Navigation path

Open source observatory

(
 
)
4.68/5 | 174 votes
Editor's choice

Danish Municipality of Aarhus aims to free itself from IT vendor lock-in

(
 
)
3/5 | 4 votes |
Editor's Choice

In January 2014, the Danish Municipality of Aarhus adopted its Open Source Action Plan. The plan is part of the Municipality's IT strategy and aims to increase its use of open source software and open standards in order to free itself from IT vendor lock-in.

According to the authors of the action plan, the increasing popularity of open source software required an explicit strategy to be developed. It allows Aarhus to reap the benefits of open source, while minimizing operational, technical and legal risks.

The principles stated in the action plan satisfy the expectations set by the Aarhus City Council on several occasions. In 2011, for example, the Council decreed that open source should always be considered as an alternative when acquiring software.

One of the main reasons for the Municipality of Aarhus to develop an open source strategy is that free software adheres natively to open standards — the most important requirement to avoid vendor lock-in and enable interoperability.

Furthermore, the use of open standards allows software to be built as modular components that can easily be interconnected in different ways as needed. Modularity is also an inherent property of open source software in general because this software is meant to be shared and re-used.

From its previous experiences with open source, the Municipality of Aarhus had already learned that developing software and actively participating in the community — instead of purchasing readily available closed source packages — energises the people involved and stimulates commitment, creativity, inventivity, and competencies related to core tasks.

Making your software available to other municipalities for re-use, allowing them to contribute back, supports innovation and enhanced digital services for citizens locally as well as nationally, say the authors of the action plan. Sharing and the joint development of new services based on voluntary participation creates an agile development environment in which speed and functionality are no longer defined by commercial interests.

Policy context

In January 2014, the Danish Municipality of Aarhus adopted its Open Source Action Plan. The plan is part of the Municipality's IT strategy and starts with the statement that Aarhus wants to increase its use of open source in a deliberate and focused way.

A large number of Danish municipalities and and other public organisations [1, 2] already rely on open source software for their infrastructures. The Danish public libraries, for example, have created a joint open source system to make most of their resources available in the form of web services. This TING project is based on the very same Drupal web application framework that the European Commission is using to build the new Europa web platform.

Open source strategy

According to the authors of the action plan, the increasing popularity of open source software required an explicit strategy to be developed. It allows Aarhus to reap the benefits of open source, while minimizing operational, technical and legal risks. The plan deals with questions like:

  • Where and how should open source technologies be used?
  • How to assess, approve and manage the individual open source components and services?
  • How to support and maintain the components developed?
  • How to adapt the organisation in order to work with the open source community?

The action plan also includes a series of recommendations for the municipal IT managers to follow, and sets out the priority of open source in the municipality's IT strategy:

  • open source software is not an absolute replacement for licensed software, but a complement that can help to rationalise IT and reduce vendor lock-in in both the short and the long term;
  • progress in moving towards open source should not compromise stable IT operations, either externally in relation to citizens or internally for the administrative IT support staff and processes;
  • all common services and applications requiring management are operated by the IT department;
  • services and applications should be documented;
  • open source should support innovative jobs in the Aarhus municipality.

Open alternatives

These principles satisfy the expectations set by the Aarhus City Council on several occasions. In 2011, for instance, the Council decreed that open source should always be considered as an alternative when acquiring software.

In the Municipality of Aarhus, the IT strategy is developed jointly in an interdisciplinary steering committee in which all departments are represented, says project manager Camilla Tække. This is how the action plan came into being. Because of its earlier experience with open source projects, the Department of Culture and Citizens Services was the leading party here.

The authors of the action plan emphasize that there are a lot of misperceptions about open source, often formulated by traditional suppliers who promote fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) because they have an interest in continuing to deliver proprietary systems and services. At the same time, using open source does require new and different ways of working.

OS2

OS2 is an open source community open to all Danish public agencies. It was heavily inspired by TING, of which Aarhus is one of the founders. OS2's headquarters is now located in Aarhus.

OS2 promotes cooperation, sharing and digital development, more specifically:

  • creating and sharing digital solutions and productions for the public sector;
  • creating and sharing development resources and participating in relevant projects in other development communities;
  • maintaining legal ownership of source code, content and documentation developed in or donated to the OS2 community;
  • actively and openly promoting open source and open content;
  • making available information, systems and knowledge, and placing these in a context that makes sense to public servants and citizens;
  • lowering the costs of digital solutions.

OS2 is organised in a community-driven structure similar to those of Drupal and TING, the joint development force being its most valuable asset.

Open source at a national level

The work on open source software by the Danish government is carried out by the Danish Agency for Digitisation. It is based on the central government's 2003 Software Strategy, which determines basic principles for the deployment of software in the public sector.

Specifically with regard to open source, the strategy states that:

  • open source software can contribute to coherence and continued digital development across the public sector;
  • the deployment of open source software can support further innovation and competition in the software market.

In 2004 and 2005, the software strategy was followed by a joint effort from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MSTI), Local Government Denmark, and the Association of County Councils in Denmark to compare the use and benefits of various office productivity solutions, including software based on open source. As a consequence, the Danish National Software Knowledge Centre was formed. This was later transformed into the OSS part of the Centre of Excellence for Open Source and Open Standards (CEOSOS).

Denmark has no tradition of legislating in the IT area. Instead, most work, including that concerning open source, is carried out as a consequence of common interest in the Danish public sector. Promoting open source within the sector is done by informing and convincing other public administrations that open source alternatives should be considered before choosing proprietary software packages.

Open standards

One of the main reasons for the Municipality of Aarhus to develop an open source strategy is that free software adheres natively to open standards — the most important requirement to avoid vendor lock-in and enable interoperability. According to the authors of the action plan, suppliers frustrate the move to open standards by increasing their prices substantially for this option. Although the use of open standards is supposedly mandatory for all public agencies in Denmark, the artificially high prices give municipalities an excuse to continue buying closed products. These packages often require other proprietary products like Microsoft Office, Access and Internet Explorer to function. Obviously, these dependencies are often created for economic rather than technical reasons.

The KOMBIT project, for example, was started to build a shared service platform based on open standards for national and regional governments. In order for the KOMBIT programs to work with other municipal systems, it is essential that the requirement for the use of open standards is not waived so easily when purchasing these third-party programs. In the long term, Aarhus aims to reduce its dependence on propietary applications like Office by requiring compliance with open standards, especially when it comes to document formats.

Innovation

Furthermore, the use of open standards allows software to be built as modular components that can easily be interconnected in different ways as needed. Modularity is not only a core principle of the KOMBIT architecture, but also an inherent property of open source software in general because this software is meant to be shared and re-used.

From their previous experiences with open source, the Municipality of Aarhus had already learned that developing software and actively participating in the community energises the people involved. Compared to purchasing readily available closed source packages working with open source stimulates commitment, creativity, inventiveness, and competencies related to core tasks.

Aarhus learned this from its participation in the development of TING. The development of this stack of municipal cultural services started in 2008 as a cooperation between the cities of Aarhus and Copenhagen. Currently, 50 Danish municipalities (covering almost 70 percent of Denmark's population), 15 vendor partners, and several hundred volunteers are participating in this project.

Making your software available to other municipalities for re-use, allowing them to contribute back, supports innovation and enhanced digital services for citizens locally as well as nationally, say the authors of the action plan. Sharing and the joint development of new services based on voluntary participation creates an agile development environment in which speed and functionality are no longer defined by commercial interests.

Open standards at national level

In September 2007, the Danish Government, Local Government Denmark and the Danish Regions concluded an agreement on the use of mandatory open standards for software in the public sector. The agreement implies that from 1 January 2008 all public authorities have had to use seven sets of open standards for new IT solutions. This means that public agencies are required to make sure that future IT solutions are based on, or support, these mandatory open standards. The agreement also requires the authorities to be able to receive text documents in two open document standards.

