Interview: Maria Dalhage of DIGG (Sweden) on FOSS in government

Interview: Maria Dalhage of DIGG (Sweden) on FOSS in government

Published on: 24/01/2023
Last update: 25/01/2023
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Image of Maria Dalhage
Source: photo used with permission

DIGG is Sweden's Agency for Digital Government.  Maria Dalhage is Data and open source specialist at DIGG as well as Community Manager for the National Dataportal.

OSOR (Ciarán O'Riordan): DIGG published two new guidelines in September, one for the procurement of free / open source software, and one for development and releasing. What feedback are you getting?

Ms Dalhage: The purpose of our guidelines are to make it easier to comply with the internal policy from 2019, stating that DIGG should consider OSS as a first choice, and that the code developed by the government agency should be published under an open source licence.

DIGG's guidelines–like the policy–are primarily aimed at internal users but in working with the guidelines we involved other government agencies and municipalities in our process, to create a discussion when it comes to the choice of OSS licences.

Since we published the guidelines, we have gotten positive feedback from both public administrations who have expressed intentions to use the guidelines in their organisations and private sector as well as civic tech actors who welcome our ambition.

What we can also conclude is that, even if guidelines are important, they are still not enough. There is a need to talk about more about purpose and culture, and to remove the feeling of uncertainty. What has been requested is more hands-on support, templates and practical tips. We have a lot of people and a lot of different levels of expertise in different subjects, and in a true open source spirit we can help each other.

OSOR: You have a forum for gathering feedback from the general public. Can you tell us how this works and what the value is for you? Can public administrations also use this forum to talk to each other about the software they're using?

Ms Dalhage: DIGG hosts an online forum on the Swedish national Dataportal which is open to everyone. Our vision is that the Community becomes a national hub for public discussions on public APIs, (open-) data and open source. A place were different initiatives and communities meet.

Public administrations have started to use the forum for information and knowledge sharing and to have public discussions with those using their digital resources. Since the forum was launched in November 2020 it has had over 70,000 unique visitors, but not all visitors have an account.

We do not want to differentiate between users when it comes to general discussions. It should not matter if it is a developer from a private company or a colleague from a public administration who is asking a questions or debating on how we can work smarter.

One example on value is the creation of the Swedish open source catalogue offentligkod.se. In 2021, Swedish public sector organisations, through the Network Open Source and Data (NOSAD), started sharing which open source software they are using with the purpose to help other public administration entities choose an open alternative to proprietary software. Combining offentligkod.se with OSS discussions in the community creates awareness and a positive trajectory towards open alternatives and interoperability.

OSOR: At the 2 December workshop you said that for data to be open, the software for using that data must be free / open source so that everyone has real access to the open data. For which tasks do you think it is most important to use free / open source software?

Ms Dalhage: For all situations where we want our data to be portable and interoperable. Definitely for computing, AI and infrastructure, but also for case management like eArchiving, OSS is very important. We want to be able to access our information even after 20 years without having to keep old legacy systems alive. Since we are talking about interoperability, I just want to clarify that open standards are the means for interoperability and the guarantor for an open standard is an OSS implementation.

OSOR: Procurement of free / open source is different in some ways to closed software. What's your experience?

Ms Dalhage: A great advantage with open source is that you do not have to procure the open source software itself, but can download it, try out and evaluate if it is suitable for your purposes. There is an old Swedish saying ”Don’t buy the pig in the sack”, which means don’t buy anything unseen, definitely not a critical investment.

Even if we do not have to procure OSS, most organisations need to procure implementation, modification and support. But since requirements on OSS still is rare, organisations tends to feel uncertainties in how to administrate a procurement with OSS. It feels banal to say that the solution is creating awareness and sharing experiences, but this is exactly what is needed, because it is mostly procedural and not a legal challenge.

What we have done in Sweden on the subject of awareness is knowledge sharing though networking.

Another way of spreading awareness is through collaboration. A successful example is how public sector organisations worked together on investigating appropriate and legal suitable digital collaboration platforms for the public sector. By setting this up as a joint project including a reference group of 121 public organisation we have gained a much better understanding on requirements and prerequisites.

Ms Dalhage, thanks for sharing this with us!