Gov websites to use open source 'whenever possible'

In the response to a pretty innocuous parliamentary question from Tom Watson, new Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude makes a statement which could, on the face of it, be of monumental significance for UK e-government.

The Government believe that departmental websites should be hubs for debate as well as information-where people come together to discuss issues and address challenges – and that this should be achieved efficiently and, whenever possible using open source software. Any future development of websites run by the Cabinet Office will be assessed and reviewed against these criteria.

We’ve heard the ‘hubs for debate’ line before, in the Conservative tech manifesto, but the other part is quite startling. Open source software ‘wherever possible’. An unqualified statement of policy. No caveats at all; not even financial. That takes us far, far beyond the ‘level playing field’.

The PC/Mac battle has ended – in a draw

Last week, Puffbox Ltd invested in a Mac. Somehow I never quite saw myself as a Mac owner: a combination of the cost, the vendor lock-in, the slightly smug grins on Mac owners’ faces – even when the kit failed, as it seems to do with unexpected frequency, judging by my Twitter stream. But my long-serving XP desktop machine is starting to show its age, and much of my work these days is in collaboration with a Mac owner, so it seemed to make sense.
I went for a Mac Mini: at its £510 list price, it’s roughly half the price of an entry-level iMac, as long as you’re prepared to bring your own monitor, keyboard and mouse. But I managed to find it for £477, at; and after a bit of googling, I found a voucher code to knock a further £15 off it. Very pleased with myself.
I’ve spent the past few days loading it up with software. First Firefox, then a few must-have extensions, giving me access to my Google-powered email and Delicious bookmarks. A suite of browsers for testing purposes: Chrome, Safari, Opera. Dropbox, to enable easy file-sharing between machines. Twhirl, my Adobe Air-powered Twitter client of choice. And so on.
What’s been striking is that, with only a couple of exceptions, these are exactly the same apps I use most often on my XP box. (And for that matter, my Ubuntu laptop and netbook.) I needed a good code-friendly text editor, and TextWrangler got quite a few recommendations. Adium seems to be the must-have Instant Messaging client. But that was about it.
So it’s a very unexpected experience, powering up the Mac and hearing that same startup chime, which used to herald a venture into Unfamiliar Territory. A land where right-clicking was alien. A land with strange symbols dotted around otherwise familiar keyboards. Yet nowadays, there’s no immediately distinguishable difference. You press a button at the bottom of the screen to open up a menu of programs; you click on Firefox, and you’re up, up and away.
Is the Mac going to become my main machine, or will it remain a secondary box for fileserving and browser testing? At this point, I honestly don’t know.
Except, of course, that it isn’t a fair choice. If you build stuff for the web, you need to test it against all browsers. And that means Microsoft Internet Explorer. And that means Windows. So like it or not, you’re stuck with Windows at some point – be it as a virtual machine, or a secondary box. Sure, there are third-party services like Litmus or IE Netrender, which send back screengrabs of your code rendered in browsers you don’t have – but I don’t believe you’ve really tested something until you’ve clicked around in it.
Things are set to get even more complicated with the next release of Ubuntu, due in a fortnight. Like the Mac’s OS X, Ubuntu is perfectly capable of running Firefox, with its extensions, and Adobe Air, and Chrome and Dropbox. If anything, its desktop candy is even sweeter. The Mac will beat it on reliability, since Apple own the entire supply chain. But Ubuntu is at least as pretty to look it, arguably prettier… and that’s before the next release brings some new, even tastier interface themes.
There were suggestions in the past couple of weeks that Apple’s iconic ‘I’m a Mac, I’m a PC’ series of commercials may be at an end. On reflection, it’s no surprise. It just doesn’t matter that much any more. In the wake of the open source revolution, we’re all the same.
Except for Internet Explorer, which still sucks.

Cabinet Office's open source fail

A PQ from Conservative shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude:

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what her policy is in respect of the installation and use of (a) Internet Explorer, (b) Firefox and (c) Opera website browsers by Government departments.

