Open source in education: where does the change need to happen?

In our recent survey on free and open source software in the UK education sectors, we asked colleges and universities for their main reasons for not selecting an open source solution according to 12 criteria. Below you can see how important each of the criteria were rated for software running on servers:

Interoperability and migration problems 80
Lack of support 71
Poor quality software 60
Not what users want 51
Lack of staff expertise, training needs 49
There is no open source solution for our needs 43
Legal issues including licensing 30
Time costs of identifying relevant software 29
Migration costs 25
Existing contractual obligations 18
Poor documentation 15
Solution does not scale 14

The question I’d like to pose today is – if we were to consider these as representing the barriers to greater adoption of free and open source software in education, are the barriers to be found within institutions, or are there issues with the available supply of software and services to the sectors?

To answer this I’ve split the criteria into two groups – supply-side and demand-side. Lets look at the supply-side first of all.

Supply Side Factors

Supply-side factors

Three of the top four criteria are supply-side considerations: lack of support, poor quality software, and not offering what users want.

We could also consider “There is no open source solution for our needs” as being largely the same thing as not offering what users want, which would place it as the top concern.

This would imply that, from the perspective of colleges and universities, the open source software community just isn’t offering the kind of software products the sectors need.

From our experience in compiling the Open Source Options for Education list, this would seem a bit curious. Perhaps the issue is one of awareness and marketing? Or are there significant niches in education where there really are no open source options? We also know that the procurement processes in many institutions would likely exclude open source from consideration – is this also a factor in this lack of awareness?

The second major issue on the supply side would then be the provision of services and support. As we’ve seen in the public sector, having commercial partners is a crucial factor in getting solutions adopted. (There is a chicken-and-egg issue here is that there has to be adoption to support a services market, but lack of services hampers adoption.)

Finally there is the quality issue – are open source solutions aimed at education really poor quality? Or is it that the kinds of solutions being considered are not mature?

Now lets look at the demand side.

Demand Side Factors

Demand side factors

The top issue is interoperability and migration problems – if we also add in the respondents who considered migration costs, then it is by far the most cited reason why open source isn’t selected.

We’ve noted before that there is no simple relationship between open source, open standards, and interoperability; while in principle open source affords the adoption of open standards and greater interoperability, the practice is a lot less clear cut.

However, what we haven’t untangled here is whether the issue is with open source options lacking interoperability features or standards compliance, or whether the issue lies with the incumbent systems they would replace.

The next ranked issue is lack of staff expertise; again we haven’t untangled whether this is a lack of expertise amongst the potential users of the software, the IT operations staff, or the staff involved in the procurement so its hard to interpret precisely. Given the question relates to server software it could be any of these groups.

It may also be the case that this issue goes hand-in-glove with that of lack of support from the supply side; often for server-side software the complexity of configuration and operations can be overcome by contracting a supplier to deal with it on your behalf. For  open source options, if there are no suppliers of services available then its up to the institution’s staff to figure it out.

Finally, the rest of the issues here fall under the category of contractual, legal and procedural issues with procurement itself. While each individual item is not ranked highly, taken together they suggest there are significant barriers still in place in procurement. This is something we’ve been looking into recently in more depth, for example in our Decision Factors for Procurement briefing.

Conclusions?

Taken altogether, the demand side and supply side issues of open source adoption in education carry pretty much equal weight from the viewpoint of the institutions themselves. But what are we to make of it?

I think we can distill it into five challenges:

1. We need to tackle the interoperability question. Is lock-in a problem? Is lack of standards a problem? This is something our friends at CETIS could take a lead on.

2. We need to improve awareness of existing open source solutions available within the sector;  lists like our Open Source Options for Education are useful here, but projects also need to be more proactive in raising awareness, and may need a higher profile at events such as the UCISA and ALT conferences.

3. Institutions need to improve software procurement processes so that they can consider open source solutions effectively and equally with closed source.

4. We need to build up the open source services market for education. ULCC have been very effective with their Moodle hosting, but companies supporting other major open source software solutions don’t seem to have much of a presence in the education sector. (As I mentioned earlier though, this is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem)

5. Bootstrap projects in areas where there are no existing open source solutions. Of course there are well known problems with funded projects, but there are alternative approaches, for example the Jisc Co-Design programme could play a role here.

