Q&A: Hong Phuc Dang, on the world-changing potential of FOSS

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Q&A portrait with Hong Phuc Dang of FOSSASIA

Hong Phuc Dang is the founder of FOSSASIA, which develops open-source software and hardware with a global developer community from its base in Asia. The organization also holds open technology events. 

At this year’s FOSSASIA Summit, ExpressVPN’s Pete Membrey spoke about the development of our VPN protocol Lightway, which is designed to offer a faster, more reliable, more secure VPN experience. Lightway’s core code is open-source software that anyone can build on.

We speak with Dang about her favorite free and open-source (FOSS) services, bringing together the global FOSS community, and how FOSS can help save the world.


Could you explain why free and open-source software is important?

With free and open-source software (FOSS), anyone is given the freedom to run, study, modify, and share the software according to their needs. FOSS provides greater transparency, security, cost efficiency, reusability and flexibility. 

FOSS is also all about fostering global connections, knowledge exchange, and cross-border collaboration. People from around the world work together on free and open-source projects, showing every day how fruitful, successful collaboration on a global scale is possible despite different views, personal or historical backgrounds, and experiences. 

We are living in an era marked by so many challenges: Climate change, global health pandemics, political conflict, war, poverty, inequality, human rights violations, access to education, etc. We need free and open-source solutions now more than ever. Only by working together can we make bigger strides in solving some of the world’s most pressing problems. 

What drives your passion for FOSS? 

I grew up in Vietnam, where people had to deal with problems surrounding poverty, corruption, inequality, healthcare, education, safety, etc. Many of these problems were caused by a lack of resources, lack of knowledge, lack of access to information and tools. I remember how my parents worked 12 to 14 hours per day and still struggled with money. I remember how some kids in school were favored by the teachers and got selected to art or performance classes because of their parents’ status. 

From a very young age, I already had a desire for equal opportunities or an equal society. I wanted to get out of poverty, I wanted a better life for myself, for my family. I knew that I must study and work hard to have a better life. But I did not know how to achieve it, not just for me, but also for people around me, or even everyone, until I discovered the free-and-open-source movement. 

I got inspired by the communities of like-minded individuals, working together, openly and freely sharing ideas and solutions for the benefit of everyone. And very soon I started to benefit from the knowledge I gained, from the people I met in the community who showed me how to fix my computer issues by using Linux and other fantastic tools like Gimp and LibreOffice, and how to use command lines. 

My life shifted to a positive and promising direction that got me excited. Not only did I see a way to achieve what I wanted for me and my family, but I recognized the possibilities to tackle issues for more people—for our society—by adopting the “free and open sharing” principle. And that was how I got into FOSS and later started FOSSASIA, with the goal to introduce the free-and-open-source concept to more people in developing countries and most importantly to empower people to turn ideas into reality. 

I recognized the possibilities to tackle issues for more people—for our society—by adopting the “free and open sharing” principle.

What are your favorite projects/products to come out of FOSSASIA?

Eventyay.com is my favorite project. This is an event management system that comes with all event-organization features: call for papers, ticketing, video conferencing, scheduling, etc. The goal of this project was to simplify and standardize the event organization process and to make it easier and faster for community organizers like ourselves to create a platform where people can meet and exchange ideas. It was very useful during Covid time to organize virtual events. We of course use the system ourselves to organize the annual FOSSASIA Summit. The Wikimedia Foundation is also using it for their events. 

What sectors do you see the most impactful or inspirational use of FOSS?

Free and open-source software (FOSS) has made significant impacts in various sectors: operating systems, web development and infrastructure, CMS, data analytics, etc. But the most inspirational examples to me are probably those that revolutionize the way we approach sustainability. 

Starting from the basis of collecting, monitoring and analyzing environmental data, open-source software like R or Python combined with open data sets allows researchers and policymakers to analyze and visualize environmental data and enables evidence-based decision-making. Open Source Hardware: Pocket Science Lab provides a platform for citizen scientists to explore and monitor environmental data. In the field of renewable energy, projects like open source ecology have created open hardware designs for solar panels, wind turbines and other clean energy systems. These designs can be freely accessed, modified and shared, enabling the communities around the world to build their own renewable energy infrastructure at an affordable price.

Open source is also driving innovation in the development of smart cities and urban planning. For example, open-source platforms like OpenStreetMap provide detailed and up to date geospatial data, enabling better urban planning and resource allocation. Projects like the Things Network build open, community-driven IoT networks, allowing cities to collect real-time data on air quality, traffic patterns and energy consumption, leading to more sustainable urban environments.

But open source is not limited to specific sectors. It can be found in the robotics world,

healthcare system, waste management, biodiversity conservation and beyond. You can check out examples in a keynote I recently gave in the Global Open Source Summit in China around open source and sustainability.

In what sectors or scenarios do you see FOSS making a big impact in the future?

