1.6. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS): benefits and challenges

Software carries the instructions that tell a computer how to operate. The human authored and human readable form of those instructions is called source code. Before the computer can actually execute the instructions, the source code must be translated into a machine readable (binary) format, called the object code. All distributed software includes the object code, but FOSS makes the source code available as well.

Proprietary software owners license their copyrighted object code to a user, which allows the user to run the program. FOSS programs, on the other hand, license both the object and the source code, permitting the user to run, modify and possibly redistribute the programs. With access to the source code, the users have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, redistribute, probe, adapt, learn from, customise the software to suit their needs, and release improvements to the public for the good of the community. Hence, some FOSS is also known as free software, where “free” refers, first and foremost, to the above freedoms rather than in the monetary sense of the word.

Within the public health sector, FOSS can potentially have a range of benefits, including: