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It’s Time For Local Authorities To Get Open Source

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

A commitment to open source by a local authority in the UK could be groundbreaking, says Mark Taylor of Sirius

Next week Bristol City Council will consider a solid commitment to open source software, going beyond what many regard as rather luke-warm support from central government for the idea of using open source to save costs.

The possible deal is a feather in the cap of Mark Taylor, a long-standing open source advocate, and head of Sirius Corporation, an open source integrator based in the UK.

Local government wakes up to OSS

“For the first time ever local government is doing open source,” said Taylor, speaking to eWEEK Europe UK. “This is important for open source because a council is considering it at the policy level, and is also keen to adopt a triple open policy, namely open data, open standards and open source. That in itself is quite a big thing for the UK.”

“We are helping them look at open source solutions, and what is suitable for them.” said Taylor. “It should be noted that this is not just about running a web server on Linux, but rather entails a lot of back-end infrastructure as well including directory services, document and file management, and printing. This is serious infrastructure work.”

“Bristol is taking an open source approach to their core infrastructure in order to reduce their reliance on proprietary technology,” he added. “Thus the council is considering going open at a policy level, not just open source, but open standards and open data, to make it easier to interoperate. With open data, it makes it possible for other organisations to mash up and work with council data.”

Government Frustration

Taylor admitted however that it can be frustrating at times to see the UK government sticking so rigidly to proprietary technology, especially when this is compared to the attitude of the Dutch and Hungarian governments to open source.

“We are a mid-sized company in the private sector and in the UK. We work with big name companies such as Specsavers, etc,” said Taylor. “These big private companies have not even the slightest problem with working with us. But the UK government only want to do business with large companies.”

Taylor quoted data that found that public sector IT was costing the British taxpayer £21 billion a year, which is 2 percent of our GDP. “We spend more on IT than the department of transport spends on the roads and rail, and more than the Ministry of Justice, which I personally find astounding. The government is cutting themselves off from mid and small companies, and something is very wrong there.”

Taylor expressed a hope that the coalition government, which has promised to ensure that at least 25 percent of IT spending is done with small and medium businesses, will stick to this goal.

“It is a fabulous idea if it comes off, but we have not seen any change yet. That said, this government is making some very good noises, and talking up open source. They have also spoken about taking on cost of procurement for IT, which is hugely expensive,” he said.

“So we have yet to see that work done in practice, but it is early days still, at some point they will hopefully put it into practise,” said Taylor.

Turning Point

Taylor also has high hopes that the Bristol City Council example will prove to be a turning point for open source in local government. “It is going to be a ripple effect,” he said. “Bristol is going to be significant, as they are not just considering a token web server based on Linux/Apache. This is not just a token system, they are core systems, and it will be watched by other councils.”

“A number of local councils have bits and pieces of open source, but nothing at scale at the moment,”Taylor said. “This is sustainable, assuming it goes well, and it will be major encouragement going forward. Whether this will be the same in central government remains to be seen.”