How Would Our Ministries, Agencies Fare in a Software Audit?

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If someone was to ask how much the Government of Liberia (GoL) or Liberian businesses spend on proprietary and commercial software, I am not sure you would get a straight answer. This is just my opinion, of course. But, if a software audit was done today at our ministries, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), businesses, and other organizations, how would they fare? In today’s article, I briefly discuss software audit and its impact on our society.

Before I proceed, let clarify the misunderstanding that a few IT professionals have about a software audit. Software audit is different from Information Technology (IT) audit. A software audit or software licensing audit, on which this article focuses, is a regular investigation of the software installed on all computers in an organization to ensure that it is authorized or licensed. The process minimizes the risk of prosecution for software theft, as well as the risk of malware through uncontrolled software copying. In addition, a software audit ensures that the right technical support is available to all users.

On the other hand, an Information Technology Audit or IT Audit is an examination of the checks and balances, or controls, within an information technology (IT) group. In this process, evidence of an organization’s information systems, practices, and operations are collected and evaluated.  The evidence culled from this evaluation is used to determine whether the organization’s information system is safeguarding the information assets, maintaining data integrity, and operating effectively and efficiently to achieve the organization's business goals or objectives. As I said earlier, the focus of this article is on software audit and this is what I discuss in following paragraphs.

Many of the IT professionals I know in Liberia (some of them working at government establishments), carry a software wallet or portable storage device that stores costly proprietary software on them. I often wonder how they manage to obtain their repository of software knowing that the cost of commercial software is extremely prohibitive. For example, the Microsoft Windows 8 operating system is about $200 USD or more per copy. This amount is more than what some IT professionals make monthly in Liberia. So, it doesn’t take a Rocket Scientist to figure out that software piracy is ubiquitous in Liberia, and the entire continent of Africa. In fact, report on global software piracy by the International Data Corporation (IDC) found that 80% of all software sold in Africa is pirated. This level of piracy, according to the IDC’s report, causes Africa's economy to suffer to the tune of over USD$1 billion.

Software piracy is mostly found among consumers and small businesses, and the increasing availability of unlicensed software at online peer-to-peer file-sharing sites. For every legal copy of software that comes out more than one copy of it is made and distributed illegally, and Liberia is not alien to this phenomenon. Honestly, I don’t think a lot of folks in Liberia bother to think of the ethical or economic consequences of pirating software; just as folks don’t give thought do music or movie piracy.

Companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Adobe, IBM, and other large software publishers often perform an audit of their customers. And when organizations are found to be in violation of licensing agreements, significant fines are placed on them. Despite this, no software publisher has successfully found a 100% secure method to control pirated software. Illegal software is freely available and readily accessible in many forms: on CDs, both home-recorded and mass-produced, and across the Internet. But does this mean that our government entities should have illegal software installed on their computers?

For many businesses and organizations in Liberia, the term software auditing is foreign. And even if there is a remote thought of software audit, it is without a doubt given the lowest priority. Obviously, there are many reasons for this: very little interest in ICT and the lack of funding to purchase legitimate software. But the most vivid reason for this is the proverbial and ubiquitous problem that haunts us in Liberia; the lack of knowledge of software auditing and piracy, as well as their impact on organizations.

Software audits provide several benefits for an organization, especially the Government of Liberia. It can be an effective and efficient way to improve software distribution, and help avoid copyright infringement prosecution by software companies like Microsoft. This is something I wish policy makers would take seriously. In fact, the Business Software Alliance (BSA), which is the leading advocate for the global software industry before governments and in the international marketplace, lists five key elements that it believes governments must implement in order to reduce piracy in their respective countries. Perhaps our policymakers can begin by taking a look at those five elements.

Now, let’s get back to my original question: Do we know how much the Government of Liberia (GoL) spends on proprietary software? I would assume that it does spend a lot of money on proprietary software. And these software are greatly under-utilized, partly because of the lack of skills or proper training, and often because they were deployed without due diligence or research. Now, do you understand why I have always advocated the development and use of Open source software in Liberia? Such an initiative could allow software to be produced locally thereby empowering Liberians through entrepreneurship, and reducing the risks that software piracy brings.  

If we invest the same amount spent purchasing proprietary software on Open Source Software development in Liberia, we may just be able to stimulate economic activity via a software ecosystem and reduce, if not eliminate, the amount spent on proprietary software. I reckon we might need to provide strong quantitative data to help us make a strong economic argument to our policymakers, for why we should adopt open source software. To make this argument, you need to collect data on the number of licenses that are purchased by the government, businesses, etc. The question is, where do you find the data?

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