To which Angela Smith replies:

Government policy regarding installation and use of web browsers is that all decisions must be in line with value for money requirements. In addition, the Open Source, Open Standards, Re-use strategy requires Departments to consider open source browsers such as Firefox and Opera on a level basis with proprietary browsers such as Internet Explorer.

A slightly disappointing answer on a few levels. It shouldn’t necessarily be seen as an either/or thing. A Strategy which says ‘we don’t have any specific preference’ isn’t really a strategy. Oh, and without wanting to be too picky, Opera isn’t actually open source.*
I’ve had trouble finding a copy of it online; so here’s the key section of the Opera licence:

All intellectual property rights such as, but not limited to, patents, trademarks, copyrights or trade-secret rights related to the Software are exclusively the property of, and remain vested in, Opera Software ASA and/or its suppliers.
You shall not modify, translate, reverse engineer, decompile or disassemble the Software or any part thereof or otherwise attempt to derive source code, create or use derivative works therefrom. You agree not to modify the Software in any manner or form or to use modified versions of the Software including, without limitation, for the purpose of obtaining unauthorized access to the Services or disabling features of the Software or Services.

See that bit about ‘You shall not attempt to derive source code’? Well, that’s basically the complete opposite of Open Source. We’re going to have real trouble making this debate happen if we can’t even get the basics right.
* Although, in an unexpected moment of charity, I’m wondering whether it’s actually a punctuation failure. Perhaps they meant ‘open source browsers such as Firefox, and [non-open source browsers like] Opera’? No, I doubt it too.
Update (er, a year later): To their credit, I suppose, they did issue a correction in Hansard a few days later: ‘Errors have been identified in the response given to the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) on 24 February 2010. The words “such as Firefox and Opera” and “such as Internet Explorer” were incorrectly included in the answer.’ – maybe this blog does have influence after all.

French military's open-source collaboration

Now this is how open source is meant to work.
In January 2007, the French defence ministry’s Direction Générale de l’Armement began work (in association with BT) on a project called Milimail, to enhance Firefox’s open-source cousin, the Thunderbird email client for military purposes. It’s now known as Trustedbird – and lists among its additional features:

  • Deletion receipts (MDN);
  • Delivery receipts (DSN);
  • Encryption/Signing with triple wrapping;
  • RFC 2634 Security Labels and Signed Receipts;
  • Address autocompletion with several LDAP directories;
  • CRL download from LDAP directories;
  • Manage Out of Office settings on a Sieve server

…only some of which I even begin to understand. But apparently, the key enhancement is the fact that you can ‘know for sure when messages have been read, which is critical in a command-and-control organization’ – according to Mozilla executive David Ascher, quoted by Reuters. And that’s good enough for it to hook into NATO systems.
What’s more, code from the French project found its way into Thunderbird’s v3 public release last December – making the product better for everybody.
The recently revised UK government policy on open source seemed to focus solely on the procurement angle. But as Trustedbird demonstrates, there’s potential for the benefits of open source to go much, much wider.
And if a particular open source product doesn’t quite meet your exacting specification, that shouldn’t mean you simply dismiss it. Ask not what open source can do for you, you might say; ask what you can do for open source.

Government beefs up open source policy – a bit

A bit out of the blue, this morning saw a revision of the UK government’s open source policy. And whilst it still doesn’t quite endorse the notion that open source solutions are fundamentally better solutions, it does ratchet up the expectations.
Last year’s revision to the 2005 policy statement introduced a subtle – but, I thought, very important – ‘tiebreaker’ clause: ‘Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility.’ I felt it read ‘like a document which wanted to say more, but didn’t feel able to.’
Well, in the intervening twelve months, the Cabinet Office appears to have grown a little in confidence. The 2009 policy included the following ‘Supplier Challenge’:

Building on the actions above, Government Departments will challenge their suppliers to demonstrate that they have capability in open source and that open source products have been actively considered in whole or as part of the business solution which they are proposing. Where no overall open source solution is available suppliers will be expected to have considered the use of open source products within the overall solution to optimise the cost of ownership. Particular scrutiny will be directed where mature open source products exist and have already been used elsewhere in government. Suppliers putting forward non-open source products will be asked to provide evidence that they have carefully considered open source alternatives and to explain why they have been rejected.

