Experts call for greater recognition of software source code as heritage for sustainable development

16 November 2018

Representatives from a variety of backgrounds, including policy makers, legal experts, computer scientists, librarians and archivists, appealed to UNESCO’s Member States, international organizations, business leaders and civil society, to preserve, collect and share the existing software commons as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This appeal was made at an expert meeting co-organized by UNESCO and Inria on 6 and 7 November. The meeting was an important milestone in the roadmap of the vigorous partnership started in 2017 between the UNESCO and Inria on this matter.  

Held at UNESCO’s headquarters as part of the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme’s strategic response to the preservation challenges of documentary heritage in the digital era, the meeting discussed the increasing importance of software source code in today’s knowledge societies.

An outcome document adopted by the group of experts – titled The Paris Call for Software Source Code as Heritage for Sustainable Development – includes a report highlighting the benefits of and the threats to software source code preservation. It also includes a call for major stakeholders and communities to be mobilized into action to preserve such software source code for the present and future generations.

Throughout the meeting, the experts drew attention to the crosscutting relevance of software source code for all aspects of society, including societal structures, economic services, democratic participation and scientific endeavour. In this respect, the experts highlighted the specific role that software plays in different fields, from education, to innovation, and to healthcare.

Despite the critical importance of software in key areas of society, experts agreed that software preservation, and in particular source code preservation, is at stake.

In this respect, they identified the following threats:

  • Insufficient understanding of the nature of software source code among policymakers, resulting in the enactment of legislation that was detrimental to software preservation.
  • Lack of recognition of software creators, amplified by the lack of a universal standard for citation.
  • Lack of a universal repository of software source code.

Considering software code as a digitally born document, the expert meeting further acknowledged the 2015 Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of, and Access to, Documentary Heritage, Including in Digital Form, particularly its focus on the value of open source software and open standards for long-term preservation. While Software Heritage is a remarkable step forward in this direction, with its effort to establish a common infrastructure for preserving software source code, it is important to support its interconnection with other related initiatives that may contribute to achieve this goal. 

Referring to the underrepresentation of women in the software fields, the meeting stressed the importance of recognizing women’s contributions, emphasizing that this would help create a diverse and inclusive environment for all aspects of software development and curation.

Furthermore, mindful of the increasing complexity of the technology that is broadly deployed, like artificial intelligence (AI) systems, and concerned by the widening gap between digitally “savvy” citizens and those who are primarily consumers of ICTs, the experts called for the integration of the scientific fundamentals of computing/informatics within general education for all citizens and the youth in particular.

At the closure of the meeting, Inria’s President/Director-General, Mr. Bruno Sportisse, and UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Communication and Information, Mr. Moez Chakchouk, congratulated the participants for their efforts.

The meeting reinforced the partnership started in 2017 between UNESCO and Inria. Accordingly, the Paris Call praises UNESCO and Inria for their collaboration within the Software Heritage Initiative through which a digital infrastructure for software preservation was created.  

The Software Heritage Initiative aims to “collect, preserve, and share all software that is publicly available in source code form.” This archive will index, organize, make referenceable and accessible to all of this precious heritage, which will also provide solid, common foundations to serve the different needs of the society.

The expert meeting thus reinforces the work of the UNESCO PERSIST Initiative, which aims to identify and preserve documentary heritage within the framework of the Memory of the World (MoW) Programme. The Programme was set up in 1992. Its vision treats the world's documentary heritage as a global common, which should be fully preserved and protected and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, permanently accessible without hindrance.