Open Source Development
The use of Open Source software has become a hot topic in discussions of government computing in many parts of the world. This is not surprising given the strong political strand that is present in the Open Source movement. This has led to heated debates about the definition of “Open Source” itself led by organisations like the Free Software Foundation giving rise to several different models for Open Source licensing. In this paper we cannot cover the details of this debate in depth but are using the term Open Source in a general sense to mean computer programmes that are not just available as finished products but also openly publish their workings, the “code”. Most software companies have traditionally kept this code secret so that nobody can alter their products for their own use but have to go back to the original supplier for changes. In the Open Source world people are encouraged to alter or add to the programmes and then to share any useful new code they have written with the whole community of people who use that software.
Liberal Democrats believe that there is great scope for improving the use of IT by government by learning from the Open Source movement. This can come in various ways from the use of actual Open Source products to adopting common standards and engaging in more collaborative working.
We believe that Open Source software should always be considered as an option in making IT purchasing decisions. But we do not think that it is sensible to mandate only Open Source solutions as some legislatures have sought to do. A proper evaluation of all the options will lead to Open Source products being the preferred option on some occasions and proprietary solutions on others. What is important is that there is a level playing field in considering all the costs and benefits of the available alternatives.
Government should however make far more determined efforts to follow the methodology of Open Source projects in developing its own solutions. In particular, a collaborative system in which large numbers of developers can freely share their work can be of enormous benefit. This has often not been the case to date with, for example, IT specialists in large public organisations like the NHS working separately to solve the same problems but unable to pool their results because they are tied in to separate proprietary system suppliers.
In order to support a framework for collaborative working and a healthy market in system suppliers, far more attention also needs to be paid to common standards for both databases and programming interfaces. Data models can be developed and interfaces specified for common national systems and adherence to these standards mandated for system suppliers. This would allow government purchasers to mix and match interoperable elements from different suppliers. It would reduce single supplier dependence and create a more healthy market for innovation.
Wherever possible consideration should be given to the benefits of placing software elements into the public domain and developing them collaboratively amongst the whole developer and user community. This may mean paying higher upfront costs to buy rights to software outright rather than on a use only basis. Such investment will require more imaginative decision-making than a simple consideration of immediate lowest cost.
An example of the benefits of this approach might be the use of imaging in the NHS. An optimal solution could be developed or bought in for the presentation of X-Ray or other diagnostic images within a personal health record. Common data standards and programming interfaces would mean that this could be bolted on to any medical records system within the health service. If the software is further put into the public domain then it could be constantly improved by the whole community of medical records users. This would be a more efficient use of resources and give greater interoperability than encouraging the development of separate imaging systems by a whole range of medical records system suppliers.