Should Markdown become a standard?

We’re big fans of Markdown at OSS Watch; the lightweight format is how we create all the content for the OSS Watch website (thanks to the very nice Jekyll publishing engine).

Markdown is more or less a set of conventions for semi-structured plain text that can be fairly easily converted into HTML (or other formats). The idea is that its easy to read and write using text editors. This makes it great for wikis, and for source code documentation. Its the format used for most of the README files on Github, for example.

# This is a header

Some text with bits in **bold** or in *italics*.

> I'm a blockquote!

## Sub-header
* Bullet one
* Bullet two
* Bullet three

Markdown has flourished despite the fact it isn’t really an open standard as such. There are numerous “flavours” of Markdown, such as GitHub-Flavoured Markdown, and different processing engines have their own extensions, particularly in areas where there is no common agreement on how to represent things such as tables and definition lists.

Despite this lack of consistency, Markdown works very well without ever becoming a de jure standard. The closest its got to standardisation is a community site on GitHub following a call to action by Jeff Atwood.

What has brought this into focus for me is the discussion around open formats for the UK government. Putting the (huge) issue of ODF versus OOXML to one side, I would actually prefer it if more government content was in an easy to read plain text format rather than in any flavour of whopping great office-style documents. In fact, wouldn’t it be excellent if they were to use Markdown?

Which is where the problem lies – its difficult for government to mandate or even recognise “standards” that have no clear provenance or governance model arising out of some sort of recognisable standards organisation. This isn’t a problem when its just a case of “using whatever works” as an individual developer (which is how sort-of standards like Markdown and RSS take off), but seems to be a major barrier when trying to formulate policy.

So sadly, unless there is a new concerted effort to make some sort of standardised Markdown, I don’t think my dream of reading government documents in markdown using TextEdit or on GitHub are likely to become a reality.

Open Source and Open Standards key to future of public sector IT

Last week Open Source, Open Standards 2013 took place in London, an event focussed on the public sector. Naturally these being two topics we’re very keen on here at OSS Watch I went along too.

Overall the key message to take away from the event was just how central to public sector IT strategy these two themes have become, and also how policy is being rapidly turned into practice, everywhere from the NHS to local government.

Tariq Rashid, the Open Source policy lead for the UK Government, spoke of the need for IT to be focussed on user needs, and to deliver sustained value, by moving from “special” software procured for the public sector, to services delivered using commodified IT.

Even where services are unique to the public sector, Rashid and other speakers at the event made the case that most elements of such services can be delivered by building on commodified IT. For example, the open source CMS Drupal is used for delivering increasing numbers of public sector IT services, and the Government Digital Service builds its services from open source components.

The two strategies of Open Source and Open Standards are necessary as they create the ‘competitive tension’ needed to drive down cost and improve sustainability.

Mark Bohannon of Red Hat gave an overview of the global landscape of Open Source in government, in the US and UK, and identified the UK policies as being particularly forward looking. Mark positioned Cloud and Big Data as two key areas where Open Source and Open Standards were critical, calling out OpenStack and Hadoop as particular cases, and also provided some great case studies on open source from the military and from space exploration.

Mark made the point that Open Source and Open Standards underpin a more fundamental change in IT, away from big IT projects towards IT that is agile, modular and responsive to user needs.

Ian Levy of CESG dispelled some myths around security and Open Source (“If anyone in UK government says CESG has banned open source send their name to me and I’ll have them killed”) and made the case for a common sense approach to security, whether the software or service is open source or closed source.

Mark Taylor from Sirius has long been an advocate for open source in the public sector, and it was good to be at a point where the message has been heeded! He began with a nice Schopenhauer quote:

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.

In the talk he provided lots of practical advice for public sector organisations on putting Open Source into practice, which include calling on those writing tenders to focus on user needs instead of naming technology solutions. Mark also gave a workshop later in the day where he continued this theme, expanding on how public sector organisations and companies had made transitions to open source. Its not very easy to summarise here in a post, but I found the information very practical and useful; for example, when transitioning IT, to start with the systems furthest away from users, such as backend services and infrastructure, to avoid sparking the usual neophobia when you change technologies for users.

