Open Source: we are buying, but are we engaging?

We recently completed our 2010 national survey of open source in the UK academic sector (the full report is currently being finalised). This post examines the extent to which suppliers to, and staff of, UK universities and colleges contribute to open source as a matter of course. This kind of engagement is important, since it realises the maximum benefits of open source software.

Our 2010 survey has shown that there has been another significant increase in the number of organisations with a policy to consider open source solutions during procurement. This is due to a combination of factors, such as the government’s open source action plan, our own work here at OSS Watch and the sector’s success with open source Virtual Learning Environments (Moodle has once again taken a significant share from closed source Blackboard/WebCT).

Alongside this increase in open source friendly policies, we are seeing a smaller, but still significant, increase in the amount of open source in use within these institutions. However, the balance is still firmly with closed source solutions. The reasons for rejecting open source remain fairly consistent with previous years’ results. The top three reasons for rejecting open source are lack of support, interoperability/migration problems and lack of staff expertise.

This is a pattern that is also visible in non-academic sectors. Put simply, people are becoming increasingly comfortable with open source as a viable way to develop software, although there is still room for improvement where suppliers are concerned. As a result, new companies are springing up to fill the gap and  venture captialists are happy to support them as shown by the increasing level of investment in open source related companies.

All this is very comforting. It means that as we move forwards, universities and colleges will be able to satisfy more of their needs using open source supplied and supported by appropriate third parties. However, in some cases, particularly for Higher Education, where IT departments can be large, a reliance on external providers may be a limiting factor when considering the benefits of open source beyond lower licence fees.

One of the key advantages of open source is that enhancements can be made to the software and then submitted upstream. A good open source company will manage this process for you, but in these circumstances the customer remains insulated from the core product in much the same way that they are with closed source software.

This is not necessarily a problem and can certainly bring the benefit of reduced costs that result from a more efficient development process. However, it often makes sense for staff to become actively engaged in the projects, particularly where the product has been modified for local use.

UK universities and colleges already innovate around teaching and research methods. Organisations like the JISC exist to manage investment of public money for such innovation. Open source provides a means for these innovations to find their way directly into the software in use and thus increase the return on investment in those solutions by making them available to all.

Whilst we are seeing an increase in open source friendly policies and actual use, we are not seeing a similarly strong growth in universities’ policies relating to staff engagement with open source software development. Where local innovation is taking place, it makes sense to actively engage with the open source community. For example, Stuart Lee, director of Oxford University Computing Services, told audiences at the recent FutureCampus event in Kuala Lumpur: “We have to develop our own systems off the shelf for things like tutorial recording.” Being able to integrate those systems with other software in use at the institution is critical to their success; this is what Oxford is doing with its Sakai Virtual Learning Environment and it is certainly reaping the rewards.

Ensuring that local innovations are closely embedded with the upstream project helps ensure that upgrades of systems are reasonably painless and it enables others to use, maintain and develop the innovative new features. It is therefore important that when procuring open source software solutions you also plan to properly resource collaboration work.

One thought on “Open Source: we are buying, but are we engaging?

  1. Pingback: Is UK education policy being dictated by publishers? at OSS Watch team blog

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