on its plat­form, and over 60 per cent of the to­tal projects are in the pub­lic do­main. Some of the im­por­tant projects by the Min­istry of Elec­tron­ics and IT (MeitY) and NeGD, in­clud­ing DigiLocker and Gov­ern­ment eMar­ket, are al­ready us­ing this plat­form. Be­sides, the OpenForge project it­self is hosted on the on­line plat­form.

Sys­tem­atic change

De­babrata Nayak, project di­rec­tor of open source col­lab­o­ra­tion at NeGD, con­sid­ers OpenForge as a sys­tem­atic change that re­quired the sup­port of the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Nayak, who also leads the tech­ni­cal team of the DigiLocker project, high­lights that his team re­ceived com­plete sup­port from the MeitY and NeGD.

Apart from the depart­men­tal sup­port, it was the open source pol­icy of the gov­ern­ment that helped the de­vel­op­ment of OpenForge. As part of the Dig­i­tal In­dia ini­tia­tive, the In­dian gov­ern­ment had re­leased the pol­icy ti­tled ‘Col­lab­o­ra­tive Ap­pli­ca­tion De­vel­op­ment by Open­ing the Source Code of Gov­ern­ment Ap­pli­ca­tions’ back in 2015. “The pol­icy pro­vided a solid foun­da­tion for OpenForge. It listed the ba­sic prin­ci­ples and el­e­ments for build­ing the en­vi­sioned plat­form, and pro­vided a clear idea of what the re­sult ought to be,” states Nayak.

Ad­min­is­tra­tive chal­lenges be­fore the launch

While the open source pol­icy en­abled the speedy process of build­ing OpenForge, it was dif­fi­cult to high­light the sig­nif­i­cance of the ini­tia­tive in or­der to cre­ate a buy-in from other gov­ern­ment de­part­ments. “The main chal­lenge was that the idea it­self is of a very tech­ni­cal na­ture and fails to res­onate

with most of the de­ci­sion mak­ers,” re­calls Chauhan.

The tech­ni­cal team very of­ten fails to ex­plain the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of such an ini­tia­tive. There­fore, the team used a sam­ple fig­ure by quot­ing the soft­ware ap­pli­ca­tions de­vel­oped within NeGD us­ing an open source stack. “Once we showed the ben­e­fits in terms of the money saved, it was very easy to high­light the im­por­tance of the ini­tia­tive,” Chauhan told Open Source For You.

Once the launch was planned, the team be­gan the in­ter­nal test­ing phase for OpenForge. The prime ob­jec­tive was to “cre­ate a sim­ple prod­uct with­out com­pro­mis­ing on rich fea­tures.”

“We wanted OpenForge to be sim­ple for novice users yet pro­vide flex­i­bil­ity to all project teams to achieve what they want,” says Amit Ran­jan, project ar­chi­tect for OpenForge, NeGD.

How it dif­fers from GitHub

One ques­tion raised by the In­dian open source com­mu­nity is: What makes OpenForge dif­fer­ent from GitHub?

The open source pol­icy by the gov­ern­ment en­cour­ages the use of open source in as many e-gover­nance ap­pli­ca­tions as pos­si­ble. But not ev­ery e-gover­nance project is go­ing to be open source. Some may re­main pri­vate. OpenForge has thus been cre­ated to pro­vide a col­lab­o­ra­tion plat­form for both these pub­lic and pri­vate projects. The open source projects can very well be posted on GitHub, but en­ter­prise level pri­vate repos­i­to­ries are not free on GitHub; they are avail­able at a cost. More­over, the team wanted the repos­i­to­ries of pri­vate projects to be hosted within In­dia. It has there­fore lever­aged the state-run data cen­tre pro­vided by Na­tional In­for­mat­ics Cen­tre (NIC), which may not have been pos­si­ble with GitHub. This is the prime pur­pose of not us­ing GitHub and cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate plat­form.

“Fea­ture wise, GitHub is more a code shar­ing and ver­sion con­trol plat­form. It keeps on re­ceiv­ing new fea­tures con­tin­u­ously. Com­pared to GitHub, OpenForge sup­ports more rich col­lab­o­ra­tion fea­tures such as var­i­ous track­ers to track bugs and re­quire­ments, doc­u­men­ta­tion, fo­rums, mail­ing lists and re­lease man­age­ment,” Ran­jan em­pha­sises.

Mul­ti­far­i­ous ef­forts to get con­tri­bu­tions

NeGD has planned some key initiatives to en­cour­age var­i­ous IT teams and the com­mu­nity to share their code on OpenForge. Nayak says that his team is look­ing at in­ter­nal evan­ge­lism for state level con­tri­bu­tions as well as de­vel­op­ing a sys­tem­atic and con­struc­tive process to re­ceive con­tri­bu­tions from the com­mu­nity. “We want to pro­mote a cul­ture of treat­ing the soft­ware code as an as­set. This will need in­ter­nal evan­ge­lism,” Nayak told Open Source For You.

The team is also plan­ning to add cred­i­bil­ity to the project by fea­tur­ing some of the high pro­file projects done by the gov­ern­ment. “We will es­pe­cially try to high­light work done by the big­ger gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and the well-known ap­pli­ca­tions,” Nayak adds.

For a suc­cess­ful open source based fu­ture

Along­side com­mu­nity con­tri­bu­tion, the main fo­cus of the plat­form is to in­tro­duce the phi­los­o­phy of ‘open, share and col­lab­o­rate’ to gov­ern­ment de­part­ments.

“There is no dearth of young and en­thu­si­as­tic tal­ented peo­ple in academia and in­dus­try who are will­ing to con­trib­ute to gov­ern­ment ap­pli­ca­tions. There­fore, we sin­cerely hope that OpenForge will bridge this gap be­tween e-gover­nance and open source, bring­ing the com­mu­nity and the gov­ern­ment to­gether," Chauhan con­cludes.

The team that de­vel­oped OpenForge

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