You see, I am lucky - I get paid to write open source software. For a university, in Texas.
Which is actually a great job, but that's not the point. The point is I realised that people thousands of miles away want Open Source Software built for them, but my local council on the same road as my office does not seem to.
It turns out that they do want to, but there are a series of blockers that make using Open Source Software in localgov harder.
So I started this campaign
To make the model of Open Source development the norm for local government software.
By tilting the level playing field I want to see my tax money be spent on software that can be read, reused and reworked freely for the benefit of all of us taxpayers.
And, there is a real network effect, and it is a global effect. The Australian government blessed an Australian CMS (Squiz) this year, and it has found its way into Kent local government. The UK has had a long history of leading the world in software development, and it would be foolish to throw away a major global sector simply because we like our convoluted tendering processes.
Do you know there is a list describing everything government is supposed to do? Its called the Local Government Service Listing, and its got everything in it, from Fire Brigade Training to Council Tax Collection and Planning Applications.
In all, over 2100 services, and every single one is going to become digital, and rely on someone to write their software.
And how many of those will use Open Source software? Good Question.
Ok, so what is this Open Source Software?
Its pretty simple, honest. You write a book for your little boy about pirates and otters. You just print it on your inkjet and then you put it in a library. Now anyone can come read it.
Anyone does, and one of them thinks, I would rather it was about a girl, so my daughter can relate to it better. And she takes your book makes a copy and changes the he to she, and has fairy pirates and she puts it back and later someone else changes the pirate ships to space ships and so it goes.
Thats it really. Anyone has permission to write software, just as anyone has permission to write books. There are only two questions - did they write high quality software and does it do what you want?
High quality Open Source Software
Now here is a fun statement - Open Source Software is higher quality than the proprietary equivalents.
Coverity publish a annual comparison of major software projects "out there". For all their projects, Open Source has less bugs than the proprietary equivalents till the size of project reaches a million lines of code.
Basically this is public evidence for one of the software industry's dirty secrets - it turns out if you think someone is going to read your code you take more care because you want the respect of your peers. I mean if PG Wodehouse was writing books just for his landlord to read, and no-one else was going to see them, would he put in that much extra effort?
Now, taking a bit of care is not the whole reason - it also turns out that many companies have software development cultures that are, what's the polite word, sub-optimal for writing high-quality code. It took a long time for newspapers to develop their current process for churning out high quality writing on a regular basis. Most companies do not develop software the way the best software companies do. But all the best software companies look a lot like the best Open Source Projects. Most of them use each others tools.
Does it scratch your itch?
So I looked at the government tender sites. I even wrote some scraping software to help me analyse it.  Anyway of 70 tenders I could snaffle that day, 1, yes one, mentioned using Open Source.
For a given rounding error, no-one is building Open Source Software for governments - and on my analysis, no-one is asking them to.
How many ?
There are over 2000 services that UK local authority bodies are expected to provide. Each of those 2000 services will soon be delivered, in part or wholly, through digital means, and thus be entirely dependant on software.
That means that if we are lucky, we taxpayers will be splodging out real cash to (big, often American) companies for all but 28 of the 2000 services.
Why not write Open Source Software for all 2000 and then save some cash, get better quality software, and stimulate the economy by having small businesses write the software, run it in the cloud for everyone to access and get a regular cheque for updating it and keeping it smooth.
Bingo ! That was it - all I had to do was run to the LGA conference, where pretty much every council Chief Executive and elected Leader would be attending, shout out the words and the scales would fall from their eyes.
No-one had thought of this before
oh, OK, I may not have been the first to think of this.
There is a bit of a sea change happening in Government IT now. The GDS has developed a central web portal called GOV.UK and rather casually done it transparently and openly  The whole government IT approach is being re-thought - and re-thought with an eye on making it much easier for small companies to get in and bring real change.
Professional UK Open Source developers I have talked to (Interviews coming here I promise) tell me that government contracts are hard to crack. The tender process is long, weighted against "look we will develop it but you need to work with us" versus "prebuilt, commerical packages"
It turns out that GDS and the like already know about this. There is a new tender process-y thing. Called G-Cloud where commercial companies can get "approved" for government IT work before a tender and then all a public body need do is say "yes, that one".
In theory all we would need to do is find a couple of councils who needed, say, a new plugin for a planning application system, put it on G-Cloud, and the councils could pay for development of their needs, openly, delivered through G-Cloud and at a marginal cost. And the other 431 councils could come along and get a copy.
For free. (or if they wanted it hosted, for the price of hosting)
Its almost as if someone had planned it that way.
What are we going to do about it?
- WHAT DO WE *WANT*?! - Digital services delivered though software that is seen as a public good, developed openly and transparently at the most efficient, marginal cost in partnership with government domain experts and run on cloud services under the auspices of best practises in Open Source development. - ... Errr, When do we want it? - Now !
I am going to the LGA's conference and will be hosting a Fringe Breakfast on July 3rd at 8am in Manchester.
The goal - to find 4 services that at least 4 council leaders want and will need to replace this year. Services that are poorly, if at all, served by their current IT.
Then get them to fund 1/4 of their budget into a G-Cloud based Open Development pilot project.
We (hopefully pretty soon I will be we) shall setup a committee of Open Source Worthies, who will take on project oversight, to guide and mentor projects to find their own ways within the best practises of Open Source development.
And then arrange commercial cloud companies to host and support the projects.
This way, real people in government will be able to help real users with Open Source tools that cost us the taxpayer only what they cost to build.
As it should be.
Please sign up at the top of the page.
Three campaign stages
- Pilot Projects Simply getting working MVPs out there.
- Up to Speed We can put developers and councils together in an organised and ongoing fashion
- On-going delivery Going from a handful to all 2,000 services as Open Source.
- 2013-5-30. Met the leader of Maidstone Council, Chris Garland at a local business networking event . I actually got him to sign up ! And I am pestering Alison Broom (CEO) too - I would love to get one council committed to a pilot project before the LGA !
- Great interview with Kevin Curry of CodeForAmerica.
- Going to start a case study on a multi-agency multi-council project here in Kent on delivering Abandoned Vehicles reporting system.
|||For those of you not techies "I wrote some software to analyse all government tenders in the south east of england" sounds impressive. Maybe. It kind of is, but it also is the point I am making - all the software to run this site, to analyse the data I am using to make point, all of it is open source and free to download. It can be reused by anyone. I don't charge for it. Because for me, the effort to write a piece of software that analyses tenders in SE is trivial, but the effort needed to convert it to, say, www.analyseTenders.com is well, thats running a busiines, and I have one of those.|
|||They have released (most) of it as open source on github. I am intending to steal the great named "unicorn-herder" to run this site on Real Soon Now.|