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The best software for the purpose: softwarebørsen.dk

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It is becoming common knowledge in the public sector that sharing and reusing software is a wise thing to do. But the devil is in the details. In Denmark, softwarebørsen.dk is out to not only make software reuse easy, but also to give public bodies and companies incentives to actually take the plunge. Involving companies is a key tactic. Their interests help to make the platform more attractive and efficient

The Danish software strategy


The Danish Flag ("Danebrog") © 2006 Per Palmkvist Knudsen, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.5

 

Softwarebørsen.dk is a platform to exchange public sector software. It is run by the Danish Videnscenter for Software (National Knowledge Center for Software). This center, in its turn, is a part of "Offentlig Information Online" (Public Information Online), which is run by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation to guide the digitalisation of the Danish public sector.

The Videnscenter is a three-year project started in April 2006, based on a decision in the Danish Parliament taken the year before. Denmark\'s national software strategy doesn\'t focus on FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software), says Martin Høegh Mortensen, the center\'s communications officer: "It can be summarised in two words: The best and the cheapest software for the purpose." The Videnscenter works according to this directive.

At the origin of softwarebørsen.dk was an encounter of similar ideas. In the beginning of 2006, Kjærsgaard talked to the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, which had just established the Knowledge Center for Software. "We put our ideas together, and came up with the software exchange", says Morten Kjærsgaard, owner and manager of Magenta APS, the company that built and implemented the softwarebørsen platform.

The platform was launched on April 1, 2007. For the Videnscenter, it serves as an anchor point for its other activities, such as the publication of guides on how to use Open Source, and how to consider this type of software in procurement.

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A platform for software users

"Softwarebørsen.dk is a users\' community, not one of developers", explains Mortensen. The users are public bodies, and the site is geared towards their needs. Most of the actual software development happens at the vendors, which should eventually form part of the ecosystem around softwarebørsen.dk.

With softwarebørsen.dk, the emphasis is on specialised public-sector applications. "We don\'t pay much attention to off-the-shelf open source software like OpenOffice", says Mortensen. "We want to promote a business model where public institutions in Denmark share their software with other public institutions. We\'re focusing on business software, on making tailor-made applications more generic, so that they can be reused by other public institutions."

 

Map of Denmark

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Sharing: Long time to value

How can public bodies be encouraged to share their software? Mortensen explains the basic challenge: "In order to share your software, you need two things. The first one is that you are allowed to do it. You need either the copyright, or you need an open source licence. The other fundamental requirement is that you have a place to do it. And that is why we set up softwarebørsen.dk."

Most public institutions are quick to see the benefits of sharing the software, such as increased competition or further development by others. But they also see that there is a long time between sharing the software and reaping the fruits: "If I share today, I won\'t see any benefit tomorrow. I might see it in a year or so", he explains. But if public bodies have a place where they can easily and cheaply share their software, the chance that they will actually take the plunge is much greater.

"We saw that public bodies were beginning to build their own software, which could potentially be shared with others, because the business processes were almost alike", Mortensen says. But most public bodies do not take the step of actually setting up the repository to share their software. This is neither in their mission, nor do most of them have the necessary technical skills and facilities. "You have to make it very easy for public institutions to share their software. Otherwise they won\'t do it, because of the hassle", Mortensen explains.

The softwarebørsen.dk portal provides a platform to upload software to, as well as functions for software development. This greatly reduces the hurdles for a public body that wants to share its own software, eliminating the need to set up the necessary services locally. The platform also ensures that any upload will be noticed by a community of at least potentially interested users. "It\'s very simple", Mortensen summarises. "You need to give people a motivation, and you need to give them a place to do it. Otherwise it won\'t happen."

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Creating incentives

When setting up softwarebørsen.dk, Mortensen and Kjærsgaard had a look at other projects in Europe, such as PloneGov and Adullact. But to their minds, neither of them had the sort of business model they were looking for. What sets softwarebørsen.dk apart, according to Kjærsgaard, is that the public and the private sector cooperated very closely in designing the platform. "Both sides have thought about the incentives all the way through the project."

"Just setting up a repository doesn\'t necessarily make it a success", Mortensen says. "You need to give an incentive for using it." What sets softwarebørsen.dk apart from similar projects in other countries is that the Videnscenter made a conscious decision to include economic aspects in the concept. "It\'ll really only work if you bring money into the equation", says Mortensen. Kjærsgaard agrees. "We spent a lot of time thinking about what public bodies could get out of participating in the software exchange, and what private companies could gain from it", says Kjærsgaard, "and it\'s certainly paying off."

The motivation for public bodies to participate in the software exchange, Kjærsgaard explains, is that "you can get the software with hardly any costs. And you can spend your IT budget on improvements and customisation, rather than spending it all on licences."

Access to support is another plus for the site\'s users. Softwarebørsen.dk makes it easy to find.

For IT managers in public bodies, it is an easy way to get the same support and reassurance that they are used to from vendors of proprietary software. They can find someone to set up and maintain their system, and to take responsibility for its correct functioning. Mortensen: "This way, they can sleep calmly at night, because they know that if something goes wrong, they won\'t be blamed for having chosen an open source solution."

For the companies, this form of advertising is of course most welcome. "The vendors can make money. In this way, they become good promoters for us; they sell the concept to the public institutions", Mortensen explains. Businessman Kjærsgaard agrees: "They are going to their clients asking them to put their software on the exchange, and helping them to do it, because it motivates potential clients to make use of that software."