Inderjit Singh gave an overview of the NHS standards-based approach to IT, with some nice background on which approaches had been tried and where the current strategy is going. The current approach has been to use a programme of change projects involving SMEs that have engaged 40 new suppliers, and which is accelerating the take up of the standards.

Singh asserted that standards and fundamental for enabling an open architecture, and that open source and open standards go hand in hand in delivering value for users.

After some workshop sessions, we had Alasdair Mangham from the London borough of Camden giving us a look into how they’ve been building services using open source software in collaboration with SMEs. This involved a major shift in contracting – rather than write an huge set of requirements in a tender document, they disaggregated the project and bought in specialist capabilities (in usability, service design, SOA etc) as needed in smaller chunks of time using an agile process.

Graham Mellin gave an overview of the Met Office’s new space weather system built using open standards and using open source software; for their own specialist systems they decided to go down the route of making it Open Source rather than the private partner sharing route as result of an exploitation planning process.

I met with a lot of people at the event, from suppliers, local government, NHS and national government departments, and it was good to get a sense of how the public sector is moving – whatever the pace in individual areas – towards this vision of more affordable, sustainable and user focussed IT, and better utilising the capabilities of UK SMEs and startups.

We pointed out recently in our post in the Guardian, Higher Education in particular is in a strong position in this area as a result of past investments in Open Source and Open Standards, and we now need to think about how we take that forwards.

As Mark Taylor pointed out in his talk, the public sector accounts for over half of IT spend in the UK – and we can choose to either unite and use that market power to shape the future, or be divided up and conquered.

Open Source meets Open Standards

OSS Watch Briefing Paper: Open Standards and Open Source

Open source software and open standards are two of the key interventions in technology policy, whether that policy is made by governments, public sector organisations, or companies.

Open standards can ensure interoperability and assist portability, allowing the switching of solutions and avoiding vendor lock-in. Standards can also help to create new markets, and can also encourage innovation within markets by imposing useful constraints.

Open source software offers benefits of greater flexibility and the potential for reduced development costs and better software quality through collaboration and reuse.

Together, open source and open standards provide the basis for solutions that offer interoperability, cost reduction, and flexibility; no wonder they are seen as such a powerful tool for technology policy!

However, whats often less clear is how the two interact in practice. There is, for example, a fairly widely-held view that open source software is somehow inherently more likely to support open standards. However, in practice this is not necessarily the case, and there are a number of barriers that can actually make it less likely for open source projects to implement standards than their closed-source counterparts.

Open source and open standards should complement one another - but can also counteract each others benefits if policies are developed without paying attention to the way they interact

For example, implementation of a standard requires access to documentation; in many cases this involves payment for access, or paid membership of a consortium – something that open source projects may have difficulty with unless a benefactor or sponsor does this  on their behalf. Also, if a project wishes to publicly claim that it implements a standard, this may involve a formal conformance process requiring paying fees for testing and accreditation.

So for policy makers and CIOs, the selection of standards, and the standards setting organisations they originate from, can have a significant impact on the availability of open source solutions to meet their requirements.

Mandating standards that involve patent licensing fees, mandatory expensive conformance testing and assurance, and restricted access to documentation will exclude many potential solutions and providers. This will have the impact of increasing costs, and potentially eliminating the benefits of standardisation altogether if organisations have little practical prospect of switching suppliers.

Conversely, if standards are selected that provide a low barrier to entry to open source then this can be good not just for individual solution procurement, but for interoperability as a whole.Unlike closed-source solutions, with open source it is possible to inspect the implementation of standards and to conduct independent interoperability and conformance testing rather than rely principally on vendor claims. The presence of open source implementations can also influence uptake of a standard; either by making open source libraries available for use within other products, or by providing a good target for interoperability testing for other entrants.

Open source and open standards are key components in technology policy; but its important to know how they can work together – and potentially work against each other.

A new OSS Watch briefing paper provides an overview of the main issues facing implementation of standards for open source projects and developers; for more information see Open Standards and Open Source.