About Aarhus

Aarhus is the second-largest city in Denmark (after the capital city Copenhagen) and the seat of Aarhus Municipality. Its urban area contains 262 thousand inhabitants and the municipal population is 327 thousand, making it the 92nd largest city in the European Union.

Aarhus is at the cultural and economic core of the region and the largest centre for trade, services and industry on the Jutland peninsula. It is the principal industrial port of the country in terms of container handling and an important trade hub. It is a centre for research and education in the Nordic Countries and home to Aarhus University, Scandinavia's largest university, including Aarhus University Hospital and INCUBA Science Park. Being the youngest city in Denmark, with 55 thousand students making up 13 percent of the population, Aarhus is also one of the fastest growing, with an average annual growth of 4,000 people since 2010. The city is a central part of the East Jutland metropolitan area, forming the second largest area of population (1.26 million people) and economic growth in Denmark.

 

Description of the way to implement the initiative

Actions

The action plan defines six main elements:

  • analysis:
    Not all the areas in which Aarhus works with open source are equally developed. An affordable maturity analysis was set up to make an inventory of the capabilities and possibilities for the deployment and further development of open source in Aarhus. More specifically, the analysis will identify:
    • knowledge of open source,
    • motivation to work with open source, and
    • reservations against open source.

    The target group for the analysis will be:

    • managers,
    • IT departments, and
    • technical operations and support.

    To gain insight into the development of knowledge and attitudes over time, the analysis will be repeated several times.

  • culture and competences:
    There are many myths about open source, maintained by employees and especially suppliers. To make the transition to open source successfully, this cultural problem must be addressed. Deficits in knowledge must be eliminated and replaced with objective information on the possibilities and limitations of open source. Creating understanding and insight should lay the foundation for a journey to a common goal.
  • concrete initiatives:
    Several initiatives are underway, and others will be defined along the road. Projects may be initiated by the central steering committee or locally by individual departments. The former are part of a dynamic portfolio; the latter should be accountable in terms of status and budget, and comply with the municipal principles for open source and open standards as defined in the over-all IT architecture.
  • acquisitions and requirements:
    Acquiring open source software is different from buying license-based products, specifically with regard to legal terms and considerations. These issues will be addressed in a white paper. A new standard for IT acquisitions, including requirements for open standards, will be developed and implemented.
  • long-term strategy:
    The long-term strategy of Aarhus is based on these elements:
    • solutions must be based on open standards;
    • we prefer solutions that do not result in recurring payments for licence fees;
    • we insist on solutions that support our demand for vendor independence;
    • we have formed joint initiatives and networks to support the objectives of this action plan.

    Turning these conditions into requirements for acquiring and tendering should decrease dependence on third-party applications. Requiring open source would be a step too far, but the Municipality does prefer solutions that do not result in recurring licence payments. And in accord with the City Council's policies, open source should always be considered as an alternative when acquiring software.
    The reason the City of Aarhus is still dependent on Microsoft Office, for example, is that suppliers have not yet been able to provide solutions that can work with the available and adopted open standards. As long as the municipality does not insist on this, it will not be able to reduce the number of Office licences and eventually eliminate them.
    Finally, Aarhus decided to more actively participate in existing government open source initiatives like OS2, the national ERFA groups on open source, and other public agencies involved in various open source activities.

  • communication:
    Open source is an important, formal, long-term strategy of Aarhus, so it should be communicated about internally as well as externally. An FAQ will be developed, covering all open source work, responsible parties and media spokespeople. This and more information will also be actively communicated over the intranet. Targeted information will be made available to the municipal IT professionals and the media.

Responsibilities and funding

Implementing the action plan and embedding it in the organisation are the responsibility of the Aarhus Steering Group for IT and Digitisation. The open source project group consists of one member from each relevant corporate department and one or two members from the IT department. The Coordinator is responsible for project management and other activities related to the action plan. Other public servants and interested people can become members of the future Network Group.

