R&D a prerequisite to developing the software sector
The goal of transforming the country into a software powerhouse remains as elusive as ever, even though successive governments have emphasised the issue. The Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) raised the issue again on the opening day of Basis SoftExpo 2023 late last week and suggested that the ICT industry, academia and government devise a mechanism where the much-needed research and development (R&D) could be done. Such a move also needs to be supplemented by efforts to develop a qualified workforce for the software industry. Putting an efficient R&D network is imperative because the global software industry is fiercely competitive, where countries like India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Poland, Estonia and Ukraine are all vying for a share of the same pie.
The domestic software industry has been growing with government policy support, but much more needs to be done. One of the industry's Achilles Heels remains its lukewarm acceptance in the domestic market. Local companies are still facing an uphill task while selling their software to consumers at the corporate level. While smaller companies are slowly transitioning to a customised application made for their operations - whether it is payroll or inventory management, the prized contracts from the big conglomerates remain largely outside the purview of Bangladeshi software developers. The target is to raise the country's IT exports to US$5 billion by 2025 and $20 billion by 2030. But with the current state of affairs in the sector, it is doubtful the country would be able to go near the targets. Getting stakeholders like academia and software developers to collaborate with the relevant ministry is one part of that equation. But what will be the subjects of research? Data? That will not be easy. As far as big data is concerned, only the government can access that data: the NID database, credit information, and national household and health surveys, to name but a few.
It would be unthinkable for the government to hand over these massive data sets to private entities because privacy issues are involved here. However, in other countries, governments share big data sets after the data after sufficient anonymisation of data. Anonymisation means leaving out sensitive information like people's names, addresses, etc. - anything that would give away the individual identities of people whose information is in big data. These nationwide data sets are then shared with academia and other economic entities so that research can be done on accurate information. That, unfortunately, has not happened in Bangladesh. That is why conducting a meaningful investigation in any field, including the software industry, has not been possible. Without accurate data, how will the ICT sector flourish? Under the existing circumstances, it is impossible to analyse the software industry's SWOT (strengths, weakness, opportunities, threats). Bangladeshi policymakers can make as many plans as they wish, but without access to big data and recognising the need to work on data science, developing the right IT skills for the workforce in the software industry will remain a far cry.
Hence the government should first fix its priorities if it is truly serious about treating software development as a promising export sector to earn millions (if not billions) in precious foreign currency. The need to diversify exports beyond readymade apparel is clear, and software remains one of the potential items.