In today’s context, we will probably see a high impact on artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). FOSS frameworks and libraries are already widely used in AI and ML, such as TensorFlow, PyTorch, and scikit-learn. As AI continues to advance, FOSS tools will likely play a crucial role in democratizing AI technology, making it accessible to a broader audience and facilitating the development of innovative applications. 

I think there is a huge potential in the government and public sector where FOSS can really make an impact by promoting transparency, cost-efficiency, and citizen engagement. Governments can leverage FOSS solutions for e-governance, open data initiatives, public service delivery, and secure communication systems, etc. 

Autonomous vehicles and robotics is another sector I would name. Projects like ROS2 (Robot Operating System 2) are already gaining traction in this domain. And after the last pandemic, we could see how important it is to transform the global healthcare system. FOSS can facilitate collaboration among researchers, accelerate the discovery of new treatments, and enhance precision medicine initiatives. 

As technology evolves and new challenges arise, the principles of openness, collaboration, and customization inherent in FOSS will continue to drive innovation and provide solutions across various domains.

What are the best ways to foster the development of FOSS?

It is not easy at all to come up with a concise answer for this question. I will formulate my answers based on my work at FOSSASIA and my experience collaborating with other FOSS projects around the world.

  • People. It is very important to leverage the strengths and abilities of different players in your community from leaders to maintainers, developers, contributors and users. Each person plays a role in the FOSS development. I would say the key to success is to find the right strategy to engage the people, to understand their motivation, to level them up, to recognize and reward them for their contribution and to continuously onboard new people.
  • Finance. Every FOSS project needs funding and sponsorship to sustain the development. We need to identify different ways to raise funding, resources, or infrastructure support. At FOSSASIA, we learned that we cannot rely only on sponsors, but we constantly need to grow different income streams and develop monetization models to fund all our projects and activities. Some of our funding models are crowdfunding, grants, sponsorship, sales of products or services, consultancy, etc.
  • Governance. You need to find the right governance approach for your own organization. At FOSSASIA, we have something called the FOSSASIA Development Practices, which we use as guidance across different projects within our community. I would say simplicity, efficiency and inclusion are the key values that FOSSASIA lives up to.
  • Collaboration. Collaboration is of course at the heart of FOSS development. Here I want to emphasize the collaboration not only within an organization or within a community but also the collaboration with other actors in the tech industry. For many years, FOSSASIA has been engaged with the public sector, academy, NGOs, and worked closely with companies and enterprises to foster the whole FOSS ecosystem in the region.
  • Community Building. It is crucial to establish a sense of belonging. We want to create a community people want to be part of. At FOSSASIA, we try our best to bring people together face-to-face by organizing annual events, regional events, hackathons, workshops, meetups, etc. We want to create a safe and welcoming environment for participants from different backgrounds and experiences to collaborate.

How can open-source projects collaborate more with established tech companies? What would facilitate such collaboration?

Established tech companies often want to collaborate with open-source projects as they look for opportunities to grow their user base, to increase their product adoption, to attract talents, or sometimes to understand what the market needs. Understanding the motivation of companies can help open-source projects decide on a collaboration model that provides manual benefits for both parties. 

  • Sponsorship and funding. Tech companies can provide financial support to open-source projects through sponsorship and funding. This support can be used to sustain the project, improve infrastructure, or hire dedicated maintainers. By investing in open-source projects, tech companies demonstrate their commitment to the community at the same time, creating a good brand image to attract talents. 
  • Joint projects and initiatives. Open-source projects and tech companies can collaborate on joint projects and initiatives. For example, CodeHeat.org is a coding contest organized by FOSSASIA in partnership with companies that want to tap into the developer community. 
  • Mentorship and support. Open-source projects can offer mentorship and support to tech companies interested in contributing. This can involve providing guidance on project architecture, code integration, and development practices. For example, FOSSASIA offers mentors from our community who can help tech company developers navigate the project, understand its ecosystem, and ensure their contributions align with the project’s standards and goals.

Could you list five FOSS products you use and recommend?

There are tons of FOSS products out there but I’m going to be biased here. I would recommend people to check out eventyay.com and pslab.io (these are projects of FOSSASIA). 

And for those who have just begun their FOSS journey, I would say Git is very cool technology to start with. It is a distributed version control system, used for tracking changes in source code during software development. 

Linux is of course the most influential open-source operating system kernel. It’s not just about the software itself, but we can learn a lot from how the kernel development community organizes. 

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of understanding that open source increases the security of products. How would you explain that to the layperson?

In open-source software development, source code is freely available for anyone to view, use, modify, and distribute. The openness and collaborative nature of open source foster an environment that promotes security-conscious development and improves the overall security of products. Open source offers several advantages that contribute to enhanced product security like transparency, traceability, peer review, and collaboration. 

I strongly believe in the power of the global community. It is better to have more eyes on things.

I strongly believe in the power of the global community. It is better to have more eyes on things. I think whether it is open source or proprietary, no one can guarantee 100% security. Software at the end is just a tool; it is about how people use and apply these tools. Users need to carry out proper security practices and regular updates. 

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Vanessa is an editor of the blog.