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Dutch municipalities organise themselves around open source solutions

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You can easily win the open source vs. closed source discussion on pure economic arguments

TYPO3gem is a Dutch municipal user group for the TYPO3 content management system (CMS). Its 41 members exchange information, develop new functionality in small alliances, and share the costs. An anniversary booklet containing a dozen success stories of TYPO3 deployments marks the start of an evangelisation campaign that is expected to substantially boost the number of new members this year.

TYPO3gem will also function as a blueprint for the communities around other open source solutions. Also in the making is a municipal umbrella organisation on open source that will eventually oversee these domain-specific workgroups.

TYPO3 for municipalities

Bart Lindeboom is the Computerisation and Automation director of the city of Ede and the chairman of TYPO3gem (in Dutch), a municipal user group for the TYPO3 content management system.

Sharing and spreading his vision on government ICT and organising local government to exchange experience and information on open source, and to share the costs of software development, is an important part of his work. In the Netherlands, 45 municipalities are using TYPO3 to host their websites. 41 of these are a member of TYPO3gem, and use this platform to exchange information.

New functionality is developed in small alliances. For each project we ask our members whether they want to join in, and we divide the costs evenly among the participants. We used to apportion the costs based on the number of citizens of each participating municipality, but we no longer do that. The code is published as open source, so other municipalities who have not had a say in its development can use it anyway. The model is based on cooperation and good will.

Most of these coding projects build on software which is already available; adapting, expanding and bringing together existing functionality. This way of working is really inexpensive; typical projects cost thousands or tens of thousands of euros. If someone needs a form generator, for example, we ask the TYPO3gem community who wants to participate. If seven members chip in, gathering a total amount of 8,000 euros is no problem at all. All in all, we have dozens of projects like that every year.

Intranet platform

Larger projects are being carried out as well. For example, several municipalities are currently working on a new intranet with all the trimmings, Lindeboom says. So they get together and dream up an intranet platform, including a face book, file sharing, and anything else they can come up with. We already have a supplier who can build this functionality for 200,000 euros. So we're currently working on collecting the funds.

Of course, the solution has to be based on TYPO3. And it has to be open source, so we can publish it in our repository. That way we make sure that the software is available for re-use by others and can be developed further by any supplier. These requirements are a fundamental part of our calls for tender.

Open source software development model

So we organise joint software development, Lindeboom concludes. We collaborate on the functional requirements of the software to be developed. We agree on the sharing of the software and the costs. And we make the code available as open source. That way, the software is open for further development, and code financed with tax money is freely available to everyone, including municipalities that have not contributed in the first instance.

Sometimes, other municipalities join in later on. For example, there are currently three forks of a product and service catalogue. One could say that's a waste of money. Yet these three different forks make everybody happy. And all three of them are still being improved and extended. So every now and then a municipality switches from one fork to an other. To me that proves that the open source software development model works for us.

Fifth anniversary

Lindeboom expects TYPO3gem to grow in the years to come. We have just celebrated our fifth anniversary. A municipal CMS has a lifetime of about the same period. So a lot of potential members are waiting for their current systems to become fully depreciated before they can invest in the next CMS. A year before that happens, people start looking for new solutions and creating shortlists. That's when they show up at our workshops.

Although membership of TYPO3gem costs only 480 euros per year, municipalities often join after the decision to deploy TYPO3 has been made. Membership allows you to attend our conferences and workshops, but, of course, you need to have expertise and actual hands-on experience with the system to be able to participate fully. Still, everybody is welcome at our workshops.

TYPO3gem has put only limited effort into reaching out to other municipalities. We were present at the annual 'Overheid en ICT' conferences (in Dutch; Government and ICT) for the last three years.

Anniversary booklet

To mark our fifth anniversary, Lindeboom continues, we recently published a booklet (in Dutch) containing a dozen success stories of TYPO3 deployments. Municipal ICT managers explain on how they came to use TYPO3, how TYPO3gem helped them in this process, and how satisfied they are with the open source CMS.

The booklet is already available as a PDF on our website. We are about to send out a printed version to all the other Dutch municipalities. We will send them to the municipal secretaries, asking them to take note of this topic, and forward the information to whoever they think is the best person in their organisation, typically the communications manager or the ICT manager.

