Conference: Open Source in the Public Sector

“The country is in an economic crisis…”

That’s how the description of Kable‘s upcoming conference on Open Source in the Public Sector begins, and it’s becoming a regular theme in marketing in every sector. This morning brings news that Microsoft is planning to air a series of TV ads that attacks Apple’s pricing as inappropriate in these cash-starved times. In the light of this, Steve Ballmer’s assertion last week that Apple customers are essentially paying upwards of $500 else for a logo and nothing else looks like a teaser for the ad campaign. Ballmer’s sound-bite was taken up by noted open source blogger Glyn Moody who mischievously suggested that this was Ballmer’s backhanded way of acknowledging Windows had lost the fight against Linux to be the pre-eminent OS on the low-priced, tiny and increasingly popular sub-laptops known as netbooks. After all, writes Moody:

“who’s going to pay extra money just to get the Windows logo on a netbook, when they can get the same features for less with free software…?”

Clearly the IT sector is in the mood to be wooed with promises of low prices. In the public sector too, as this blog has mentioned in the past the February 2009 Cabinet Office action plan Open Source, Open Standards and Reuse strongly promoted the consideration of free and open source software:

“Open Source has been one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades: it has shown that individuals, working together over the Internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations; it has shown how giant corporations themselves, and Governments, can become more innovative, more agile and more cost-effective by building on the fruits of community work…”

and adding the following imperative added to public policy on IT procurement:

“Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.”

This document should perhaps be read in the light of the Chancellor Alistair Darling’s demand that public sector IT should find effiency savings of £5bn before 2011…

Clearly this is an appropriate time for an event such as Kable’s (disclosure: OSS Watch supports this event and will be speaking at it) which invites delegates from the public and not-for-profit sectors to come and hear about the pros and cons of free and open source adoption and to discuss the issues with others in the same position. As well as attendees and speakers from OSS Watch, there will be representatives from across the public sector and from the Open Source Schools project, the Open Source Consortium, the British Computer Society’s Open Source Specialist Group and noted think-tank the Centre for Policy Studies. It looks to be an interesting event. Hope to see you there…

A good API is not enough

[The post below was written for the JISC "Good API's" project, but I like to get as much mileage out of my work as possible so I'm posting it here too]

We often argue about whether we can trust service X or whether we can hold our data in service Y. This usually boils down to whether the provider of the service is likely to survive, whether the data is secure and whether we can access it in an open format via a documented API. We usually fail to consider the influence we will have on the providers of the service or software exposed by the API, we therefore fail to consider our own futures.

For this post I’ll limit myself to thinking about web based APIs (which we should not do, but since the UK HE and FE communities tend to think API means access to a web service I’ll do the same here). In this sitution we need to consider access to the source code that implements the API. This should be an important part of our decision making process for many reasons , the most important of which is that it increases the options available.

As an example we can consider microblogging, an area that is getting a fair amount of attention in the education sector, see Brian Kelly’s WebFocus Blog for examples.

Twitter, probably the most popular of microblogging platforms, is web based and provides a clearly documented and reasonably complete API. Institutions and researchers are currently considering solutions based on microblogging systems like Twitter. The focus of such efforts include questions like “will Twitter be here in 5 years?”, “what is their profit model?”, “will they start charging soon?”. These are important questions because the instituion will have no control over their own systems if they depend on an external service like Twitter.

For small organisations with no IT support, the use of Twitter is attractive. It is low cost, feature rich and popular. Should the model of use within Twitter change a small organisation can adapt quickly. However, for larger organisations like Universities and Colleges something like Twitter can embed itself, almost unseen, into many different systems across the organisation. For example, it could be integrated into institution wide news networks, the student VLE and and researchers VRE, the student tracking systems and the lecturer feedback mechanisms (to name just a few of the ideas I’ve heard). Clearly an institution can quickly become dependent on a microblogging service and thus the longevity of Twitters support, at current pricing levels, is very important to medium and long term planning.  Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing where Twitter is currently heading and so planning becomes very difficult.

Some commentators argue that depending on any third party solution is too risky and inflexible. Others argue that third party solutions can provide significant cost savings with only a limited sacrific of flexibility. What we really want is a middle ground. A solution in which we can take advantage of third party solutions for as long as the opportunity cost of doing so falls below the cost of developing our own, independent, solutions. Fortunately, there is such a “third way”, that third way is open source software.

Continuing our example of a microblogging service,  an alternative to Twitter is identi.ca. Like Twitter, Identi.ca provides an API for accessing the system and so it can be integrated with in-house systems. It provides all of the features of Twitter and content can be bridged between the two (via the respective APIs). There is, at least on the surface, no significant difference between the two systems.

However, the Identi.ca platform is built using Laconica an open source microblogging tool. This means that if the hosted identi.ca service becomes unsuitable for any reason one can “simply” install Laconica on a suitable server and continue as before. Of course, it really isn’t that simple, by moving away from the Identi.ca server you are taking on the responsibility of maintaining your own server. You may also be forcing your users to rebuild thier social networks on yet another system, which presents a barrier to use. Fortunately, there is a middle ground in this case too. Since Laconica is open source, any third party could set up a company providing Identi.ca like services, including, for example, a group of collaborating universities.

It is tempting to say that an API is good if it provides the functionality we need and the ability to export our data if we decide to move on. However, as we have seen, this is not always enough, not when we need to plan strategically. Web based APIs are, in some cases, merely a way to provide the flexibility to customise systems whilst still locking you into a single provider solution. Experience has shown us that a monopoly in any domain is a dangerous thing.

We must be able to avoid lock-in to any individual providers services. Simply being able to export data from our current service provider is not sufficient. We also need to be able to find an alternative provider. Whilst open source does not guarantee the existence of an alternative it certainly increases the chances of one being created where demand exists. This in turn puts additional pressure on other providers to satisfy the needs of their existing customer base. This pressure often manifests itself through the provision of a more complete and flexible API. This can be seen in the example of the Identi.ca API which not only implements the full Twitter API but goes much further.

Barcamp Apache Oxford

OSS Watch, Torchbox and The Apache Software Foundation are pleased to
announce Barcamp Apache Oxford 2009, an opportunity for people
involved in the computing and technology fields to meet informally and
find about each others’ projects. The event is free and open to
anyone, whether from business, academia or neither. It will focus on
open source, not least through the involvement of The Apache Software
Foundation, one of the largest open source foundations in the world.
In particular, we encourage engagement with the following areas:

- Open development techniques and practices
– Web 2.0 style data mashups
– Use of and engagement with The Apache Software Foundation’s projects

BarCamps are informal, ad-hoc gatherings.
There are no fixed speakers, talks or topics. Instead, they rely on
the participation of attendees. Here are some ways you could
contribute:

  • present (informally or formally) about your favourite project
  • hack together a mashup with other attendees’ systems
  • play devil’s advocate in a lively debate
  • have a drink with someone you have never met before

Every attendee is encouraged (though not required) to offer a
presentation; exactly what will happen, though, will be decided among
the participants on the day. The day will be divided into multiple
sessions, with a number of activities happening at once.

The event will be held in Oxford on Sunday 5th April, with a social the night before on Saturday 4th. For those who are not local we have reserved a few rooms at the venue and are coordinating space at local geek homes. Please see the Barcamp Apache Oxford web page, where you can get more information or sign yourself up as an attendee.

Pre-BarCamp party, on the evening of the 4th

details will follow later on the web page