… to which has now been added:

If they are unable to provide evidence of fair consideration of open source solutions, their bid will be deemed non-compliant with government policy and the proposal is likely to be automatically be delisted from the procurement.

The only other significant change to the Action Plan itself is the introduction of a requirement for:

Clear guidance that where public sector organisations have procured ‘perpetual licences’ from proprietary vendors, a shadow licence cost will need to be applied to the cost of the licences. Where an agreement has been reached on behalf of the Crown, this price will be applied as the shadow cost. Where no agreement has been reached on behalf of the Crown, the shadow cost will be the non-discounted list price of that product from the vendor.

… but apart from that, and a few consequential tweaks here and there, it’s all more-or-less word-for-word identical to last year.
So it’s still a good document, fundamentally pointing in the right direction. But it now comes with an explicit threat to suppliers that if they can’t demonstrate that open source can’t be at least part of their solution, their bid is ‘likely’ (although not perhaps guaranteed) to be binned. Presumably because that explicit threat proved itself to be required over the past 12 months.
We’re a year down the line, and it would be nice if there weren’t quite so many statements in the future tense. It’s also a shame we don’t have some more inspiring examples to quote. But this revision hardens the policy in a potentially significant respect – and we should certainly give it a chance.
However, I have a nagging feeling that at some point, we’re going to need a specific high-profile victory for Open Source, to give it real momentum in government. An order to replace a common proprietary product with an open-source equivalent. A department switching from Windows to Ubuntu? Replacing MS Office with OpenOffice? Neither of those seem likely.
I suspect the only realistic win is the web browser – abandoning IE in favour of Firefox or Chrome/Chromium. And it’s not as if we don’t have good reason to do so.
Oh, one more thing. It’s entirely to the Cabinet Office’s credit that they have proactively offered the policy up for comment, working with the WriteToReply guys. It’s WordPress-based, sitting on WriteToReply’s hosted platform.

Tories publish leaked Govt IT strategy with WordPress

You might have seen coverage in the last few days of the Government’s forthcoming ICT strategy – ‘New world, new challenges, new opportunities’ – which leaked out last week, and is due to be published next week to coincide with the Pre Budget Report. The first I saw of it was at, with follow-up coverage in places like Kable and The key elements seem to be a move to cloud-based computing, a common desktop and common applications (known as the ‘Government Applications Store’, not a label I’m especially keen on); plus a restatement of policy on things like Open Source.
But here’s where it gets interesting. One of the recipients of the leaked document was the Conservative Party. And they’ve taken it upon themselves to republish it, in full, on a commentable web platform. (Which happens to be WordPress. Just thought I’d mention that.)
I’m not going to offer any comment on the strategy itself just yet: there’s something slightly uncomfortable about it being a leaked document, still apparently ‘work in progress’. But it’s a fascinating development nonetheless. We’ve seen academics and activists opening up documents like this: never a political party – although the only indication of the site’s origins is the obligatory reference in the footer. No logos, no explicit definition of who ‘we’ are, when it says on its homepage:

We have built this website to share with you a leaked copy of Labour’s report on public sector IT, which was scheduled to be published in the days ahead. … We think there’s a better way. … we believe that crowdsourcing and collaborative design can help us to make better policies – and we think this approach should begin now. This website allows you to post your comments and suggestions on this leaked Government report. We want to hear your ideas – and we will be responding to your thoughts in the weeks ahead.

The domain was only registered on Friday last week; and it looks like the content was copied-and-pasted into the site during Saturday afternoon. It’s a modest build, using a plain off-the-shelf theme, and to be honest it lacks a certain finesse: no ‘pretty permalinks’, no mention of RSS, no subscribe-to-comments, etc. But it’s up there, in double-quick time, whether or not the Cabinet Office wanted it up there. And it’s a case study for how negligible-cost hosting plus free software, specifically WordPress, can change the game. As I may have mentioned here before.
It’ll be fascinating to see what kind of comments it attracts. (Here’s the site’s comment feed, if you want to follow it.)

