Why Trade Facilitation Needs a U.N. based Open Source Solution (By David Hamilton)

David Hamilton is an International Trade Facilitation Consultant at Xalgorithms Foundation.  His latest blog provides interesting insight and compares closed and open source source options for UN developed Trade systems such as ASYCUDA World.  Right now the current closed source method limits the level of participation in designing solutions ultimately meant to provide access.   How can we foster this change?

Why Trade Facilitation Needs a UN based Open Source Solution (By David Hamilton):

The question we are facing is simple, what is the most effective way of providing access? In this case we are concerned with access to global markets. Now the choice of Open Source versus Closed Source is not solely limited to the Information Communication Technology (ICT), but it is important that we consider to qualities of both methods. The purpose of the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) is to simplify the rules and regulations processes of moving goods and services across borders. As the agreement’s name implies, this is about ensuring that processes are as simple and as efficient as possible and its goal is to enable access to global markets for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Now, as anyone will understand as they read the agreement, the solutions that can pull this off is a set of smart ICT policies, programmes and developments. The problem is that the current choice of ICT solutions are closed sourced options such as the United Nations Conference of Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA). We must consider whether or not UNCTAD should be in the business of developing and implementing closed source solutions for trade facilitation.

Recently two blog posts questioned the whether or not this the way to go, (here and here). In this case, closed source solutions create limitations on the functionality of the current options, meaning the options are developed in an exclusive manner but are in fact intended to provide access. Exclusive means cannot provide access to markets for 7 billion human beings, if the logic doesn’t add up then no amount of financing or advocacy can deliver the objective. Although the amount of work invested into the Asycuda architecture should not be de-valued or discounted, the system’s functionality is limited as compared to an open source version that would enable an entire global ICT ecosystem to be engaged.

If the option is closed source, much of the IT development eco-system, whether local or global, is shut out of participating. Instead lots of money is used to implement systems using out-of-date software when in fact the same amount of financing could implement current software solutions at the same price, if not cheaper. In an Open Source environment, local programmers in countries where Asycuda is based could develop innovative and user friendly mobile apps that run off the Asycuda’s software by presenting an interface more suited to that population’s preferences. Likewise, larger tech companies would be able to substitute in Asycuda software when and where needed as opposed to individually writing the same software code themselves, thus allowing them to focus on the areas where they excel while Asycuda’s software acts as an accessible public resource.

Right now the current closed source method limits the level of participation in designing solutions ultimately meant to provide access. Worse still is that the Asycuda system exists as a rival to private sector solutions both large and small, but an open source Asycuda would act as a public and freely available resource for private sector solutions. This would enable the much needed level of innovation that is currently foregone given the default choice. If access is the objective than the chosen form of the solution must be as inclusive as possible. Exclusive means cannot provide access, we should instead let function decide form and not the other way around. If we want accessible markets for all then we need open solutions. 

By David Hamilton, International Trade Facilitation Consultant at Xalgorithms Foundation