 

Open Sankoré: Open source whiteboard software

Interactive whiteboards are something you find in pretty much every school, college and university these days. Mostly these come from one of two companies, Smart and Promethean, both of which also supply the main software application that typically teachers and students interact with. This application is closed source and runs on Windows and does some basic things like allowing the teacher or student to draw on the board using drawing tools, import presentations and documents, and include some interactive content.

Open Sankoré is an open source whiteboard application, and it does basically the same kinds of thing the Smart and Promethean software does.

Whats also surprising about it is that it also implements the W3C Widgets specification for its interactive content. Which means as well as scribbling notes on documents, and doing drawings, you can also drag in widgets developed for Apache Wookie or created using Widgat or MyCocktail and use those on the whiteboard.

Both Promethean and Smart have also been working on adopting W3C Widgets for a common interactive content standard – Smart even integrated Apache Wookie in prototypes for the ITEC project – but seemed to have problems bringing that innovation to market.

I had a play around with the application and it looks like a very good drop-in replacement for standard whiteboard software, and also works on other kinds of devices. In the screen capture below, I’ve added my Monster Math game widget and a Venn Diagram widget I created – you can also see some of the built-in ones in the palette on the right-hand side of the screen:

You can also record your activity live and publish it directly to YouTube, which is a nice touch allowing you to easily create and distribute tutorials as open educational resources.

I’m particularly keen to give it a try with a homebrew interactive whiteboard using a projector and a wii remote using the instructions from Johnny Lee:

YouTube Preview Image

Smart and Promethean have been having issues recently with declining revenues, which has prompted Promethean to start making some noises about going open source lately so it will be interesting to see how this story plays out. If it continues to improve and to match the features of the main closed-source offerings, Open Sankoré definitely has the potential to disrupt the market – imagine partnerships with commodity hardware manufacturers, for example.

Open Sankoré can be downloaded from http://open-sankore.org/ and the source code can be accessed from the developer site.

The project uses a GPL license, and according to its governance information it appears to operate using a meritocratic governance model.

Some questions about the Defensive Patent License

Jason Schultz and Jennifer Urban of UC Berkeley School of Law have distributed a paper which provides an interesting analysis of the state of the patent system and its relationship to open development. In essence, they suggest that rather than avoiding the patent system, open development communities should instead engage with it, seeking to patent and benefit from inventions they create. The authors identify the barriers to this that they see operating now and propose a new cross-licensing agreement process which might breach some of these barriers. At the heart of the scheme is a new licence, the Defensive Patent License or DPL. While I would recommend reading the licence (it’s not l0ng) it’s fair to say that it broadly seeks to embody the following principles (from the paper):

1) Every DPL user (i.e. licensor or licensee) will forgo any offensive patent infringement actions against any other DPL user;

2) Subject to Condition 4, every DPL user will offer her entire current and future patent portfolio under the DPL;

3) Every DPL user will bind any successor-in-interest to any part of her patent portfolio to her obligations under the DPL; and

4) If a DPL user wishes to stop offering her patents under the DPL, she may do so but only with six months’ notice to existing DPL users and future parties. She must continue to grant, and may not revoke, any licenses that are in place before the end of the notice period. Once she stops offering the DPL, other DPL users are free to revoke their licenses to her at will.

So the deal here is that, if you opt into the scheme with all your patents (and you cannot opt in with any fewer) then you will enjoy a licence to utilise all the patents of all other members. In exchange you grant them licences to all your patents, and agree to make sure that even if you sell a patent on, you will try to make sure that it remains covered by the scheme. You can opt out of the scheme again provided you give everyone six months notice. On the face of it it seems like  a good idea; as members join the benefits of membership increase exponentially, and a larger and larger island of technology becomes a venue for free competition on implementation within the group. Members remain free to litigate offensively against those outside the group, and consequently retain a market for separate paid licences. How this model addresses what the authors perceive as barriers within the community is too large a subject for summarisation here, but I would recommend reading the paper to anyone interested in the academic study of open communities and their motivations.

Given  this model, I find myself with many questions in mind. Some of them are probably the result of my own misunderstanding, but I’d thought I’d note them down anyway.

What is an ‘offensive patent infringement action’?