Funding for the implementation of the action plan is mostly based on contributed hours by the people and departments involved. Individual projects have their own governance and financing models. Events and other joint activities will be funded on an ad hoc basis.

Work packages

The implementation of the action plan has been translated by Tække into a series of work packages. Note that these are not written in stone and some of them may may not be realised, she says. They are a mix of intentions, considerations and wishes.

  • guidelines for acquiring open source software;
  • a white paper on the legal aspects of acquiring open source software;
  • a list of five to ten open source programs that can be beneficial to staff, to be presented to the various heads of departments;
    each program comes with a description and a link to more information on the Collaboration portal;
  • an detailed overview of the open source software already in use, with links to the respective departments;
    each department should maintain its own list on the Collaboration portal;
  • an internal theme day, 'Aarhus Open', in cooperation with Open Data Aarhus (ODAA) and the Aarhus Centre for Innovation;
  • a national event on open source, to be held in the summer of 2016 in cooperation with OS2;
  • a formal policy on the use of open standards in the Municipality of Aarhus;
  • a flyer on open source, containing at least three good examples of software packages, targeted at both civil servants and citizens;
  • a long-term strategy for the use of open source in Aarhus, identifying all current and future IT systems in the Municipality, and their dependence on third-party applications;
  • the concrete implementation of two open source packages, i.e. alternatives to Microsoft Project and Adobe;
  • a list of relevant and usable open source alternatives that can be used by employees of the Municipality, to be published on the Collaboration portal
  • two awareness analyses to be carried out during the course of the project, measuring knowledge of and attitudes towards open source; these will provide input for subsequent adjustments in our efforts;
  • a Collaboration portal to disseminate open source within the Municipality of Aarhus, featuring current issues, blogs, discussions, working documents, open source alternatives, an FAQ, and the project status;
  • a presentation of the Aarhus efforts on open source at the Paris Open Source Summit last November, leading to opportunities for European cooperation on open source;
  • a three-day LibreOffice conference last September, in collaboration with OpenSpaceAarhus, visited by 150 international participants;
  • a seminar on open source in cooperation with six municipalities;
    this event serves as a prelude to a national event on open source;
  • a pilot of LibreOffice at the Innovation, Technology and Creativity department (ITK) at Aarhus Public Library;
  • the availability of open source project management tools to all Aarhus civil servants, presumably ProjectLibre;
  • an open source platform to drive the large information screens in the City;
  • the deployment of the DocumentBroker infrastructure component and the Danish municipal authentication service CPR Broker will allow the Municipality of Aarhus to say goodbye to several suppliers, thus showing a solid business case;
  • tools to publish internal affairs on the intranet and on a central platform, and make this information available externally;
  • the preparation of open source standard designs allowing the departments to develop mobile apps easily and at low cost;
  • a Collaboration portal (based on Microsoft SharePoint);
  • an OSS-based employee portal for all municipal civil servants, which will do away with the annual licenxe costs required for the current system;
  • a new open source platform for the aarhus.dk portal.

Technology solution

The Municipality of Aarhus was already using several open source software packages that can easily be downloaded, installed and used, like LibreOffice, Firefox and Drupal. Other open source programs and services are delivered to the Municipality by external suppliers, as complete systems, part of systems, or solutions developed by companies or the Municipality itself.

There were also several readily available municipal open source packages that the Municipality only had to deploy before it could reap the benefits. Examples are the DocumentBroker infrastructure component, the Danish municipal authentication service CPR Broker, and TING. Over the years, the latter has developed from a library system into a full stack of municipal cultural services that no longer necessarily use the library infrastructure.

Enabling and initiating the implementation of these and other open source software packages was an important goal of the action plan. At the same time, the authors of the plan acknowledge that in addition to implementing and managing open source software, a complete strategy should also include sharing source code, documents and if necessary the operating platform.

