Governments and Open Source

- - posted in Ancient Archives

I like the BBC, and I like their use of Open Source software. They employ some smart people and produce some great content. Maybe they should produce Open Source software too? After all, the public have paid for it already. This great article by Azeem Azhar (ex-BBC) has started me thinking about this again. He considers the implications of the BBC open sourcing all it’s content, not just internal software systems.

I’m in favour of open sourcing all the “information systems” used by governments, the systems that manage information for the police, the health service, passports, air traffic control, and so on. I’m not sure if open sourcing all the BBC’s content is a good idea, but I’m open to argument which is why the article linked above is so interesting. Azeem Azhar makes a strong case.

In the USA, publicly funded organisations give a lot back to the public. Nasa frees a huge amount of data including photos, videos and research software into the public domain, and even the NSA releases open source code. This is in a nation generally suspicious of state funded organisations, and maybe that’s the reason. The public expects to share the benefits when their tax money is spent. They are the investors after all.

In the UK we are proud and protective of our state organisations, but these institutions seem to give much less back to the public beyond the limit of their immediate function.

Freeing up the main product of a public organisation is very dangerous. There is a high likelyhood that free, publicly available state-subsidised products would wipe out private competitors. This might not be in the interest of consumers, or, ultimately, of the public organisation itself. While I’d like to see the BBC release all its content into the public domain, the BBC is already a very big fish in a small pond…

However, one aspect of publicly funded organisations is much easier to give back to the public: software. Especially when secondary to the organisation’s main objectives, a means to an end rather than a service itself. Why are we paying for numerous government bodies to buy shoddy bespoke software from companies like Crapita, time and time again? Huge amounts of money are being wasted. That money could have bought real things like education and healthcare.

Governments have a duty to spend public money as efficiently as possible, and to me that demands that state software projects be Open Sourced whenever possible. Hire Capita or EDS by all means, but buy ownership of the code and release it freely to the world. Share it with other governments. Work together to improve it. Hire a private company to improve it. But don’t keep paying again and again for the same almost-working code in slightly different contexts. Build towers, not the ground floor many times.

And this should be global, not just national. India should be able to freely take Britain’s NHS software systems, hire programmers to improve them and adapt them to India’s health system, and then give back the extra features and bug fixes they’ve added.

Software voting systems are now being used in some elections, often with no public scrutiny of the software. How on earth can we see that an election is fair when it is effectively controlled by a private software company? Voting software owned by a state and hidden from the public would be equally dangerous. Opening the code is the only way to ensure fairness.

The World’s population is paying over and over for government software that is often inadequate. Unlike physical goods, government software can be reproduced with almost no cost. Try doing that with cancer operations. We must stop wasting money on software. Governments gain no advantage from keeping the code to themselves. We’re all paying for it, we should all own it. The alternative is governments imposing a costly, artificial scarcity on their own citizens.

The irony is that rather than the wealthy countries freeing their existing government software and sharing it with poorer countries, the opposite is happening. Across the developing world, countries are moving towards mandatory Open Source licensing for government software projects. As this continues, Europe’s governments may soon be benefiting from the common sense and civic values of the “third world”. I hope we give them some good software in return.