The authors define it this way: “Offensive patent infringement actions are defined as actions that are not filed in direct response to a previously filed patent infringement suit involving the same parties.” This definition is important because it pins down a circumstance in which a scheme member might have their licence revoked – and licence revocation could get very ugly and expensive for an active tech company or project. So I would be keen to see what is and is not a ‘direct response’ more rigidly defined. For example, if a party is subject to informal threats related to patent infringement from another member of the scheme, are they prevented from seeking a declaratory judgement that they are not infringing? Construably this could be the ‘first link’ in a chain of actions and could therefore be classed as offensive under that definition. I would also like to know whether ‘involving the same parties’ means involving only those parties, or at least those parties. In the latter case a ‘defensive’ action could be used to attack other scheme members once an initial offensive action had been taken.

 What about the transmission of obligations?

Point (3) seeks to fix the potential problem that patents might be lost to the scheme by changing hands. In the paper itself the authors respond to one putative criticism of this mechanism – that bankruptcy of a patent holding entity might result in a patent being used outside the terms of the scheme – by pointing out that the US bankruptcy code places a responsibility on recipients of patents to honour pre-existent licences. While I imagine this is true, it does bring up an issue: the ‘orphan’ patents that are licensed in this way going to be available to members who join after the transfer due to bankruptcy? Taking the licence at face value I would assume so, but some aspects of the description of the operation of the scheme in the paper give me pause. The authors describe a situation in which a new member is invited to indicate acceptance of the licence offers of pre-existent patents in the scheme by clicking a button:

She then receives access to the pages for every other DPL user with an option to accept any or all of their DPLs for their  portfolios. One can also imagine an option to accept all known DPLs in a single click. The website then distributes an acknowledgment of all license offers and acceptances to the participating parties and records them in its internal database. The licenses take effect immediately.

This seems to be attempting to embody some degree of contractual communication of acceptance, something that free and open source licensing has traditionally been believed to not require to have effect. In the case of the scheme, it’s easy to see why this is beneficial; it gives greater formality to the legal relationships while alerting licensees to the patents available to them. However I wonder if a recipient of a patent from a bankruptcy would feel the need to honour any subsequent licences accepted in this way. I could see an argument that maintained that while pre-existent, accepted licences needed to persist, they had no responsibility to grant new ones in the way that the original bankrupt member had agreed. Either way, the simple model of ‘willing licensor+their portfolio’ will necessarily become fragmented in time through processes like bankruptcy, and the scheme will need robust methods for dealing with reluctant successor patent holders.

Isn’t six months a bit scary?

This is a simple one. Six months is a scarily short lead-time to engineer around an embodied patent in the case of its licence’s revocation. If I have a physical product in the marketplace in which I have embodied a DPL’s patent, how realistic is it to expect me to either withdraw it or negotiate a new, economically viable licence in that six months – particularly when the licensor knows how desperately I need it? How widely used would free and open source software be if the licences were not effectively perpetual and could be rolled up and taken away in six months?

What about Trolls?

The scheme seeks to foster patent peace between technology practitioners, and if widely joined it could perhaps do that. Unfortunately it does nothing to restrain non-practitioner patent holders – the so-called trolls. Trolls do not need defensive portfolios as they do nothing that might infringe anyone’s patent, and their business model makes restraining their offensive use of patents suicidal. So even if the scheme succeeds famously in attracting practitioner patent holders, it will leave a large area of risk untouched. Indeed it could be argued that by encouraging the shared use of patents within the scheme and their associated technologies, it communicates risk of infringement of a troll’s patents between members. If one of the scheme’s well-utilised patents was found to be invalid by reason of prior art in a troll’s patent, the troll would have a neat scheme-created list of potential targets for litigation.

While I do have questions, I think that the aims of the scheme are laudable and I do hope that it finds a means of continuation and growth. The web site associated with the licence and paper provides many ways to feed back and shape the initiative, and I’d recommend registering your views.

“Recipe for Rip-Offs”

Here in the UK the Public Administration Select Committee has been looking into the poor record government has in procuring IT systems. The title of their report “Government and IT- “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”: Time For A New Approach” serves as a neat summary of the content. Stating the problem, the report says

The UK has been described as “a world leader in ineffective IT schemes for government“. There have been a number of high cost IT initiatives which have run late, under-performed or failed over the last 20 years including: the Child Support Agency’s IT system, the IT system that would have underpinned the National ID Card scheme, the Defence Information Infrastructure Programme, the implementation of the Single Payments Scheme by the Rural Payments Agency, and the National Offender Management System (C-Nomis).