WordPress plugin: Robots.txt Reminder

Robots.txt Reminder
I’m sure we’ve all done it. You’re creating a new WordPress installation, and for a bit of privacy whilst you build the thing, you choose not to ‘allow my blog to appear in search engines like Google and Technorati’. But in the rush to get the site out the door, you forget to switch the setting to make it ‘visible to everyone, including search engines’.
So I’ve created a laughably simple WordPress plugin called ‘Robots.txt Reminder’, which adds a notification message to the top of all Admin pages if it detects that (a) your blog is set to block search engines, and (b) your user capabilities allow you to make the change. It’s kinda hard to ignore, but that’s kinda the point.
Click here to download, then – assuming you’re using one of the more recent versions of WordPress, and are able to do automated updating – upload the zip file as-is, by clicking on Plugins -> Add New -> Upload.
It’s not the first plugin I’ve ever coded, but it’s the first plugin I’ve ever ‘released’ like this, so please be gentle. 🙂

Why the fork does the BBC need its own jQuery?

Of course it’s good news that the BBC’s in-house Javascript library, Glow has been released as open source. It’s a very respectable chunk of code, with some quite nice built-in widgetry. But why on earth should the BBC have its own Javascript library in the first place? Its ‘lead product manager’ – itself a worrying job title – justifies its existence as follows:

The simple answer can be found in our Browser Support Standards. These standards define the levels of support for the various browsers and devices used to access some JavaScript libraries may conform to these standards, but many do not, and those that do may change their policies in the future. Given this fact, we decided that the only way to ensure a consistent experience for our audiences was to develop a library specifically designed to meet these standards.

They’re clearly sensitive to this question, as there’s a whole section about it on the Glow website itself, specifically referencing my own current favourite, jQuery. ‘On reviewing the major libraries we found that none met our standards and guidelines, with browser support in particular being a major issue,’ they explain.
So why not contribute to something like jQuery, to make up for its deficiencies? Isn’t that the whole point of open source? ‘Many of the libraries had previously supported some of our “problem” browsers, and actively chosen to drop that support… Forking an existing library to add the necessary browser support was another option, and one that might have had short term benefits. However, as our fork inevitably drifted apart from the parent project we would be left with increasing work to maintain feature parity, or risk confusing developers using our library.’
I’ve written here in the past in praise of the BBC’s browser standards policy, and I stand by that. But I’m afraid I’m not buying this defence of their decision to reinvent the wheel – and, it must be noted, ending up with results remarkably close to jQuery. The best argument seems to be the risk that libraries which currently meet their standards might not in the future; or that they might have to do work to keep a fork in sync. And even if that should happen, the worst case scenario is that they’d have to churn out a load of new Javascript. Which is what they’ve chosen to do anyway.
Plus, crucially, this isn’t about a bunch of geeks directing their spare-time volunteering efforts in one direction, rather than another. These are people being paid real money, taxpayers’ money, to do this, at a time when the BBC is supposed to be trimming its ambitions. If they’re at a loose end, perhaps they might want to address the News homepage’s 416 HTML validation errors, and abandon the ‘table’ markup.

