Opening the source

It’s actually ten years ago that the term Open Source Software (OSS) was first 'announced', but it is only in recent years that the potential size and impact has started to really bite. However, you can hardly dismiss it as a fledgeling market – in Europe some €1.2 billion has already been invested in OSS software and the amount of code available is doubling every 18-24 months. By 2010 it could count for almost a third of the total ICT services market and reach four per cent of European GDP .
So why aren't you using it already? Well, to be fair you almost certainly are. Many examples of OSS are already embedded in many solutions (the Internet itself runs using OSS products). But just to look at OSS in this way misses the real opportunity for those in the public sector. Let me give just a few examples from across Europe.

Europe leads the way
In the Extramadura and Andalucia regions of Spain, the regional authorities have embarked on highly successful campaigns to bring ICT into the community, linking authorities, education and the business community. They have taken the lower costs of OSS, the smaller PC requirements (power, storage etc), the re-use potential and the collaborative development culture to stimulate access, inclusion and local business.
Both the 'Programverket' initiative run by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions and the 'Softwareborsen' run by the Danish Videnscenter for Software are excellent examples of national initiatives both to build databases of local software freely available under OSS licensing to other authorities, and schemes to encourage shared development. Neither country sees themselves in the vanguard of OSS development. “We are very much a Microsoft country” was one quote in Sweden, but they have both found that there was a high acceptability to reuse software developed by another authority, as long as the issue of support and maintenance was tackled – hence these two programmes.

OSS in education
Education is a very interesting exemplar of the OSS culture and benefit. In Bolzano, in the South Tyrol province of Italy, they took the opportunity to replace the high cost of upgrading proprietary software licenses by substituting with OSS software. And instead of just treading water for no benefit, they enhanced the level of functionality, service and reach they could offer.
Many other schemes have taken the benefit of lower software and power consumption to reuse PCs within schools. But I see the development of new innovative thinking that challenges the need for highly expensive and potentially ineffective commercial proprietary based solutions. You may have read about the 'One Laptop Per Child', targeted at the developing world. What they came up with is a highly distinctive (inside and out), robust, very low-cost piece of equipment specifically designed to be child friendly, encouraging kids to explore, be creative and collaborate together.
Interestingly, we are also seeing a similar phenomenon with the more commercial Asus EEE sub-notebook, fully integrated and functionally rich, selling in the UK for less than £200. Voted the hottest Xmas gift by Amazon, it is also now being distributed by Research Machines for the UK education market – and is apparently a best seller.
So why mention them here? Well, they both run 100 per cent on OSS, with no software license fees, and it is the innovation enabled that have changed the shape of their market.
Cost reduction is of course a benefit that can never be ignored – whether it is to spread the ICT budget that little bit further, or to re-prioritise spend towards delivery of a citizen centric service. Transport for London (TfL) is rarely out of the headlines, but one that may have been missing is that they saved 80 per cent of the projected software and hosting costs in the recent upgrade of the back end systems that support their Oyster card – by building it using OSS components.
A further key benefit from the TfL study is the approach taken by their contractor Deloitte on the question of 'openness'. They saw it as a fundamental requirement to build a system that allowed full interoperability into the future, free from lock-in to proprietary systems, with maximum opportunity to take advantage of future innovation potential.

In the UK
So what lessons can be learned in the UK? There are excellent examples here that are as good as any across Europe. Bristol County Council are a case study for cost savings using OSS on the desktop and were one of the members of the Open Source Academy (OSA) project funded by what was then the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Led by Birmingham County Council, OSA brought together a number of authorities and organisations to maximise these individual success stories and build a foundation for greater take up. It proved very difficult and part of the research undertaken identified three main problems. Firstly, ICT department priorities and time was being focused almost exclusively on the delivery of service targets - and 'technology' simply was not on the list. Secondly, there was a significant lock-in factor with existing proprietary solutions, and no easy route forward without significant change. And finally, there was a lack of pressure from above to do anything about this.
Regrettably, there is a perception (and in my view also a fact) that the UK is lagging well behind the rest of Europe. Does this matter? Well, I would certainly argue it does.
Lack of openness is probably the single most important factor in ICT that is blocking public sector organisations from taking full advantage from the new innovative solutions that will be available tomorrow. It is simply not believable that the dominant supplier of yesterday (and maybe today) will automatically be in the same position even in five years time, let alone ten. Just think back to what ICT you were using ten years ago. Yet we consider it acceptable for a CIO to honestly declare that he can't use OSS “because we have an xx strategy” (for xx insert the name of a well known supplier). No organisation can afford to take that stance.
Openness is all about freedom – freedom to innovate, integrate, participate – and leave. Open Standards and Open Source are two of the tools to help in this. Openness and the cost of lock-in have previously been difficult to identify and measure. How do you really know that a supplier's product is as 'open' as is being presented? Certified Open® is one scheme now available (currently under market trial) to help organisations assess both product accreditation and the current status within a user organisation. Trial it – it is currently free.

Government leadership
But a second area for action I would suggest is government leadership. As I have shown in other EU countries the benefits are being recognised right the way up to Cabinet level. Inclusion, accessibility, collaboration and openness are recognised as political necessities. Open Standards and Open Source are being invoked as tools to help deliver that imperative.
The most visible and well explained strategy is from the Netherlands, who have published a full action plan called The Netherlands in Open Connection for both the use of Open Standards and OSS in the public and semi-public sector. What is different to other approaches is that it is led from the top of government. A report on this project says: “The Cabinet has recently realised that interoperability is crucial for achieving certain social goals...the Cabinet has encouraged the application of open increase freedom of choice...particularly by considering open source software.” Also, the authorities support it, having signed up to both a manifesto and the action plan.
So to conclude, the opportunity is there as examples across Europe show. The IDABC programme of the European Commission continue to take a strong lead in encouraging cooperation and cross boundary solutions. But if the UK is not to be left behind then firstly leadership is required. The National Open Centre offered the potential but remains unfunded. And secondly, closer to home, individual authorities need to take more notice of the lock-in issue, and then openly embrace the OSS opportunity.

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