The main problem, the report says, is that the Government does not have the internal skills to specify and procure IT systems. As a result they tend to rely on large external contractors to manage the process of developing IT systems (and to subcontract to smaller businesses where necessary) . Naturally this involves handing over very large amounts of both cash and power to the ‘head’ contractors, and it is this complete externalisation of the ‘IT customer’ function that the report points to as the key failing in previous large government IT procurements. The answer, therefore, is to get better IT management skills within departments and take on the management of the smaller subcontractors themselves.

This is not the only failing identified. It seems that Government also tends to ‘gold-plate’ (over-specify) security requirements even on systems that do not require it. The report also criticises the tendency to see IT projects as a distinct kind of problem rather than an exercise in change management like any other. Nevertheless, it is the ‘externalisation’ problem which looms largest in the report’s somewhat gloomy findings, and it is in this context that the issue of open source arises.

Early on the report identifies the creation of ‘a level playing field for open source software’ as one of the approaches to solving the problem of Government IT that had already been suggested. In the recommendations, we find that open source is mentioned in the context of providing an open data platform for Government-held data which could be developed upon by third parties to provide analysis and manipulation applications. While both of these suggestions are sound in themselves, I think it is in the core recommendation that we can see the best opportunity to realise value for the UK taxpayer from open source software and development.

While there are very large scale corporations offering open source solutions, the majority of bidders for Government IT contracts offer closed source solutions, often with the bidder themselves retaining ownership of the IPR in the resultant code and licensing it under very restrictive terms. If the current reforms succeed in getting departments to break down IT procurements into smaller interoperating sections and invite bids for these from smaller, more agile developers, the opportunity for existing successful open source projects to be the bases for Government IT solutions expands. Assuming that the newly-acquired IT experts within departments are able to meaningfully engage with the communities around these projects – both through their hired developers and as users themselves – then huge amounts of value in terms of code, user requirements and expertise which are currently locked into closed, non-functioning projects will be available for the good of the community at large. The projects themselves will learn how to interact with Government clients, and software components of general application will find their way back into the public space to benefit other large-scale users.

All of these benefits, though, depend both on an openness to the use of open source software but also on expertise in managing the relationship with that software’s community. So while I welcome heartily the proposal that Government acquire the IT skills to take a hands-on role in managing their IT procurements, I hope that those IT skills will include expertise in exploiting the unique benefits of joining an open source community.

Widget Bashing

Last week JISC CETIS put on a WidgetBash event. OSS Watch pitched in since W3C Widgets are an area we are particularly interested in having taken some code from the University of Bolton into the Apache Software Foundations incubator as Apache Wookie (incubating).

This two day event focused on getting people up to speed on building widgets. Our approach was to give some very light touch training and then get our hands dirty on code. Overall the two days were extremely successful.

in the run up to the event I had committed a few new widget templates to Wookie in order to make it easy for people to get started. This turned out to be a great tactic. Some attendees used these templates as a base for their work, looking to enhance them, one attendee even submitted a patch to fix an error in my work (which I have now committed to the project, thanks Sam Rowley). Another attendee reported that one of the tutorials was misleading (another issue I have now addressed, thanks Simon Booth).

A team from the Manchester Metropolitan University enhanced a widget they had already created to tell students which labs had available PCs in them. Now it’s a fully geo-locating widget that sorts the results by proximity to the users position (interestingly using the tutorial Simon helped us improve). Another team from Strathclyde enhanced the Moodle Plugin for Wookie; now widgets are able to get a little more context from Moodle and thus provide more targeted information to the user. We hope to see patches and contributions from both these teams.

Many other participants who had never build widgets before reported that they’d learned a great deal. There were plenty of “almost working” enhancements to our templates as well as completely new widgets. Again, I look forward to applying their patches.

Why not come and join us on the Wookie project and find out what it’s all about.

You can read more about the two days on Sheila’s blog.