For TYPO3gem, that is the start of our evangelisation campaign. With these local success stories, the recommendations, and our shared expertise, no one can say we're a small group organised around a niche product. Now any municipal ICT manager can point out how his counterparts in other cities are successfully deploying TYPO3. That is why we are currently sending out this booklet — to provide evidence.

Increasing market power

Lindeboom expects the booklet to substantially boost the number of new members this year. And the larger we get, the less expensive it becomes for an individual municipality to participate in a project. Currently, small alliances are formed with a group of 41 members. Wouldn't it be great to be able to do the same in a community of one hundred or two hundred participants?

That will also make us a stronger voice in the ICT market. There are already quite a number of providers of open source solutions and software development. If that number were to double, that would give us more to choose from. So we visited all these organisations to show them our plans. We explained to them that we were about to publish our booklet and that they could expect increasing demand. All in our own interest, of course. Our market power is increasing, making us a more important player.

These providers assured me that they were able to handle higher volumes. I also see new companies entering the market, specialising in TYPO3 extensions and implementations. So we have no worries in that department.

Sharing software development costs with other municipalities, like we do in TYPO3gem, is our primary driver here. That's why in the end we make the code available for free, and why we are distributing our anniversary booklet. Increasing the number of participants and users decreases our costs, increases the available functionality, stimulates further innovation and increases the chance of sustained development. And it all comes back to us. It's simple maths; our motive is self-interest, not philanthropicy. You can easily win the open source vs. closed source discussion on pure economic arguments.

Searching for a membership model

In TYPO3gem we had to learn the hard way, Lindeboom recalls. We started out by setting membership fees based the number of citizens at each municipality. Back then, we had the idea of a workgroup to develop product roadmaps. The diversity among the municipalities, however, proved to be too large. Then we tried to come up with a product and service catalogue. But some of our members had contributed 5,000 euros, yet did not need this catalogue. So a centrally steered membership association did not work for our purpose.

Still, whenever there is a need, there is money — more than enough. Because if you cannot get it organised within TYPO3gem, you'll have to do it by yourself, and that is a lot more expensive.

Similar collaborative partnerships

Clearly, the way TYPO3gem is organised could function as a blueprint for other open source solutions. So the people at TYPO3gem are currently working on similar collaborative partnerships for other open source software packages. There are four or five municipalities using Drupal, for example. We are already cooperating with this community. We gave them our statutes and internal regulations, to give them a starting point for their own "DrupalGem".

In a similar way we are currently setting up a municipal community around, an open source case management system [also deployed in Ede].

We already have an organisation for web forms based on Orbeon, open source form generator. The 'Nederlandse Vereniging voor Sociale Innovatie' (in Dutch; NVSI, the Dutch Association for Social Innovation), which is part of Divosa, the Dutch association of welfare agencies, develops and manages the 'Toolkit e-formulieren' (in Dutch; Forms Toolkit). This a collection of digital forms that municipalities can use to help their citizens apply for social services.

The forms can be integrated with all sorts of applications and back-office systems, e.g. case management systems, planning systems, DigiD, and the Ogone and iDEAL online payment systems. The forms toolkit is also tightly integrated with TYPO3. It is currently used by two dozen municipalities, delivered to their citizens using the SaaS model (Software-as-a-Service, i.e. through the web via a central service centre).

An over-all open source group

A more comprehensive open source group is also in the making. The board of TYPO3gem is currently talking to the VNG (in Dutch; 'Vereniging van Nederlandse Gemeenten', the society of Dutch municipalities) with the aim of setting up "OSSgem". At this moment, TYPO3gem is the only active municipal community on open source software in the Netherlands, says Lindeboom. It would be great if we had an OSSgem-like umbrella community, with various domain-specific workgroups beneath it to exchange information on specific solutions. In this setup, TYPO3gem would be just another subdivision.

This vision was set out in the anniversary booklet as well. We think it is the future, and not even that far away. The idea is that we clone what we currently have with TYPO3gem for other solutions and then set up an umbrella organisation. Wouldn't it be great to have TYPO3gem, LibreOfficeGem, DrupalGem and the NVSI, all based on a similar formula, and OSSgem to oversee all of them? That's what we hope to achieve this year. The city of Ede is actively involved in all of these communities, and we cannot keep on participating in a new group for each open source solution we deploy. So we will pursue this strategy aggressively.


Open source observatory
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