Cameron's online promises

The explicit references to the internet in David Cameron’s big speech on ‘fixing broken politics’ this morning don’t come until the end. All MPs’ expenses to be published online; the same will go for ‘all other public servants earning over £150,000’. An Obama-esque pledge to put all national spending over £25,000 online. A commitment to ‘publish all Parliamentary information online in an open-source format’ (whatever that means). An end to the ‘ridiculous ban on parliamentary proceedings being uploaded to YouTube’. All good, on the face of it.
But the underlying message throughout the speech, empowerment of the individual, is really only a reflection of the changes being brought about by the internet revolution. We expect to be able to do things now, in our daily lives, which seemed like science-fiction only a few years ago. It’s really not that long ago that ’28 days for delivery’ was a standard; now we get fidgety if our delivery isn’t here within 2 or 3 days. Your mobile phone has instant access to every fact in the world, within seconds.
So Cameron’s talk of ‘giving people the power to work collectively with their peers to solve common problems’ isn’t really the articulation of a great vision: it’s a reflection of a reality that’s already with (many of) us. Likewise, transparency isn’t really something within his gift. ‘At the length, truth will out,’ Shakespeare wrote as far back as 1600; it’s just that these days, it gets out a heck of a lot quicker.
Having said all that, there are some parts of the speech which make me feel a little uncomfortable. I find it difficult to hear an Old Etonian and Oxbridge-graduate speaking up for ordinary people feeling ‘deprived of opportunities to shape the world around them, and at the mercy of powerful elites that preside over them’. And similarly, when he says ‘we rage at our political system because we feel it is self-serving’, I find my eyebrows raising at the use of the word ‘we’. (A bit like when Five Live presenters talk about ‘the media’ in the third person.)
But the reality is, this is the man who currently seems most likely to be running the country in a year’s time. The power will be in his hands. And whether he’s doing it by choice, or just recognising the way the wind is blowing, he’s talking about diluting that power, boosting transparency, and embracing the web. We like.

The open source answer to website auditing

I wrote the other week about ‘the implications of free‘: how the widespread availability of high-quality technology changed the rules when it comes to project management. Another example struck me today, around COI’s ongoing consultation on improving government websites.
There’s a lengthy section on measuring website usage, with detailed proposals around the new requirement for website auditing, kicking in imminently with the aim of ensuring that ‘the rules for measuring the number of Unique User/Browsers, Page Impressions, Visits and Visit Duration have been implemented correctly’. Government websites’ data will be audited twice a year, at a minimum cost of £1,740 per audit.
So what’s the alternative in the post-free world? How about a centrally managed, mandatory, open-source web analytics package – like Piwik?

  • It would place the absolute minimum demand on individual departments: all they’d have to do is include a few lines of javascript at the bottom of their page templates – just like Google Analytics.
  • It wouldn’t stop departments running their own analytics packages, if they so desired. Not that many would want or need to.
  • Implementation of appropriate standards – statistical, technical, privacy, transparency, etc – could be guaranteed by experts at the centre.
  • Lower overall cost: in terms of purchase, ongoing licensing & support, and of course, auditing.
  • Freedom to tailor it to particular government requirements, if any.

I must say at this point, I’ve got no direct experience of Piwik myself: but the demo looks great, and it’s used by people I respect – such as Sourceforge and MySociety (eg TheyWorkForYou). Plus, as TWFY demonstrates, you can use Piwik alongside other tracking methods: they seem to have two others on the page too. It’s still at version 0.something, but they’re pledging to hit v1.0 ‘in 2009‘. (Actually, can any of the MySociety gang share their experiences?)
Instead, where will the COI guidance leave us? Website owners will face a financial penalty (admittedly a relatively modest one) if they aren’t using a 2-star rated ABCe Associate Subscriber. And how many of these ‘recommended’ analytics tools are open source, do you think?
Perhaps COI might want to take another look at the Open Source Strategy, (re)published just a month ago: for example, the part where Tom Watson says in his foreword:

We need to increase the pace. We want to ensure that we continue to use the best possible solutions for public services at the best value for money; and that we pay a fair price for what we have to buy. We want to share and re-use what the taxpayer has already purchased across the public sector – not just to avoid paying twice, but to reduce risks and to drive common, joined up solutions to the common needs of government. We want to encourage innovation and innovators – inside Government by encouraging open source thinking, and outside Government by helping to develop a vibrant market. We want to give leadership to the IT industry and to the wider economy to benefit from the information we generate and the software we develop in Government.

I’d be grateful if COI would consider this as Puffbox Ltd’s contribution to the consultation exercise. Thank you.