Liberian ICT professionals Develop Local Software to Help Fight Ebola: Introducing the I-RAMP Software Solution

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Over the years, there has been a recurring discourse about the lack of capacity in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector of Liberia, especially in software development. This discourse and what appears to be the prevailingperception have led many, even the Government, to contractforeign skills/consultants to perform needed ICT services or outsource ICT projects,which could otherwise be done in Liberia.The “prevailing perception”hitherto this article, hashelped hinderlocal software development initiatives, thus strangulating much needed progress in the sector.

Despite this perception and the many challenges that “plague” the ICT sector, Liberian ICT professionals have not been deterred. In fact, both the perception and the challenges have kindled an influx of ICT professionals from abroad and motivated many of those who are considered locals or locally-based, to be even more motivated. What the advent/influx of Liberian ICT “brain gain” and motivation of the “locals” have done is ignite a new level of enthusiasm that has enabled the rewriting of Liberian ICT culture, removing dependence (consumers) on foreign-made software to becoming producers and consumers (Prosumers) of their own software. And this “PROSUMER-driven”mentality has ignited a new wave of innovation.  A product of this “new wave of innovation” is the newly developedEbola response application, the work of a consortium local ICT firms. In this article, I introduce and explain to you the Incident Response And Management Program or I-RAMP, a locally developed application.

The I-RAMP applicationis proof that Liberia indeed has the capacity to develop innovative software solutions, and that, that “capacity” had been here but ignored for reasons beyond my comprehension. I-RAMP is designed and developed by the Liberia IT Consortium (LitC). The software integrates computer, web and mobile technologies making it a tool that can be used anywhere, anytime, by anyone, and from any place that has internet connectivity and a web browser. The software allows the public to report Ebola-related cases and allows incident responders to collect and efficiently handle data for information gathering and subsequent dissemination to the public, decision makers and other stakeholders. It has the capability to provide all necessary information for crisis responders to respond more effectively using tools to facilitate Ebola or future crises.

I-RAMP is a Web-based application that provides a multitude of features and functionalities making it not only a robust application but a much needed solution at a time the country continues to experience challenges in the fight against Ebola. The application is developed in a way that the business functionality and design requirements are influenced by crisis responders and the existing situation.What’s more, I-RAMP was developed using OPEN SOURCE programming languages (PHP, MySQL, etc) and it can easily be integrated into other systems and platforms(works with all browsers). Below are screen shots of I-RAMP’s dashboard and a graphical overview of the software.

Local software production and development can spur economic growth in Liberia and other developing countries. This has even been confirmed at UN Conferences on Trade and Development as well as in reports from those conferences. A vibrant software development industry can create jobs and other opportunities for Liberians. Currently, software and services are dominated by the developed world but developing economies are catching up as well. In Liberia, our dependence on imported and proprietary software has stymied innovation and forced us become a repository of pirated software. Worst of all, lack of support for local software developmenthas caused aspiring local software developers to lose motivation while others are simplytoo lazy to learn how to develop software. But I am confident that the development of I-RAMP will lead to a software ecosystem and ultimately to a vibrant software industry that will kindle a new form of youth employment.

For such an industry to exist and thrive, the Government of Liberia (GoL), a significant buyer of software will need to provide support. The GoL can help promote local software development by ensuring that at least 50 percent of GoL software and ICT projects procurement are sourced from local software developers and other solutions providers. GoL also needs to launchgrant programs to support the development of local digital content. A grant that provides seed funding for companies entering new media and ICT; that supports internet and mobile phone product and service delivery; should be offered by the GoL. Applicants for these grants should be Liberia citizens over eighteen or Liberian-registered companies/organizations.

Other ways GoL could support this initiative is to sponsor software competitions which will enhance innovation and creativity. In addition, GoL should identify ways to encourage software multinational firms like Microsoft, IBM, Red Hat, and Oracle, to offer special incentives such as free development tools, training, certification and marketing support to local software developers. Moreover, a robust and full integration of Open Source Software should be seriously considered by the GoL since it (Open Source Software) allows innovation and competition.

The private sector and academia also have roles to play in supporting and ensuring that a vibrant software development industry exists. Providing funding for research, investing in startups or innovative ideas and solutions, are roles the private sector can play. Academia must ensure that quality education is provided and the environment for research is made available. This is WHY I continue to advocate the integration of OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE in academia. With open source software source code made available, students can learn to develop new and innovative solutions.

While we continue to make progress in the ICT sector, there are still barriers that may stagnate if not strangulate the achievement of a vibrant software industry. Some of them include: software piracy (inadequate protection of intellectual propertyrights), no access to venture capital and poor ICT infrastructure. The entertainment­–­especially the music industry- can bear me out on this one. They have been victims of “piracy” for quite some time and so far, this problem still persists. We look forward to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry and the Ministry of Justice to be vehement in instituting and implementing measures to protect Intellectual Property (IP).

Finally, the debate that Liberians lack the capacity to develop their own systems and software has been put to rest. I-RAMP is here and plans to be here for good! No more should or must Liberians rely on international consultants or outsource software or other ICT projects when the local capacity exists. This local capacity consists of both internationally trained professionals with extensive background and experience in ICTs as well as locally trained and motivated ICT professionals. To ensure this capacity remains, support must be provided by all stakeholders.

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