July 1, 2010 by Jim Morton
It wasn’t all that long ago when any suggestion of using open source software in the organisation was met with the sort of scorn and derision that a member of the England football team might experience after arriving home two weeks early and complaining about being “a bit tired”.
Open source was seen as a risky and unstable option. Certainly the zero-cost part of the deal was attractive, but what about quality control? What about support? What about patching? All of these concerns and reasons for ignoring open source alternatives can be boiled down to 2 key points:
1. The inescapable concern that an important part of our ICT infrastructure was dependant on the continued interest and efforts of a small bunch of bearded, Scandinavian hobbyists. The sort of people who can recite The Lord of the Rings backwards and only like bands which have umlauts in their name.
2. The continued belief that an ICT product or service only has inherent value if it comes with a hefty price tag from a big, renowned supplier. The old “No one ever got sacked for buying [insert name of large multinational company of your choice here]” approach to ICT architecture.
The last few years have seen, if not a reversal of these views, then a softening of the scepticism and worry around open source. Linux took hold in the operations world for most organisations some time back, the hybrid “open source software/paid for support” model appealed both to the Microsoft-hating techies as well as the risk carrying management.
The numerous examples of huge multinational groups of developers relying on and contributing to major software projects has provided the sort of stability and reliability that has led to massive consumer and commercial take-up of open source products.
Coupled this with the sudden, crushing need to save absolutely loads of money and the (to be confirmed) guidance of central government’s ICT strategy – and we now have a growing number of public organisations willing to actively embrace the possibilities of open source alternatives.
However it is important that we don’t just absorb the benefits from the open source community. Councils must contribute to the development and discussion surrounding the products that they make use of.
The flip side of embracing open source products is to add our own development projects to the community and see if there are others who can make use of them, re-purpose them or even work with us to develop them further.
To this end, I will be encouraging all new WCC application development projects to distribute their source code and documentation under an open source license. The first example of this is the application that drives our open data catalogue, developed using Ruby on Rails and hosted on Heroku.
The source code has been uploaded to the humorously titled repository github and all manner of documentation should hopefully be following in the near future. You can find it at: http://github.com/equaliser/Open-Data-Catalogue
It would be great if more council projects can start to be exposed in this way, after all we all provide roughly the same services and any opportunity to work together in order to save time and money can only be a good thing.