BBC’s study of Whitehall open source use yields little

By their own admission, it doesn’t unveil any shocking secrets: but I suppose it’s worth noting the BBC’s attempt to investigate Whitehall’s use of open source software, or lack thereof. In truth, it really only highlights that the picture is rather chaotic, with little centralised control. I can also guarantee it’s less than comprehensive. But would you expect anything else?

The answers are rather vague; but then again, so was the question. What exactly does it mean, to ‘acquire’ an open source product?

By way of illustration: the Beeb’s list – (initially) published, without a hint of irony, as an Excel file – tells me that there is precisely one copy of Firefox inside DCMS, plus an unspecified number in DH, MOD and DFID… but none, apparently, in DfT. Clearly that’s ridiculous. But even if Firefox appeared on everyone’s list, what exactly would that tell us? That there’s a copy which the web team use for occasional testing? That it’s available as an option on every desktop? Or that it’s the department’s default, or even its exclusive browser?

And anyway, where does open source start and finish? What about the open source code in your website? your network hardware? mobile phones? satnavs? Macs? inside Windows, even (albeit accidental)?

Puffbox, if you hadn’t already spotted it, is very big on open source as a principle. But I’ve taken a very specific approach to the subject: concentrating on one specific product, for one specific purpose. Why? Because it’s much easier to frame the question that way. And because that particular product is a pretty good case study for open source done right.

The plan is, we set a precedent. Prove to people that the open source model can produce first-class results. Show how an open source basis can stimulate smarter and faster innovation. Then it becomes easier to take the next step, and the next, and the next…

2 thoughts on “BBC’s study of Whitehall open source use yields little”

  1. “We asked government departments for details of how much they had spent on proprietary software over the past year, and how much open source software they had acquired.” The Procurement team in any department could answer the first part, but who could coordinate a reponse to the second? Someone who, for example, knows whether their website sits on Apache. Then again, if you’ve had Apache chugging quietly away for more than a year, it would be outside the scope of the question. So, nice headline, but somewhat shallow investigation. What we really need to know is the trend in takeup of Open Source vs proprietary.

  2. Of course, updates only complicate the picture further. If you’ve patched or upgraded said Apache install, would that count as an ‘acquisition’ within the specified timeframe?

    But you’re right Chris: it’s the ‘versus’ element in particular, that’s of interest. When faced with a head-to-head decision between proprietary product X and open source equivalent Y, which did they choose?

    Although even then, that rather neuters the magic of open source, in terms of instant access for testing, unlimited reuse and modification, etc etc etc.

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