Sitting through the consultation session this morning at Lib Dem conference on IT policy (see here for a copy of the consultation paper) I learnt lots of interesting points of detail – just how many Liberal Democrats have a connection to Cambridge, the horror many have of learning Pascal and details of the issues around virtual currencies and taxation. The session also clarified my thoughts about the role of open source software in the public sector.
‘Use open source’ is often deployed as a catch-all phrase which actually includes ‘use data standards’, ‘have open data’ and ‘stop reinventing the wheel’ along with ‘use open source programs’. Those first three considerations can be helped by open source but do not necessarily require it and are not automatically delivered even if open source is used.
For example, more widespread use of BS7666 (a standard for postal addresses) would help the public sector more efficiently and accurately share data across different systems – where such sharing is appropriate of course. It is BS7666, or another address format, that matters in this example – whether or not the systems using it are open source. An open source system could use data in a different format that does not work well with other systems. A closed source system could use BS7666 to perfection.
To take another example, many councils have paid for the development of bespoke systems that do the same as other councils. There are significant opportunities to save money (and improve services) by avoiding duplication and having new work expand on rather than repeat previous work. These opportunities can be realised in different ways: pay for open source software developments which by definition are then open to everyone else to use, or pay for software development where the public sector ends up owning the copyright. Moreover, even if the open source route is taken, it won’t automatically mean people in the public sector break the habit of not looking around more closely to see what can be shared and how.
These questions cut across several of the sections in the policy consultation paper, so I look forward to getting stuck into them further as the policy working group progresses its work.