Open source vital for SKA, says Derek Hanekom

2013-11-11 10:35
Minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom leans on one of the KAT 7 radio antenna dishes on the site of the SKA outside Carnarvon. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Minister of science and technology Derek Hanekom leans on one of the KAT 7 radio antenna dishes on the site of the SKA outside Carnarvon. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Open source software is critical to the rollout of massive science projects as it allows for collaboration with the minimal of conflict over intellectual property rights, a government department has said.

The SKA (Square Kilometre Array) will link around 3 000 radio telescopes in the Northern Cape province and much of the technology still has to be developed.

Open source software is seen as key to ensuring that researchers and engineers from various countries can collaborate on the massive science project.

The department of science and technology has taken a dim view of the department of basic education's (DBE) policy shift away from free open source software in the delivery of the curriculum.

The DST said that it supported the Cabinet's 2007 policy on open source software which indicates a preference for platforms built to allow for open source collaboration.


"The default position of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is in support of the Policy on Free and Open Source Software for the South African Government, which was adopted by Cabinet in 2007," Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom told News24.

The DBE recently announced via Circular S9 of 2013 that it would be phasing out FOSS in terms of how it delivered the national curriculum in computer applications technology (CAT) and information technology (IT).

The circular, signed by DBE acting director general SG Padayachee, says that Microsoft Office products will exclusively be used to assess the curriculum in CAT and IT in the national senior certificate (NSC) examinations.

"As the standardisation of the CAT tools do not require any training or new resources, from January 2014, and November 2014, the DBE will only use Microsoft Office to respectively implement the CAT curriculum and assess CAT as part of the NSC examinations," the document says, potentially making open source programs redundant as far as the curriculum is concerned.

Hanekom, however, said that the government's policy was to use FOSS, unless a demonstrable advantage to using propriety software could be shown.

"Among other things, the policy states that the South African Government will use FOSS unless proprietary software is demonstrated to be significantly superior. When the advantages of FOSS and proprietary software are comparable, FOSS will be used when choosing a software solution for a new project," he said.

Intellectual property

Open source software is critical for the DST as it races to deliver the massive MeerKAT (Karoo Array Telescope) and SKA outside the town of Carnarvon in the Northern Cape province.

The department is acutely aware that intellectual property rights hurdles could be mitigated with the use of FOSS.

As the deadline for delivery of the 64-dish MeerKAT approaches in 2016, and the SKA in 2024, more than 350 scientists and engineers from 18 countries are engaged in the final design phase for the instrument.

Hanekom, who will be speaking at the Creating and Leveraging Intellectual Property in Developing Countries: A Power Tool for Social and Economic Growth conference in Durban from 17 - 20 November, said that his department was focused on using open source software.

"However, in the environment in which the DST operates - which is funding and promotion of research, development and innovation - the preferred and promoted de facto standard is that FOSS should be the preferred route for government-funded research and development conducted at universities and science councils."

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Read more on:    derek hanekom  |  computing  |  education  |  technology

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