Open-source in government can save billions: group

On the eve of its 10-year anniversary, a Canadian advocacy group for open-source software in government says it’s closer to achieving its goal: saving taxpayers $1 billion a year.

Getting Open Source Logic Into Government  (GOSLING) is an Ottawa-based community of open-source enthusiasts dedicated to a freeing up the software market in the public sector. The Canadian government, they say, is spending $1.5 billion buying software that could cost only a third of that. The reason for the waste, according to the organization, is the disjointed, redundant development that takes place within departments.

Russell McOrmond, co-founder of GOSLING, says the issue is not one of adopting open source platforms, per se, but rather that of different government organizations sharing their software with one another. The procurement process has also been biased in favour of large vendors, he adds, stifling competition among Canadian enterprises.
“Say the government of Canada decided, ‘let’s do an open-bidding process on support contracts for LibreOffice or OpenOffice,’” he explains, comparing it to procuring licences for Microsoft Office.
“How do you do an open-bidding process for licenses for Microsoft Office? There’s only one copyright holder. So you can’t do three bids from three competing companies offering that code. But you can do three competing companies offering full source to support contracts to training, on free software equivalents.”
But Allison Brooks, an IDC Canada analyst who focuses on government, says the cost argument can’t always be settled in favour of open-source. “[It’s] not always true,” she says. “Your total cost of ownership includes deployment costs, long-term management, user support. All sorts of stuff add up.”
Along with the financial issues, McOrmond also says proprietary code prevents the public from keeping their government under scruinity. Policy is “translated” into a language like Python, he says, just as it is from English into French, except in this case, it isn’t made available to the public.
 “Making sure that government is transparent to their citizens shouldn’t be seen as, ‘ok, how much money does that cost and should we just shave that democracy aspect off our budget?’ That, to me, should be fundamental to the operations of government.”
Duncan Card, partner and national co-chair of technology, outsourcing and procurement at Bennett Jones LLP in Toronto, says he doesn’t necessarily agree that having proprietary code in government is infringing on the liberty of Canadians.
“There are other ways of dealing with government transparency than at the foundation or cornerstone level of the software they use,” says Card.
Making code available to the general public could lead to a “mob mentality of oversight,” he adds, weakening the ability of government to do its job. In some cases, it could even be dangerous, he says.
“There are security issues associated with disclosure of code for critical infrastructure,” says Card. “Think of the cyber-security implications of critical elements of IT infrastructure being made public.”
But Joseph Potvin, co-cordinator of GOSLING, contends that the opposite is usually true. “Something can only be secure if the security people have access to the source code,” he says.
He uses the example of a system of seismographs set up across Canada to monitor the nuclear test ban treaty. “All of those seismographs are running what is referred to as ‘stripped-down Linux,'” Potvin adds.
It doesn’t get much more critical than this, says Potvin: “you sure don’t want false positives.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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