Australian state gov’t readies open-source project

In what is believed to be the largest open source project ever developed in Australia, Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) has spent the past two years and A$1.2 million on a new content portal which will go live early next year.

The Zope Amendment Production Platform, or ZAPP, is a repository for every planning scheme in the state, according to the project’s manager Sharon Tyrer. ZAPP houses all documents relating to town planning schemes, and the legislative process that amendments, such as district re-zoning, go through.

“We didn’t have any systems for ZAPP [but] literally a manual system where we updated Word documents and burnt them to CD,” Tyrer said.

Presently, Lotus Notes is the DSE’s preferred program for smaller applications and the management tracking system.

“We did have Quickplace-based system called EDe but it didn’t store planning schemes and had limitations on number of users so the system fell down. People stopped using it and went back to sending files through the post.”

As its name indicates, ZAPP is built on the Zope open source application server, which is developed with the Python programming language.

Although at the forefront of open source software adoption by encouraging government-funded organizations like Multimedia Victoria and Open Source Victoria, the state’s DSE has quietly been working on ZAPP for the past two years.

“The first business case was done in November 2000 which identified the need to develop a system to look after document flow,” Tyrer said. “In 2001 we decided to go with Zope and it was a bit of a fight to get that through because we didn’t use much open source technology at the time.”

The DSE had contracted Zope Corporation to do the custom development but after performing an initial scope, the company pulled out of the local market in 2002. After going to tender, the DSE chose Melbourne-based open source service provider Obsidian Consulting as its development partner for ZAPP.

“ZAPP takes everything through and stores it at each different legislative process and date-stamps everything at each point, taking snapshots of every planning scheme so people can look at how it has changed,” Tyrer said.

The project, going since 2003 with Obsidian, will officially finish development this week.

The actual go-live date is set for February 2006 when over 800 planners and administrative staff across the state will access a repository of 82 300MB planning schemes and an amendment rate of 500 per year.

“We literally went from nothing two years ago to quite a lot of open source technology here,” Tyrer said.

“The main programmers are using python, we also use a few other programs, like Kupu, for editing documents and a combination of three open source programs for generating PDFs.”

Overall, ZAPP comprises seven major open source applications and is hosted on Linux. Two new dual-core AMD Opteron systems will be purchased to increase the hosting from two boxes to four when ZAPP goes live.

“Notes is the preferred content management system in DSE, but there was no way Notes could do it,” Tyrer said. “Notes couldn’t handle the workflow because the process is too complex. It also couldn’t handle the production of legislative documents [or] generate [those] documents accurately for us.”

In the absence of an off-the-shelf product for DSE’s requirements, Tyrer said ZAPP had to be a custom solution.

“Zope has no licence fees, is all Web based, and has so many benefits across the board,” she said. “The licensing problem could have been a big one for councils, but with ZAPP we have removed that obstacle; A$1.2 million is quite cheap for what we have got.”

Despite initial concerns from the IT department about using an unknown program, Tyrer said both the previous and current CIOs have been “fantastically supportive” of the ZAPP project, which she hopes will be a beachhead for further deployments.

“Open source is not as well received as I had hoped but it’s building momentum,” she said. “We’re looking at extending open source usage [but] still have to convince people that think if you don’t have to pay for [something] it’s no good.”

Tyrer said Zapp has “opened doors” as to what the DSE can do with software and is now getting the strategists together to develop a “cohesive IT plan”.

“It’s a snowball effect and will replace the amendment tracking system [now] in Notes and hopefully take over online publishing of planning schemes,” she said, adding the business cases for those projects are being developed.

With funding approval, the DSE will develop a more advanced planning schemes online system for public access and integrate the Web site — which still requires manual updating — with Zapp in 2006.

In keeping with the free software ethos, the DSE will also release ZAPP as an open source project “within reason” in August next year, making it available for download under the Obsidian licence.

“ZAPP could be used for anything — anywhere there is content – as it publishes really well,” Tyrer said. Tyrer praised Obsidian’s work on ZAPP, describing it as “absolutely brilliant”.

“We are employing a small, growing company and sending money back into the state,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation and I don’t think we could get it done any cheaper.”

So far Tyrer hasn’t had any interest in ZAPP from the other states but said that should change once it is better understood.

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