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:
Lower costs as it does not involve paying for prohibitive license costs.
Given the information needs for the health sector are constantly changing and evolving, there is a need for the user to have the freedom to make the changes as per the user requirements. This is often limited in proprietary systems.
Access to source code to enable integration and interoperability. In the health sector interoperability between different software applications is becoming increasingly important, meaning enabling two or more systems to communicate metadata and data. This work is a lot easier, and sometimes dependent on the source code being available to the developers that create the integration. This availability is often not possible in the case of proprietary software. And when it is, it comes at a high cost and contractual obligations.
FOSS applications like DHIS2 typically are supported by a global network of developers, and thus have access to cutting edge research and development knowledge.