Open source gives you access to free software and allows you to break free of the often rigid licensing terms of proprietary vendors. That is of great significance in the short term, the authors say. The real value, however, lies in participation in the open source community. Focusing on open source allows you to reach your goals faster, because others can help you in the process.

In Aarhus we have systems and services whose functionality we helped to define, and which have subsequentially been sold by suppliers to other customers. We have systems where access to our data is limited or completely absent, and where we have had to pay for it to be transferred to another system. We have licensing bills that are so complicated and change so often that it is practically impossible to comply. This action plan should return control over our software to the City of Aarhus and guarantee that we always have access to our own data.

Cloud services

We are aware that cloud services can be just as problematic as proprietary packages with regard to recurring payments of licence fees, Tække says. In most cases we are not ready to move away from the vendors who supply these services. There are still too many dependencies we are not yet able to remove. For example, we just renewed our contract for Microsoft Office. It was very expensive, but we were not able to come up with a sustainable and feasible way to avoid this deal in the few months we had. This is a long-term effort.

Main results, benefits and impacts

Open source projects

My own department has been using open source software for some time now, Tække says. The public library has been working with open source since 2010, our open data platform has been built on CKAN, and our design team uses a lot of open source software. Generally, over the last years many of our projects have been open source projects. So even though this particular project is only one and a half years old, our work with — and interest — in open source dates from before that.

The impact of this project on our organisation is that we now need to be more aware of the market. We need to know what open source solutions exist and keep an eye on them for future use. This 'imposed' knowledge keeps us up to date.

Acquiring open source

Part of this project is the guide to acquiring open source software that we are working on, Tække continues. It contains separate sections on three specific issues: open data, open standards, and source code. They are meant as a help to projects, departments and anyone who wants to make sure their new software or systems come with open standards, open data and/or open source code. We hope that the availability of this document will increase the demand for open technology.

In addition, we are currently making available four open source applications: GIMP, Scribus, Inkscape and ProjectLibre. These packages are not meant to completely replace other solutions, but to function as alternatives and be the first choice an employee gets from his or her boss when this type of functionality is needed. They also allow employees to access software that would not have been offered if it was wrapped in expensive licences. The software is not yet available to employees and we may eventually select other packages, but we are working on it.

Local jobs

The purpose of the action plan currently is not to create jobs, Tække says, but to use open source software where it makes sense. More specifically, we want to incorporate open source applications into the Municipality's infrastructure and make sure that open source is considered when we acquire new software. The project may create more high-quality jobs in the long term, but that has not been a goal. Right now, our own IT department manages all software — open source or not — and some of their people may need some additional training on open source software in the future.

As a matter of fact, my position as Project Manager Open Source in Aarhus has been the only job created. Apart from that, I have a work group with one member from each of the six municipal departments. We meet every six weeks to discuss the work packages and other issues related to open source. Their job is to participate in the meetings and take the material and knowledge created in the project home to their respective departments.

Community

Open source at the municipal level is something new, Tække continues. We have been involved in the TING community since 2010 and initiated several open source projects here. The OS2 community has just hired a business manager who is placed in the same department as our open source project. Hopefully this will lead to close cooperation between the two initiatives.

Additionally, we are keeping tabs on other relevant open source communities in Denmark, and we plan to establish a networking group for interested employees in the Municipality of Aarhus. We facilitated the national LibreOffice conference this year and have organised several open source events in cooperation with Ubuntu Denmark.

Return on investment description

The Aarhus open source project runs for two years with Tække as a full-time project manager, and a connected working group. The budget covers only her salary and some of the activities.

In the Aarhus budget for 2015-2018, the City Council states that the move towards open source is well on its way and that over the coming years these investments will result in measurable returns: savings of 1 million DKK (134,000 Euro) in 2016, 2 million DKK (268,000 Euro) in 2017, and 3 million DKK (402,000 Euro) in 2018 and successive years.