UK Government Open Standards Survey

There’s no date on his introductory post, but Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, has provided an opportunity for us to state which open standards for IT we want the UK government to use. This takes the form of an on-line SurveyMonkey survey that is open until 20 May 2011.

Government must be better connected to the people it serves and partners who can work with it – especially small businesses, voluntary and community organisations. Government ICT must play a fundamental role in making life easier and I want to ensure that it does.

One of our first goals is to organise Government data and systems using an agreed set of standards that make our ICT more open, cheaper and better connected.

If you’re a business or community organisation, helping us choose the right standards will make it easier for you to do business with Government.  It will also help us open up data, better informing your decisions, and hopefully prompting innovation.

There’s a lot of detail in the very long list of obtuse standard numbers, but fortunately a mechanism is provided to skip sections you aren’t interested in. Otherwise you can vote on each standard on a scale between mandatory and don’t use. Refreshingly for a survey, there are spaces for you to add your own thoughts (though you can’t add each on a new line as requested).

I spotted couple of typos and more seriously, the Microsoft originated ISO/IEC 29500 Office Open XML is incorrectly called ‘Open Office XML. This is bound to lead to confusion as the alternatively listed ISO/IEC 26300:2006 Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) standard was originally implemented in OpenOffice (and is now implemented by LibreOffice).

Open standards play well with open source software developement and we encourage you to take the survey. However do bear in mind the government’s past record in implementing open technology policies. You might also want to look at Glyn Moody’s related post about the Government’s definition of open standards provided in the procurement policy note.

Build a better Facebook through open innovation

There is a rapid groundswell of concern about Facebook. The main issue is privacy, or rather Facebook’s attitude to individual privacy and data ownership. Over the years the default settings have relaxed from most items being private, to virtually none being so. Unless the user makes a concerted effort to change settings. Accordingly, there is a lot of talk about creating an alternative to Facebook. As is often the case, many are looking towards a more ‘open’ version, though what they mean by that may not always be clear.

One example that currently stands out is Diaspora*, a project idea to create a distributed system where each person manages their own data rather than trusting it to a central hub run by a business. In a few days the four NYU students behind the project have gained a lot of interest and an awful lot of micro funding pledges. As noted above, it is not surprising that they propose to use open standards, open source and open development in their descriptions. But could there be a better form of ‘open’ to consider here?

As Social Hacking points out, if you are going to build another open Facebook you might as well make sure it is an improvement. While the author makes several points for how to make sure you surpass the existing Facebook, one really stuck out when I read it.

3. Learn from Academic Researchers

Many people in the academic community are producing research that addresses how people interact both offline and online, as well as how people understand concepts of privacy and social networking. As websites continue to reshape the fabric of our society and Facebook in particular affects notions of privacy, you simply can’t afford to ignore these studies.

My interest was piqued not only because we at OSS Watch are based in academia and support research projects. Rather, I was interested as it hints at, but does not make explicit, a powerful opportunity from being ‘open’. Taking it at face value it’s possible to interpret the comment as a suggestion to read papers and be influenced by the ideas they contain. I was struck by a more powerful way to embrace the ideas, namely through open innovation in software, or open development of open source software.

Open Innovation allows companies and developers to directly engage with academics in a collaborative relationship likely to be much more fruitful than just consuming papers. This can lead to a win-win where the project gains from the theory, leading to more profitability, and the academic gets a working implementation of their work, not to mention exposure and validation. Hopefully the Diaspora* project will take steps to actively engage some of the listed academics in their project, and so reap the rewards.

There are some hurdles to overcome on the road to open innovation. Not least are issues of trust and cultural differences, along with the need to find the right people. However there is growing understanding of how to manage these issues, building on the wealth of experience learnt in those open source projects that have successfully crossed boundaries. JISC are also encouraging pilot studies of open innovation through the recent JISC Grant Funding 1/10: Access to Resources and Open Innovation.

On June 24/25/26 in Oxford there is an excellent opportunity to directly explore open innovation with the people who are actively engaged in it. The TransferSummit, provides a forum for business executives and members of the academic and research community to discuss requirements, challenges, and opportunities in the use, development, licensing, and future of Open Source technology. I hope to see you there.