Friday Aug 07, 2009

☞ FOIA Ombudsman

  • It slipped past me when it was announced in June, but the US Federal Government has appointed an excellent candidate to serve as Ombudsman for federal Freedom of Information Act requests. I loved working with her at UNESCO and she will certainly be up to this huge challenge. So, how about lodging a reprise of the ACTA FOIA request and referring the refsal to the Ombudsman once she is in-post?

Wednesday Jul 22, 2009

America Needs Open Source

Pilgrim Memorial, Southampton

Today sees the launch of a new coalition of businesses (large and small), organizations and individuals to speak up for Free and open source software in Washington DC. Open Source for America brings together a diverse alliance drawn from every corner of the software freedom movement. The Board of Advisors (on which I'm honoured to serve) brings together community, commercial, political and military voices, and the membership has been the easiest to recruit of any activity I have known. That's because at the heart of the organization you'll find the principles of the Free Software Definition, which themselves form the core beliefs of almost everyone supporting free and open source software.

The Freedoms at the heart of the alliance create an unparalleled opportunity for governments:

  • Open source puts government in control of if and when they spend money on software, since the it guarantees the right to use without limitations
  • It means that government IT investment is mostly spent locally with local experts since everyone is free to study and modify the code.
  • It ensures that all - government, suppliers and citizens - can freely access the software needed for government engagement without toll or tax from a vendor since everyone is free to distribute the original and changed versions.

Whatever other lessons we can learn from this new initiative, I note that it was easy and rational for people from all the apparent factions of the free and open source software movement to come together. It's time to set aside the urge to fight over semantic differences and recognise how far we have come and see how much we can achieve when we pull together. Join Open Source for America now!

Friday May 08, 2009

☞ Freedoms, their use and abuse

Wednesday Apr 15, 2009

Five Ideas To Get FOSS Into Governments

Why is it so hard to get governments (especially local government) to use open source software? Here are some ideas discussed during my keynote today in Oslo at GoOpen 2009 for practical steps various people, from citizens to policy wonks to representatives, can do to help get open source in actual use and delivering on its promise (and I know it's not easy):

  1. Fix the procurement policy. While a policy that says open source is great is a good thing, if you don't change the procurement policy it will have no effect. The best open source solutions result from a two-phase procurement process where the first phase buys prototyping and iterating using software on a white-list of approved elements that can be supported in phase two, and the second phase buys production deployment and scaling. If you have a procurement process that basically defines software as "something you buy a license for" you'll never get the adoption-led benefits of open source.
  2. Publish tenders by default. In most places, it's illegal to specify a vendor explicitly in a generic request for tender. To deal with this, many countries have open procurement policies, but very, very few publish tender documents, so we have a problem. Initiating a scheme like the one Brenno de Winter has in the Netherlands brings the cleansing power of sunlight into the process. Brenno uses Freedom of Information requests to secure tenders and then posts them to a wiki for community review. You could do that too where you live.
  3. Demand the freedom to leave. Often, the cost of migration is used as a barrier to use of open source. But the cost of migration is often caused by being locked in by an existing vendor. If migration costs are cited, so must be exit costs (one of the key changes in the UK open source policy). If you're not willing to demand exit costs are stated, exclude migration costs too. The longer you leave this unchecked, the deeper the lock-in will become and the greater the migration costs for new solutions.
  4. Don't focus on cost savings alone. Any vendor with a decent sales function can cut one-time costs to get you locked in. If you have freedom to use/study/modify/distribute the software you use, you can drive down the costs - freedom can lead to cost savings but cost savings rarely lead to freedom. Making this the rule is a policy decision that your legislature needs to make.
  5. Consider posterity. Solutions that require proprietary formats, DRM as an enabler to tracking, closed and NDA-only interfaces (and many more tactics) - all these things result in systems that lose the reasons why decisions get made and rob future generations of their history. Demand transparency with privacy. That's freedom; secrecy with controlled disclosure is not. Discriminate against offerings that use DRM, unpublished interfaces and anything else that your vendor won't let you publish without permission.
And your bonus idea for added value:
  • Use open standards. What is an open standard? Well, that can take a great deal of argument to determine, but a great rule of thumb is if it could be implemented under all available open source licenses and is actually implemented under one, it's probably open. And if you use the open source implementation, chances are the extra freedoms will help too.
Got more ideas? Case studies? Comment below.

Thursday Mar 26, 2009

Forcing Dutch procurement to be transparent

You may remember last September I published an interview with crusading Dutch IT journalist Brenno de Winter. During our meeting, we discussed the sorry state of ICT procurement in Europe and the findings from a research group that many tenders illegally specified products rather than technologies.

Brenno decided to do something about it and started a project using Holland's freedom of information act to force disclosure of tenders. I had the chance to meet him again yesterday and to record another dueling podcast (Brenno's version is on his site) discussing his progress so far, especially the collaborative website where. Impressive and unusually energetic and imaginative journalism that I'd like to see elsewhere.

[MP3 | Ogg]

Tuesday Feb 24, 2009

Responding to Canada

It seems the Government Open Source Tipping Point (GOSTiP, as all government things need an acronym) is proceeding apace as national government after national government learns from the pioneers and dips a toe into the waters of software freedom.

Prior to the British government's announcement they would prefer to use open source and open formats, many of us also noticed the Canadian Government asking questions about "No-Charge Licensed Software" and using their "request for information" process to do so. Like many others we've taken a good, long look at their questions and written a suitably lengthy reply.

Do take a look; if you'd like to re-use any of it, there's also an ODF version. You'll note that we think lumping open source in with shareware, trialware and bait-and-switchware is a mistake; it's not about saving money on licenses, it's about securing key freedoms.  More inside.

UK Government Endorses Open Source and ODF

Tower Bridge

Late today (UK time), the British Government issued a bold new strategy for use of open source software - and open standards - in Great Britain. In Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use, the government's Minister for Digital Engagement (yes, really, and he's on Twitter too) significantly revised the brave but toothless policy of 2004 "that it should seek to use Open Source where it gave the best value for money to the taxpayer in delivering public services". This is fantastic news - the digital tipping point is at hand. (The publication is also progressive in having nominated use of the tag "#ukgovOSS" in comment and coverage so it can be found and aggregated).

Like other fine policies before it, the core of the document asserts that the government

  • will actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones;
  • will consider exit and transition costs as well as the total lifetime cost of ownership;
  • will pick open source where it doesn't cost more;
  • will insist proprietary vendors explain exit, rebid and rebuild costs;
  • will expect proprietary licenses to be transferable throughout government;
  • will expect public sector solutions to be re-usable
In support of this there are some key action items that include:
  • develop clear and open guidance for ensuring that open source and proprietary products are considered equally (action 1);
  • keep and share records of approval and use of open source (action 3)
  • support the use of Open Document Format (action 8);
  • work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites (action 8);
  • general purpose software developed by or for government will be released on an open source basis (action 9).

This is all to be warmly welcomed and encouraged, and I congratulate the government on this progressive step. The endorsement of ODF is especially welcome, and would have seemed no more than an impossible dream to those of us associated with and involved in it at the start of the decade.

I will be very pleased to support and assist in any way that appropriate. In particular, I encourage the CIO Council to consider switching from an assumption of a procurement-driven approach to software acquisition to an adoption-led approach. Doing so does not favour open source; rather, it levels the playing field so that open source solutions can been seen alongside existing approaches. Sadly, if we stick with procurement-driven approaches and try to force-fit open source into them, we will be gamed.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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