“The future is open by default”

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Nikesh Balami, CEO, Open Knowledge Nepal

Nikesh Balami, CEO, Open Knowledge Nepal, is an open data advocate and tech researcher. He is also associated with Code for Nepal as a programme coordinator, Artificial Intelligence for Development as a founding member, and the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Nepal community as an executive member.

Balami, in an exclusive interview with Sreejani Bhattacharyya of OSFY, talks about his open source journey, various achievements, and about how the FOSS ecosystem has developed in Nepal.

Nikesh Balami, CEO of Open Knowledge Nepal, says his journey in open source started with the rise of BackTrack and Kali Linux, which played a vital role in capturing his attention. That led to him developing an interest in doing different things with computers, while sitting in the college cafeteria and lab.

He adds, “This introduced me to the open source community of Nepal, named Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Nepal. Members of this community have been doing lots of wonderful activities to build the open source momentum. Their annual celebration of the Software Freedom Day is huge. Later, I started volunteering at this community with my friends and after a few gaps, we also established the Acme Open Source Community (AOSC) in our college. This community organised workshops, and trained and guided juniors towards open source opportunities.”

“Previously, open source software used to be about the flexibility of customisation and adaption, but nowadays it’s all about the love for data and technology. I strongly believe in the vision of open source and open knowledge to empower citizens with technology usage and open data,” he goes on.

Maintaining consistency is key
Balami says that his professional role is now more focused on project curation, and that these days he helps manage Open Data Nepal. It is an initiative to make Nepal’s data accessible online perpetually, to create a transparent and accountable society. He is also engaged with NepalMap — a Web application that puts Nepal-related data at one’s fingertips.

He says, “Both of these are based on open source software and are managed by volunteers to tackle the issue of data availability in Nepal. But 50 per cent of my task is to build and reach an audience, promoting openness through various kinds of events and workshops.”

However, he has faced many challenges along the way. The biggest challenge was to maintain consistency, as open source is a place where the flow of contributors is never stable. Hence, managing the sustainability of the project and contributors at the same time is quite difficult, as it sometimes becomes time consuming with no guarantee of the output.

He did find ways to overcome these challenges, though. “Developing the habit of waiting patiently is very important if we want to build something successfully. It doesn’t matter if you are alone – sometimes you may feel alone, but you have to keep working daily if you are dedicated to keeping the momentum alive.”

A focus on gender, environment, disaster response, and post-pandemic economy recovery
Balami says he did not start Open Knowledge Nepal, but has led it under the guidance of his mentor Prakash Neupane with the help of his colleagues, who believe in the philosophy of openness. He used to volunteer for Open Knowledge Nepal and help with its projects and activities. Looking at his contribution, he was given the responsibility of leading the organisation.

“We at Open Knowledge Nepal aim to make sure that everyone has free and open access to key information, empowering them to make decisions about their own lives based on the information that wasn’t available before. We believe that openness of data is powerful in order to have a participatory government with civil society, eventually leading to sustainable development. We achieve this by research, advocacy, training, workshops, and developing tools related to open knowledge,” adds Balami.

Open Knowledge Nepal works in the interdisciplinary field of knowledge, and has played a pioneering role in creating and driving forward open data and open knowledge in Nepal. It has encouraged and supported governments, civil societies and researchers to make their data open. Where people needed skills, they have been provided with the training. Where people needed tools, Open Knowledge Nepal made them, says Balami.

“Our focus nowadays is on the fields of gender, environment, disaster response, and post-pandemic economy recovery by the effective use of data and technology,” he comments.
With a rich experience in FOSS, Balami has some advice for newbies too. He says, “Start, don’t procrastinate. Today is always the right time to start. That’s the only advice I can give – don’t waste time procrastinating, and start contributing and exploring potential contribution activities, because in the FOSS space, it is very easy to find mentors who will guide you throughout the journey.”

He feels that skillsets are something that we can develop by learning and doing. But if one wants to be successful, having the enthusiasm of learning new things continuously is very important.

Nepal still has a long way to go
So how is Nepal performing in the open source ecosystem? Balami says, “It is evolving but still has a long way to go in the field of information and technology. The open source ecosystem is evolving with it, and the people with good digital literacy have clearly understood the value of open source – which is why it has become a part of the technological life of many organisations and individuals.”

He feels that India is the regional hub, with a huge human and technological resource base, and that its performance in the open source space has always been great as a result.

Digital knowledge creates power for the many, not the few
He states, “Last year when I travelled to Singapore to speak at FOSS ASIA, I got an opportunity to interact with many techies, and most of the hackathons and workshops were dominated by Indian developers. Most importantly, open source is evolving in the rural areas of India, which is very good. One of my mentees from the Mozilla Open Leaders programme comes from a rural college of India, and the activities they do and the enthusiasm they carry always inspire me.”

Finally, when asked about the future of open source, Balami says, “The future is open by default.” This is because without openness and open source it is impossible to create anything innovative, especially in the field of technology. He feels that we need to create a world where digital knowledge creates power for the many, not the few.

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