Case for generic open source products in social sector

Generic open-source products bring a number of advantages to their customer than is obvious, more so in the social sector. Here we explain the factors which are not obvious and why one must pay attention to them when deciding between build or buy.

Avni caters to field work across sectors and organisations. It can do that because there are a lot of similarities in the field work across sectors. Avni provides for all the similarities within the platform and provides tools to make the organisation specific things easier to implement on it. In other words it is a generic software product that is configurable. But there are also a lot of custom software solutions that are utilised for the same purpose as well. So, how does Avni compare to other custom software solutions in use? To answer this, I must explain the broader picture of "software for social sector" - using Avni's use case as an example.

Lets breakup the potential customers of Avni (and adjacent products) into two segments.

  1. The customer needs are similar to many other organisations and is also simple to set up. The setup can be done in-house or by someone who is easily available. Essentially this use case has been largely democratised.
  2. The customer needs do have commonalities with others, but there are some things which are specific to as well.

The first segment is well served by tools like ODK, KoboCollect, Google forms, etc and they are also nearly free. In second segment the approach is usually to find a software service provider and develop custom solution if the organisation has the budget for it. If they do not have budget, they have suboptimal options available to them. Avni tries to solve this problem by creating a generic product that requires configuration and some amount of learning - but reduces the cost substantially making it affordable.

To explain this point we can compare it to something like creating websites (or web presence). One can either use Facebook/LinkedIn page (1) or develop one's own website (2). Avni in this analogy would be like Squarespace - it gives you more power than 1 and keeps your development cost down too. Avni keeps your hosting cost low too unlike SquareSpace :-), but that is not part of analogy here.

Let us now turn our attention on how segment 2 should decide to choose, Avni or not. In our experience, the tradeoffs involved here are less well understood. When one compares a generic product, with what is possible via a custom solution a few factors are understood well:

  1. The customer gets full control of all the features now and in the future.
  2. Since it is being built ground up it will cost substantially, but that is price of getting above.

But there are a number of factors that are not obvious when making this decision.

  1. A generic product has institutional knowledge of the domain, technology and users which is of significant value because it has been created by working with number of organisations in the same domain solving similar problem. This institutional knowledge reduces risk for the customer/user. In social sector the IT capacity on customer side are quite low to specify requirements, managing project, testing - which are significant source of risk. Technically a generic product has gone through the problems specific to the domain and has solved them. The custom software development will have tread the same path - alone.
  2. Modern generic products evolve (functionally and technically) even if the customer doesn't put any resources into it, unlike a custom software - because it a share resource evolving always.
  3. Generic products create ecosystems around them which benefits everyone in it. For example - Avni makes it easy for an organisation to copy a module (like maternal health) from another customer's implementation and tweak it.

This is not to imply that one should never develop custom applications but that there are far more factors in favour of a generic product than meets the eye initially. The long term value and mitigation of risk must be looked closely before making the final decision.