Opinion

Posted by Gary Flood PM | on Thu, 14/06/2012 - 09:22  2527

Opinion: Is the tide finally turning for Open Source in the UK?

Aingaran Pillai on why he thinks government is finally showing real leadership; reflections on the first Open Gov Summit
 
For the past ten years, I’ve been dedicated to raising government’s use of Open Source and wrote about my experiences here. And at the end of last month, something bore fruit from that; my Open Source company, Zaizi, hosted the first Open Gov Summit, an event to debate the role of the technology in the UK public sector.
 
Through the Open Gov Summit, I wanted to engage more interested people in a conversation to examine the potential for Open Source to save the public purse massive amounts of money while improving services to citizens. In this conversation, people would share their success stories and best practices in order to educate people who are apprehensive or misinformed about Open Source. I think we made a very promising start.
 
The morning’s presentations by Tariq Rashid, Lead Architect at the UK Home Office, Mark O’Neill, Head of Service Delivery at the Government Digital Service and Graham Mallin, Executive Head of Technology at the Met Office gave me much to think and be optimistic about. As I reflect on each of their very different stories, the common thread is that each of these prominent government IT figures are leading by example and helping to educate their colleagues in government about the many benefits of Open Source.
 
I expect Tariq Rashid will have a strong influence in helping to dispel some of the common myths surrounding Open Source viability and security by presenting compelling facts: that Open Source is used in mission-critical scenarios from NASA to the NYSE; that 90 out of the top 100 supercomputers use Open Source; that 80% of public websites are powered by Open Source - to name a few. Rashid also shared the outcomes of two of his current projects, one small public website that’s saved £400K and another key infrastructure project that’s expected to save £10m over five years. No doubt, he’s using similar information to educate colleagues in the Open Source advice surgeries he runs.
 
In contrast to Rashid’s evangelical pitch, Graham Mallin’s presentation was persuasive in a very different and more subtle way, appealing to the pragmatists in the audience. When his team was looking for software to run its meteorological information system, he explained that it didn’t explicitly set out to adopt Open Source technologies but developed a very comprehensive functional specification, went out to the market and evaluated various technology alternatives. It ultimately concluded that Open Source and open data standards offered the only functional and economically viable solution for its global-scale project with massive data sets.
 
Finally, Mark presented a big vision for ‘end to end transformation of public services’ but advocated realising that vision in small stages, building trust through successes over time and crucially, putting the users first. These principles are apparent in the user-friendly Government Digital Service’s GOV.UK beta site, which aims to help citizens understand and find information about public services. His final comments on how he sees the future as a cloud-based platform, feed into the current debate on open standards. If government becomes a provider of data that anyone can access on various devices, then we have no choice but to move to open standards.
 
Leadership is key
I believe leadership is the only way to overcome one major concern that kept resurfacing throughout the day - IT procurement. Many government IT procurement officers, who are heavily lobbied by proprietary vendors, are either unaware of or misinformed about the Open Source technologies on the market. This explains why the big systems integrators like Cap Gemini and Accenture, which have growing Open Source practices, still deliver most of these services to mainland Europe and not in the UK. In addition to our speakers, I am heartened by the fact that powerful voices in government like Francis Maude and Liam Maxwell, who endorsed the Open Gov Summit, are also driving this debate and showing leadership from the centre of government to help correct this.
 
The UK also needs to get more credit for leading in the Open Source vendor community. Our partner, London-based Alfresco, is arguably one of the most successful Open Source software companies around with 5.6 million users spread across 161,000 companies, and which earned just under $100m in revenues in 2011.
 
My only lingering concern is that although we had many people on the day who previously and currently work to push Open Source in government and ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt,’ how do we sustain the good momentum?’ What happens when the government changes again?
 
For my part, I have decided to commit to Zaizi hosting the Open Gov Summit again next year, focusing on how open data and open standards will be used to publish data across and between governments. We’re also going to look at the exciting potential for ‘big’ open data in government.
 
If you’re interesting in taking part, please get in touch. I look forward to continuing the conversation!
 

The author is Founder and CEO of Zaizi, a consulting firm based in London specialising in Open Source technologies 

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