Put open source to work
July 16–17, 2018: Training & Tutorials
July 18–19, 2018: Conference
Portland, OR

Sustainable open source in international development

Michael Downey (United Nations Foundation)
1:45pm2:25pm Thursday, July 19, 2018
Level: Intermediate
Average rating: ****.
(4.00, 2 ratings)

Who is this presentation for?

  • Project maintainers, open source adopters, and current or potential sponsors/funders of open source projects

Prerequisite knowledge

  • Familiarity with the challenges in starting, building, or maintaining open source software projects

What you'll learn

  • Explore the Open Source Center at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) at the United Nations Foundation, a multilateral participatory program designed to be a global focal point of FOSS digital development projects
  • Understand why this type of program is key to ensuring the maturity and sustainability necessary for long-term success of digital development FOSS projects


Over the past decade, the international development community has been exploring how modern technology, such as mobile phones, the internet, and free and open source software, can extend the reach of its work. While other fields have demonstrated the FOSS development model as a proven viable model to leverage global collaboration, share costs across institutions, increase the quality of products, and more rapidly innovate, in the international development community, the results have been mixed. Duplication of effort, flawed funding models, and overall lack of project maturity has led to the failure of most free and open source software projects in the international development space. At the same time, these organizations have struggled to leverage FOSS in an effort to make their work more participatory, sustainable, and effective. Further, mainstream software often used in wealthier markets do not always fully meet the specialized needs of international development projects and the areas in which those projects are undertaken. These FOSS digital development projects usually struggle with lack of long-term investments in key focal areas such as community effectiveness and product development. Without emphasis on these key considerations, they can rarely match the functionality and quality of their proprietary competitors. As a result, these projects can’t grow to the more advanced levels of maturity needed for widespread adoption throughout the development field.

In collaboration with partners around the world, the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) at the United Nations Foundation is launching its Open Source Center, a multilateral participatory program designed to be a global focal point of FOSS digital development projects. Michael Downey offers an overview of the Open Source Center and details the work it’s doing to help increase FOSS projects’ maturity, quality, and reach, with the goal of advancing an inclusive digital society using FOSS for the poorest places on the planet. Michael covers the four key pillars required to mature tech-for-development FOSS projects and the five areas of services most useful to the center’s participating projects. He also discusses the center’s systems for governance, evaluation of participating projects, and financial sustainability strategies for the program and offers thoughts on translating its approach to other sectors. Join in to learn about the center’s plans to transform the international development FOSS space and share your feedback.

Photo of Michael Downey

Michael Downey

United Nations Foundation

Michael Downey is the Director of Community for Open Source for the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) at the United Nations Foundation. Michael’s career in IT and open source spans nearly two decades both in the healthcare and financial services industries, as well as the nonprofit world. In his new role, he will help to build a vibrant and active open source software community for high-impact technology for development (T4D) projects that advance the mission of DIAL. As a long-time participant in the T4D community, he is excited about DIAL’s unique opportunity to help build a digital society that serves everyone.

Michael served as a US Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, and later was the Director of Community for OpenMRS, an open source health IT software project. During his tenure at OpenMRS, it grew from “stealth mode” to a large open source community, receiving the prestigious Free Software Foundation’s Award for Projects of Social Benefit.

He received two undergraduate degrees in engineering from Purdue University, and did his PhD studies at Indiana University, researching cross-cultural computer supported cooperative work. Michael is also on the steering committee for LibreHealth, a new open source community to foster health IT collaboration. A long-time supporter and advocate for free and open source software, he is a member of organizations like the Free Software Foundation, Open Source Initiative, Internet Society, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.