These savings are actual budget cuts, Tække explains. We are working on the deployment of alternatives to some of Adobe's programs. We plan to make GIMP, Scribus, Inkscape and ProjectLibre available to the employees. These four open source packages are not meant to replace their closed source counterparts, but they are part of an effort to offer more open source applications instead of proprietary ones. In addition, we can easily make these available to more of our personnel, since that doesn't cost extra. Finally, we are also working on other open source deployments that will save us money.

Track record of sharing

The Aarhus open source initiative is an internal project and most of the material to be produced is not yet ready. The work packages are available on the Collaboration portal for the employees of the Municipality, Tække says. Currently, this is the only way we can communicate with our target group, the Aarhus public servants. The action plan is available for download on the municipal website. The other materials are no secret at all, but given the project's objectives, it currently makes no sense to make these publicly available. When the white paper is ready, it will be published online.

Lessons learnt

When it comes to getting rid of these programs that require third-party applications to run, we are looking more at open standards than open source, Tække says. We think that the first step is for us to be able to exchange each specific piece of software for another under our own control — whether it is open or closed. This is the foundation that will allow us to phase out proprietary software we do not want to depend on.

The work on our long-term strategy is based on a map of the various dependencies of our software. We aim to make sure that when an application or system is up for tender, it comes back conforming to open standards. That's how we want to open the way to the acquisition of more open source software now and in the future.

There are several vendors we no longer want to depend on, and neither do we want them to own our data. Our goal, however, is not to get rid of all proprietary applications. The purpose is to use open source where it creates most value.

I am not sure whether a top-down or a bottom-up approach is the best way to go. We are still at the beginning of this journey, looking to pick the low-hanging fruit now and at the same time create a future for even more open source software. What we have learned is that it is key to have the top — the decision-makers — on board, or else nothing will ever happen. At the same time, we deploy a bottom-up approach when we are creating material and information to reduce and eliminate lock-in by demanding open standards from vendors.

Resistance

According to Tække, overcoming resistance is a natural part of the process. We have learned that this open source project is as much about cultural change as technical change. I think resistance is inevitable when you want someone to do something different from what they are used to. Resistance so far has only come from some of the decision-makers. It is just an attempt to make sure we choose open source because it's the best alternative, and not just for the sake of it. With regard to the employees, the resistance we may encounter will most likely be about the fact that they have to use another system or application than what they are used to; that has nothing to do with it being open source software.

We do see important changes, however. There is an increased interest in open source, and some of the decision-makers who earlier on were very closed to the idea of open source are now opening up. The City Council and the civil servants are still behind our work on open source.

Cultural change

The road towards open source is a long-term effort, Tække says. This transition does not happen overnight. It is crucial to focus on selecting open source software where it creates the most value, and not just for the sake of open source. If it turns into some sort of a religion, people — specifically the decision-makers — will resist.

Even though this transformation to increase the use of open source software raises a lot of technical issues, it is important to keep in mind that it is just a much a matter of cultural change. Open source provides a new way to think about software, and for some people that takes time getting used to.

It is also essential to have support from the top. You can put a lot of effort into a project like this without getting any results if you lack the support of the decision-makers. They need to be willing to work with you and support the process — loudly.

And finally, this is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time to take one little step in the right direction. Experiences from other cities and countries, however, show that it gets easier along the way. It just needs to gain momentum.

Case Info

Acronym:
Aarhus Open Source Action Plan
City/Region:
Danish Municipality of Aarhus
Start date:
2014

Information

highlight:
Open source observatory
Case status:
Operation
Case type:
Open source case study
Funding source:
Public funding local
Geographic coverage:
Denmark
Themes:
Communication (infrastructure), eGovernment
Type of service:
IT Infrastructures and products
Scope:
Local (city or municipality)
Technology choice:
Mainly (or only) open standards, Open source software, Standards-based technology
Overall implementation approach:
Public administration
Type of initiative:
Strategic initiative
Return on investment:
€5,000,000-10,000,000