Time to turn open-source words into action

Without firm targets, progress is likely to be limited.

Since early 2004, it has been the government's stated policy to use open-source software in the public sector wherever possible, as long as it offers the best value for money.

To date, the policy has had little impact. So will the latest tweaks to its open-source action plan make a difference?

Software is "open-source" when the source code is freely available to be viewed, shared or changed -- things that you can't do with conventional proprietary software. Crucially, open-source is also the cheaper option in many cases.

So how good is the government's record on using open-source so far?

In its latest action plan, it gives three key examples of how it has increased its use of open-source. First, it says that over 25 per cent of secondary schools use the Linux operating system on at least one computer: small beer, given that the government first published its policy on open-source in 2004.

Second, the series of National Health Service databases known as "Spine" uses an open-source operating system. And third, Birmingham City Council has been rolling out open-source software across its library services since 2005.

These last two instances would be more compelling if they didn't also serve to show just how few projects there have been to date.

Yet according to one open-source executive, the situation may be improving. John Powell, co-founder and CEO of the British open-source content management firm Alfresco, told me last year: "The UK has always been something of an open-source laggard. But things are definitely changing fast, not least since the government published that policy document."

 

Who's in charge?

Others are less optimistic. Commenting on the most recent tweaks to the action plan, Steve Shine at the open-source database firm Ingres said: "From the outset, we have commended the UK government for its comprehensive and balanced approach. However, we still struggle to see how these latest changes will have much impact, as this policy is not being enforced.

"These latest changes still leave it unclear as to which part of the government will be responsible for enforcing these policies. We look forward to the Chief Information Officer clarifying this vital point as soon as possible.

"In our experience of working with government IT suppliers," Shine continued, "the money that has been recouped so far from open-source initiatives is just a drop in the ocean compared to the billions of pounds that could be saved if the government takes a hard line on IT procurement, which could easily equate to several pennies being carved off the basic rate of tax."

The government should be congratulated for keeping its open-source action plan up to date. Now, with the latest tweaks, particularly around what its policy means in the era of "cloud computing", let's see if its open-source words can speak as loud as its proprietary actions.

But a problem remains: so far, the government has set no clear targets for the increased adoption of open-source software.

In the action plan, it states that it "will actively and fairly consider open-source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions", that "procurement decisions will be made on the basis on the best value-for-money solution to the business requirement", and that "the government will expect those putting forward IT solutions to develop where necessary a suitable mix of open-source and proprietary products to ensure that the best possible overall solution can be considered".

But one wonders whether, without any firm targets, there is likely to be much progress with adopting open-source software in the public sector.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and the editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

Photo: Getty
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What happened when a couple accidentally recorded two hours of their life

The cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic.

If the Transformers series of movies (Transformers; Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Transformers: Age of Extinction; and Transformers: the Last Knight) teach us anything, it is that you think your life is going along just fine but in a moment, with a single mistake or incident, it can be derailed and you never know from what direction the threat will come. Shia LaBeouf, for example, thinks everything is completely OK in his world – then he discovers his car is a shape-shifting alien.

I once knew a couple called Dan and Fiona who, on an evening in the early 1980s, accidentally recorded two hours of their life. Fiona was an English teacher (in fact we’d met at teacher-training college) and she wished to make a recording of a play that was being broadcast on Radio 4 about an anorexic teenager living on a council estate in Belfast. A lot of the dramas at that time were about anorexic teenagers living on council estates in Belfast, or something very similar – sometimes they had cancer.

Fiona planned to get her class to listen to the play and then they would have a discussion about its themes. In that pre-internet age when there was no iPlayer, the only practical way to hear something after the time it had been transmitted was to record the programme onto a cassette tape.

So Fiona got out their boom box (a portable Sony stereo player), loaded in a C120 tape, switched on the radio part of the machine, tuned it to Radio 4, pushed the record button when the play began, and fastidiously turned the tape over after 60 minutes.

But instead of pushing the button that would have taped the play, she had actually pushed the button that activated the built-in microphone, and the machine captured, not the radio drama, but the sound of 120 minutes of her and Dan’s home life, which consisted solely of: “Want a cup of tea?” “No thanks.” And a muffled fart while she was out of the room. That was all. That was it.

The two of them had, until that moment, thought their life together was perfectly happy, but the tape proved them conclusively wrong. No couple who spent their evenings in such torpidity could possibly be happy. Theirs was clearly a life of grinding tedium.

The evidence of the cassette tape threw Dan and Fiona into a terrible panic: the idea of spending any more of their evenings in such bored silence was intolerable. They feared they might have to split up. Except they didn’t want to.

But what could they do to make their lives more exciting? Should they begin conducting sordid affairs in sleazy nightclubs? Maybe they could take up arcane hobbies such as musketry, baking terrible cakes and entering them in competitions, or building models of Victorian prisons out of balsa wood? Might they become active in some kind of extremist politics?

All that sounded like a tremendous amount of effort. In the end they got themselves a cat and talked about that instead. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder