In the early 2000s the European Commission had realized the potential of open source software and its communities for the public sector. As the topic gained on importance the Commission launched the GPOSS portal, which was essentially a source of providing information regarding open source software for public administrations. Eventually the GPOSS portal was replaced by another platform, which allowed for actual cooperation of projects: OSOR.eu. This platform aimed at introducing public administrations to open source software and also to the community dynamics behind the software. It features a variety of projects and has several partnering websites, which contribute to further expanding the network.
The OSOR.eu project started in late 2006 as part of the Interoperable Delivery of European eGovernment Services to public Administrations, Businesses and Citizens (IDABC) programme. The Commission and the Member States (MS) of the European Union realized the need to establish a “platform for exchanging information, experiences and open source software based code for the use in public administrations”. After all, most public administrations are facing more or less the same issues when it comes to their software needs, and creating a framework in which common
- country of origin
interest could be discussed and efforts shared consequently should benefit all participating parties. As head of the IDABC unit Karel De Vriendt explains: “The origin of the idea was that when open source became an issue that was occasionally raised within public administrations, one of the major problems was to have an overview of what is happening elsewhere.” Giving an overview of the subject was especially important regarding open source software for the public sector, as traditional support and vending mechanisms did not apply to this kind of software.
The OSOR.eu platform, which had started as an observatory, eventually became an important meeting place for public administrations, developers, businesses and citizens alike. Today, more than 135 projects feature their software on the OSOR repository, enabling others to benefit from their developments, while benefiting themselves from the evolving communities around the products. In total one can search for approximately 2000 projects through the associated OSOR partners\' websites that are linked to the repository. As a survey conducted in early 2010 clearly shows, the OSOR user base is truly international. Although most participants originate from EU countries, there is also a substantial number of users from non-EU countries (see chart to the right).
Organisation and background
Behind the organisation of OSOR stands the European Commission\'s Directorate General for Informatics. The Commission in 2004 proposed the IDABC programme, which “uses the opportunities offered by information and communication technologies to encourage and support the delivery of cross-border public sector services to citizen and enterprises in Europe, to improve efficiency and collaboration between European public administrations and to contribute to making Europe an attractive place to live, work and invest.” (IDABC website). The Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR) being one of the activities included in the IDABC work programme, fits well into the general aim of strengthening efficiency and collaboration between public administrations.
Before OSOR was established in 2008 the IDABC had already focused on open source software and its benefits for the public sector. Starting with the IDA II programme, which was succeeded by the IDABC programme, the Commission had realized the need for a platform to inform MS about the use of open source by the public sector. The presumption in the early 2000s was still that if a public administration needed a custom solution, it would hire a developer that would do all of the work. The concept of sharing expertise, efforts and eventually software was still a relative new and emerging one by the time IDABC launched its GPOSS (Good Practice in Open Source Software) observatory. As the project officer of GPOSS Barbara Held explains: “Our hypothesis was: The more they will know about it, the more they will use it.” GPOSS as such was not a repository, where actual software could be shared and communities established, but a point of information, where licenses were explained, best practice examples presented and public administrations invited to participate in open source events.
In the years 2004 and 2005 public administrations slowly started to realize the benefits of common efforts. “People started to work together. The idea of sharing became much more central”, remembers Held. OSOR in this respect took the GPOSS idea a bit further. The intention was to create a platform that went beyond information exchange, enabling people to work together and to form communities. All the information that was available through GPOSS was transferred to OSOR and in addition to this an OSS repository added that would allow for sharing and user contributions. For Held “The dream was that people would not only upload content and other users download this content, but that actual communities would grow, where people would work together on a European level.” Starting with about 35 projects in the repository, which quickly found appreciation throughout Europe, the project grew quickly.
Behind OSOR there are a number of people making sure that the content and the maintenance of the platform is of high quality and updated continuously, as well as promoting and disseminating it amongst its target audiences. With regard to the content creation and the technical aspects of maintaining the platform, amongst other aspects, a consortium led by Unisys is in charge for OSOR and assures that the project delivers the expected results.
Creating awareness for open source software amongst European public administrations and help them establish communities.
||€ 3,2 Million
Creation of a vivid open source community with over 130 active projects, and more than one million downloads
Budget and Funding
The OSOR project is funded by the European Commission, with a budget of roughly € 3.2 million, which covers the entire project period from late 2006 until mid 2010. For the development, maintenance and further development of the technical platform the total cost will be at € 1.4 million by Q3 of 2010. For the content creation and stakeholder management the project has a budget of roughly € 1.8 million.
Beside the costs of the project, another point that one might raise is the possible savings that are generated through the shared development and use of the projects on the OSOR repository. Although the OSOR team has not done an investigation as to how much those savings might be as this would be an impossible task within the available resources, the impact may quite possibly be very high. To illustrate this, one might look at SEXTANTE, which is a geographic information system (GIS) software. The cost to develop the software, in terms of time needed to develop the 101.936 lines of code would amount to roughly € 2.5 million(For sloccount calculations, please visit http://www.dwheeler.com/sloccount ). On the one hand, one can assume that this cost has been shared amongst various public administrations that contributed to the development, but one may also assume that the number of people that benefited from actually using the software is substantially higher than the number of developers and contributors. Even in the case that only one percent of the 65.000 times that the software has been downloaded would actually lead to an deployment of the software would mean that 650 public administrations saved up to €2.5 million, by not having to develop the software themselves. Based on the Gartner survey, the actual re-use of software is much higher at around 30%, indicating that the number of administrations that benefit from the software projects is much higher than the rather pessimistic example above. To mitigate this number to some extend, one clearly has to see that SEXTANTE is not purely a custom software and there might be other solutions that can handle similar tasks for a much smaller price tag (i.e. for the use of ESRI ArcGIS, one does not have to pay the complete development costs of the software). It is nonetheless safe to assume that through the reuse and redevelopment of the software hosted on OSOR, public administrations or other stakeholders potentially could save substantial amounts of public money.
At the moment of writing this case study OSOR users have been invited to participate in a survey, which is intended to give the OSOR team important feedback. The problem with download statistics is often that a download does not necessarily correlate with an actual installation of software at a public administration. It is therefore very hard for the OSOR team to understand the impact of the project and to provide concrete numbers about re-use of software. It is presumed that the survey will give a first insight with regard to the impact of the project and its reach throughout public administrations across Europe.
When the OSOR website was launched in early summer 2008, the team had every intention of sticking to a stack of free and open source software without making too many adaptations themselves. “The basic principle was that we use software that anyone can take and we make this website with standard software that we change as little as possible”, explains Held. Large parts of the website are build with PLONE, which is a free and open source content management system (CMS). While offering many features and being easy to manage, PLONE further has an excellent security record, which clearly was an important aspect to consider.
Although the team behind OSOR had to tweak the system and learn how to use it properly at first, there were no major problems over the years. Issues such as a problem with attributing the right names to authors were quickly solved, and even one hack attack could be resolved quickly.
As mentioned before, the content from GPOSS was moved to OSOR in order to have one platform only that would entail all the information acquired over the years. The case studies, the news, the events, among other points, all contributed to making OSOR a website that was both interesting and relevant for the public sector from the start. The \'Forge\' or repository that was newly introduced on OSOR might be seen as the most innovative part of the website, as it was the first of its kind for public administrations at a European level. Initially 34 projects participated, but the number quickly rose to 135 today. “But altogether almost 2000 projects are searchable and downloadable through the OSOR site and the partner national forges” highlights OSOR project manager Szabolcs Szekacs.
Licensing of Open Source Software
Licensing has always been an important issue for open source software. After all, it is important to give clear instructions as to how a software may be used, how it may be distributed and altered to name just a few aspects. Furthermore this is especially important for public administrations that plan to release their development as open source software, since they might want to make sure that the software and the work they invested will not be sold by third parties, but instead be of use to other public administration facing the same issues. “Especially for public administrations it can take very long to decide for a license for a software”, states Szekacs.
Through their legal council OSOR provides projects that are planning to release their software under an OSS license with the opportunity to receive legal advice regarding the choice of license. “We have done a lot of work explaining how open source works, and how licensing works”, states De Vriendt. On the one hand there are guidelines on the website on how to use OSS licenses, which give a good overview of the different aspects that have to be considered. And on the other hand OSOR also has contracted a person that is able to provide specific answers to cases that need more consultation. Although most projects decide for a license without consulting OSOR, there were several occasions “where this was a problem, and where they wanted some help”, explains Szekacs.
Unfortunately from time to time there are still “grave errors being made”, which are mostly a result of a “lack of knowledge”, explains De Vriendt. On very few occasions, projects just uploaded their content without any license at all. To prevent this from happening the \'10 principles of using OSOR\' have been established, which give clear instructions that any software uploaded to OSOR has to be under an open source software license.
Szekacs mentions the project initiated by the Municipality of Munich, WollMux, as a good example of how finding the right license is very helpful for a public administration to publish their project. As the city needed some legal basis before they wanted to make their custom OpenOffice.org template tool publicly available, they thought of several open source licenses. Eventually they realized that the European Union Public License (EUPL) was the right choice due to its legal implications and also because it was supported by the European Union. Florian Schließl from the WollMux project explains: “[...] in our opinion this GPL-like license minimizes the legal risks for public administrations publishing software as free software. We are pleased to use a license adapted to European law and knowing a large public body like the European Commission is behind the licence.”
European Union Public Licence (EUPL) V. 1.1
The EUPL is the first European Free/Open Source Software (F/OSS) licence. The purpose of the EUPL is to encourage a new wave of public administrations to embrace the Free/Open Source model to valorise their software and knowledge.
EUPL has been approved as a licence to be used for the distribution of software developed in the framework of the IDA and IDABC programmes of the Commission. The licence text is drafted in general terms and can therefore be used by anybody wishing to release code under an OSS licence that is adopted to European legal conditions.
The EUPL was created as a result of the IDABC licencing studies. The publication of this copy-left licence was preceded by an intensive public consultation process. It was officially adopted by the European Commission on 9 January 2007. On 9 January 2009, the European Commission adopted a revised version of the Licence while at the same time validated it in 22 official languages (EUPL v.1.1).
The EUPL is now available in 22 official EU languages, in respect of the principle of linguistic diversity of the European Union.
For more information on the licence visit: https://joinup.ec.europa.eu/page/osor.eu/eupl
To download the text of EUPL licence:
Project dissemination and user feedback
Over the years, the Commission has provided information about OSOR at many conferences and events relevant to the public sector. Informing public administration about OSOR was and still is particularly important, as many stakeholders are still not aware of the potential advantages of using open source software and participating in open source communities, instead of purchasing proprietary solutions or developing non-reusable customized solutions. Both Held and Szekacs agree that speaking at conferences and creating awareness in this regard is very helpful. Szekacs further notices that by now OSOR is an established name in the open source community. However, as most people working at public administrations are not software developers but administrators it is even more important to speak to those who “aren\'t yet aware”. There are still many public administrations throughout Europe that have little or no knowledge about open source software and how it can be particularly useful for the public sector. To address this problem Szekacs sees two necessary steps. First, it is important to raise awareness for OSS in the higher levels of governments, such as the institutions of the European Union. Although already considerable awareness exists at these levels, members of the Parliament, for example, are ultimately important information and knowledge broker that could disseminate OSS knowledge in their home MS. Next to this top-down approach, Szekacs considers it helpful to investigate if it would make an impact to organise events together with the governments where those in public administrations who decide about the acquisition and/or development of software are invited. This is a very long process that may not be very rewarding at first, but at least it might make sense to “plant the seed”, as he says.
The feedback that the OSOR team gets from the active OSS users in most cases is positive. Through various conferences and public events, but as well through the communities on OSOR, it has become clear that the project is valued and does have an impact.
The projects that are hosted on OSOR and their communities are another important source of feedback. As projects are not obliged to report to the website about their contact with the community and their users, this form of feedback possibly bypasses the team at IDABC. Eventually the platform is not only a service to those that want to participate in a community and download useful software applications, but also for those that want to extend the reach of their developments and build a community around them. As Victor Olaya who is in charge of Sextante explains: “We get a lot of feedback from users, either directly via email or through the backtracking system.” The GIS software Sextante, which is a system developed for the forrest management department of the region of Extremadura, Spain, enables its users to map out landscapes and generally manage geographic areas by attributing certain characteristics to specific areas. Olaya on average gets around 15 emails per week, with questions for more functionality or information about problems with their GIS software. For Sextante this is a very important aspect of the community. “We have many users that test the software and send us bugs, or sometimes suggestions for improvement.” And he furthers adds “It is a very active project.” It is difficult for him to say exactly how many public administrations or other bodies use the software, but he and his colleague Juan Carlos Giménez frequently visit conferences and talk to various administrations. This way they understand that their software in fact finds many users. Although Olaya assumes that the software is being used “world wide, or at least at a Europe-wide”, he knows of roughly twenty public administrations and several private companies that use the software.
The Municipality of Munich shares this experience for their self-developed WollMux template tool. Since its publication in 2008, the tool has been downloaded more than 30.000 times from the OSOR forge. Although the situation here is the same as far as backtracking the actual deployments of the tool in public administrations goes, but the city is very content with the community that is evolving behind the product. The “collaborative testing is great”, explains Schließl, as it helps to “improve the overall performance of this tool”. Furthermore, the “non-technical aspects of OSOR” are of great importance for the WollMux team: “Especially personal meetings and community building roadshows are a platform for us to advertise the WollMux”, highlights Schließl.
The open source mechanism
To support government services throughout Europe and to allow them to benefit from open source software is one of the main goals of OSOR. Anyone participating in the communities or simply acquiring information from the website can get ideas of how open source software could work at his or her institution. By offering a framework in which public administrations can work together and share their experiences, OSOR brings together an international framework of people that can make their project visible beyond their communities.
For the project FriKomPort the participation in OSOR has been very fruitful . After being featured on OSOR, the project received many requests from various other communities about their course and seminar management tool that was developed using open source software and released under GPL license. The project\'s popularity, which was initially restricted to the Norwegian region of Kongsberg, suddenly attracted a large audience and received a lot of recognition. It won the country\'s first Open Source Software Municipality award in October 2009, as well as the Editor\'s Choice award of the website www.epractice.eu. Furthermore it was presented at the IDABC event at the Open World Forum in Paris in October 2009. Through OSOR, the project has reached many people, even beyond Europe, which might not have heard from the project at all otherwise. The project can be found at the project section on OSOR.eu (https://joinup.ec.europa.eu/page/osor.eu/projects/frikomport),
while the actual code is available for download from frikomport.no, where developers and anyone who wants to get involved can participate.
The project Sextante has been very successful with over 60.000 downloads from the project website. For the project OSOR initially was very helpful, as it offered a SVN server where the team could upload their code and share it with others. Through this, the project automatically reached out to a large number of potential users especially from other public administrations. “So far it has helped us quite a bit”, explains Olaya. “The administrations know OSOR and they use it. They can go to the website and search for software. Through this mechanism OSOR has helped us in establishing contacts with administrations and other groups that need our software.”
Cooperation with other communities and platforms
OSOR is partnering with a large number of other portals and forges. This is an important aspect of the website, as it brings OSOR in contact with various other initiatives beyond the realm of OSOR. Most of the partnering platforms and organisations offer similar services as OSOR, however mostly on a national level. In this respect, OSOR can also be seen as the link between several national communities, which makes it easier for them to connect and find each other. On OSOR alone, there are currently 134 projects where anyone can participate or simply download. Through the network of national forges there are almost 2000 projects, all of which can be reached through OSOR. The national forges are all promoted on OSOR and through the machine translation service of the European Commission all project descriptions are searchable in English. This helps fundamentally in extending the national forges outreach and connects them with a potentially much larger user group.
The national forges featured on OSOR include at the moment:
- Adullact (France)
- OpenSource Platform of the digital Austria (Austria)
- Guadalinex forge (Andalucia, Spain)
- Software Repository of the Junte de Andalucía (Andalucia, Spain)
- The Free Knowledge Forge of the RedIRIS Community (Spain)
- forja.linex.org (Extremadura, Spain)
- Morfeo Free Software Community Forge lafarge.cat (Catalonia, Spain)
- ASC – Ambiente di Sviluppe Cooperativo (Italy)
- Mancomún forge (Galicia, Spain)
- COKS (Slovenia) Cenatic (Spain)
- Forxa Mancomun (Spain)
- Softwareboersen (Denmark)
- Friprog (Norway)
- Programverket (Sweden)
- Berlios (Germany)
- COSS (Finnland)
- Tosslab (Italy)
- Technology Transfer Centre of the Spanish Ministry of Public Administration (Spain)
- LISoG (Germany, Austria, Switzerland)
For a list of all partners, including those without a forge, please visit: https://joinup.ec.europa.eu/page/osor.eu/partners-forges. Although there are no contractual obligation between those platforms, it is this kind of informal cooperation that helps platforms extending their outreach. After all, it is not about competing with each other, but about sharing the benefits of common developments.
Achievements / Lessons learned
A problem in many public administration is often that “nobody wants to be the first”, explains Szekacs. The OSOR platform, which succeeded GPOSS, in this regard made a substantial contribution to open source in the public sector, by showing public administrations throughout Europe that they are in fact not the first and that others have done “it” before successfully. Furthermore “we have the big advantage that we are the European Commission” De Vriendt points out, considering that the institution has a lot of credibility. Many administrations are critical towards the open source mechanisms of working together with a community or of sharing software and the fact that the European Commission supports many of such initiatives has the potential to mitigate potential fears.
As the recent survey by Gartner, Inc. shows that roughly 50% of OSOR users visit the platform “to keep up to date [as part of my expertise]”. Only 28% of the people that participated in the survey state that “Developing Open Source software is (part of)” they daily work, which indicates that the platform finds wider audiences mainly those that develop software on a daily basis. 13% of all participants visit OSOR our of self interest in the topic.
Amongst most participants in the study the platform is very satisfying and the large majority of users (58%) “can be seen as ambassadors”, as the study highlights.
Has OSOR been successful from today\'s point of view? The success of initiative such as OSOR is difficult to measure, and one has to see that there are no clear “sales targets”, as De Vriendt puts it. In terms of software being used, shared and modified in cooperation OSOR however could be seen as a success. Initially “our main goal was to check if something like this would be viable” De Vriendt further states. “And I believe yes it is viable.” The community behind OSOR is growing, and many of the projects featured on OSOR benefit from working together with a community of other public administrations.
According to Szekacs, there are several aspects, which can contribute greatly to the success of a platform such as OSOR. On the one hand it is necessary to have a good team of experts involved from the start, to be able to assist others and to establish a platform that offers relevant information to public administrations. Next to this it is absolutely important to have stakeholder involvement early in the project. Considering that a community like OSOR lives from its participants, active participation and involvement are essential for the success of a platform. Having an active community, where most people not only download but also contribute content and generate discussion is therefore one of the aspects that will have to improve in the future. According to Szekacs OSOR indeed has faced quite some challenges in “launching active, vivid communities on OSOR.eu”, which is one of the main points where the team would like to show improvement in the future.
OSOR in Numbers:
| Total projects
|Mailing list messages
“We have started something, and we have positive feedback from the MS as well as from the users, but there\'s still a lot ahead” states Szekacs. According to the Gartner survey, the news section as well as information concerning events and conferences are perceived as the best functionality of the OSOR platform. The functionalities that are considered relatively less useful are the uploading function for Open Source project and the tools collaboration tools for developments of projects. For Schließl, especially the last point is one main drawback: “We do not use the limited features for source code sharing via version control systems. The offered solutions CVS and SVN are outdated and not the best choice for collaborative developments.” For the OSOR team, more attention will have to be payed to those functionalities that are considered less useful.
Another important question is in which direction OSOR will go regarding the dimensions of the repository and the impact it should have. “I always have the feeling we could do better”, says Szekacs. Comparing to large repositories such as SourceForge, where hundreds of thousand projects are featured, OSOR is a very small project also because of its orientation towards public administrations. Due to its specific focus, this will most likely always be the case. As mentioned earlier, OSOR does not want to compete with other platforms, but offer a framework specifically for public administrations. For public administrations it is important not to face a jungle of irrelevant software applications before they find the right solutions for their specific needs. De Vriendt adds “It\'s not about having as many projects as possible, it\'s about having good software.” Finding a way to attract larger numbers of projects to participate in OSOR, possibly through informal cooperation with non-European platforms, while managing to keep a balance between quantity and quality will be one of the points the IDABC will address in the near future.
For this it will also be important to encourage and engage with the users and projects that are already a part of the OSOR community. To address this issue of lacking stakeholder involvement, Szekacs thinks of two possible starting points: “There may be some part of the problem which can be solved by providing better technical support, such as notification features, but in order to increase the activity of communities we will need to rethink our strategy.”
Generally OSOR wants to contribute to changing the image of open source software and its working mechanisms for the better. Many public administrations are still not convinced or aware of the advantages that open source can have for their organisation. “We must come to a situation where we can demonstrate that working together and sharing the results of that work is an effective and efficient way to establish public services”, says De Vriendt. To achieve this OSOR will have to concentrate more on disseminating the project, and emphasise the community creation aspects, which are essential for an open source environment.
OSOR reflects well, how the European Commission and the European Member States have realised the potential of changing attitudes in software development. Where in the early 2000s public administrations were still very much focused on developing a product by themselves and for themselves, this is slowly changing towards the notion of sharing and cooperating. OSOR in this regard takes an important position, showing public administrations throughout Europe that they are indeed not the first to consider open source software and community participation for their software needs. The success stories, of which there are many, clearly illustrate that old pattern of thinking might be revised, as free and open source software has the potential to provide more freedom, more custom functionality, while often being more economic in financial terms. It is nevertheless important for OSOR to focus stronger on active community building amongst public administrations, as this appears to be the main shortcoming of the project.
In the future, one will have to see if the demand for open source solutions and the acceptance of open source working mechanisms will continue to grow in the public sector. OSOR certainly has the potential to take a central position, linking various national initiatives and bringing open source in public administrations on agendas of decision makers throughout Europe.
This case study is brought to you by the Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR), a project of the European Commission\'s IDABC project.
Author: Gregor Bierhals, UNU-MERIT
This study is based on interviews with Szabolcs Szekacs, OSOR project officer at IDABC, Karel De Vriendt, IDABC unit head, and Barbara Held, OSOR/GPOSS project officer until mid-2008. Additional information has been provided by Victor Olaya from the Sextante project, and Florian Schließl from the Municipality of Munich\'s WollMux project.