"I think that is the reason why it works so well. You don\'t only have academics and public sector functionaries designing the exchange, and it\'s not only people from the private sector either &emdash; it\'s a fruitful combination of both, which has helped the process a lot." On the other hand, the fact that softwarebørsen.dk is established not by the private sector "looking to drag its clients along" (Kjærsgaard), but by a national ministry, is a stamp of approval on the FLOSS business model. "This has helped our business a lot", says Magenta\'s owner.

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Getting the word around

The promotion of softwarebørsen.dk has so far rested on Mortensen\'s shoulders. "The best way to promote this project is to sit down with public institutions and talk to the right people there." Mortensen also gives talks at conferences, and works to get the press to report on the project.

Softwarebørsen.dk encourages public bodies to share their projects on the site even before there is any software. This way, they have a greater chance of finding another institution that is interested in the same application and will share the development cost. "It\'s very important to establish communities at a very early point in the project", says Mortensen.

There is also a mechanism to provide direct incentives to public bodies which share their software. If they are starting to develop software that is re-usable by other public bodies, they can under certain conditions apply for a subsidy of 50% of the development cost, up to 650.000 Danish Krones (ca. 87.000 Euro). In return, they commit to sharing the resulting software on softwarebørsen.dk under a free licence. According to Mortensen, this programme has been used only two times until now.

Kjærsgaard has an idea to promote the platform among public bodies. "I think that they should make a roadshow. They should show softwarebørsen.dk to all the public bodies, and then they should show it to private companies as well, saying \'here\'s a business opportunity. Take it\'", he says.

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Business opportunities for SMEs

Running a small company with seven employees himself, Kjærsgaard clearly sees the advantages that the software exchange brings for his business. Since his code is available on softwarebørsen.dk, Kjærsgaard can invite potential clients to look at it, download it and test it. But doesn\'t that mean that he is giving away his company\'s software? "Yes, we give away our software. But almost all clients will need services for the software. It\'s quite a good and viable business model to give away your software, and then sell your services around the software." Kjærsgaard says that "I\'m in this business because I think that open source is the best business model for a small or medium-sized company."

With regard to public procurement, Kjærsgaard thinks that it gets easier for SMEs to form a consortium when FLOSS is involved. A problem for SMEs is that due diligence checks of financial stability often exclude small companies from public tenders. For this reason, SMEs will usually seek to get a big partner into their consortium, such as IBM or Novell.

Kjærsgaard is certain that the software exchange has helped Magenta\'s business. "Most of the public sector ICT managers have heard about the software exchange, and it helps me when I\'m trying to sell them my services", he says.

The software exchange has another benefit for companies working with FLOSS. Kjærsgaard says that when he explains his business model to IT managers in the public sector, he can now point to the site as an example where exchange is really happening. "I can say, it\'s not only me saying that you can reuse my software. You can download the software, and you can take the software I\'ve developed for you and share it with other public bodies. Here you have a repository and a discussion forum where you can discuss your development needs with other ICT managers in other places." In Kjærsgaard\'s view, the benefits available from this kind of network effects are huge, and growing. "The project is still young. We\'ve only seen the very beginning of this." He adds that the software exchange may also make it easier for businesses like his to find potential clients.

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A Plone-based platform

Subversion and a bug tracker. Yet the Softwarebørsen.dk platform is currently more of a repository rather than a forge. Most of the development happens at the vendors.

The platform for softwarebørsen.dk is based on Plone. "It was not a routine job", says Kjærsgaard. Though Plone offers many different modules, Kjærsgaard says that the challenge was to make these models talk to each other. Another difficulty was that translations could not be made in one central language file, but had to be performed in several places across the software collection. Magenta APS also had to implement a relatively complex system of access right schemes, with various different profiles for different participants, such as ICT managers, developers and administrators.

Magenta APS, the company which adapted Plone for this purpose, is planning to release the source code on the website itself, for others to reuse. As Plone is distributed under the GPL, the modifications will be published under the same licence. The Knowledge Center has a service level agreement with Magenta APS to maintain the platform. An update of the platform is planned for the coming winter.

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More repository than forge

The softwarebørsen.dk website is mainly geared towards software users, rather than developers. It provides services such as forums and mailing lists. But there are also functions for managing software development, such as version control via

The work processes in most Danish public institutions are quite similar, according to Mortensen. What can make sharing software difficult is that the underlying organisations and IT structures can be very different. As a solution, he suggests that applications on softwarebørsen.dk should come with a description of the work processes the application underpins, in a language that is similar between institutions. If a public body then starts to develop software, it has a much easier time finding out whether something similar already exists.

One example of re-use through softwarebørsen.dk is an IP phone system based on Asterisk. This application was developed for a psychiatric hospital. A Copenhagen business school is now using and slightly adapting it to its own purposes.

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The budget

There are three people working full-time for the Videnscenter. The Videnscenter is a three-year project started in 2006. It has a budget of 15 million DKK (approx. 2 million Euro) for three years. Other people in [FIXME: body] contribute and assist occasionally.

The latest addition to the Videnscenter\'s staff is a person who talks to public bodies directly, explaining to them why it would be good for them to share their software, and helping them to do it. Another task is to make public bodies aware that it is important to get the copyright for the software they are having developed under contract.

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Addressing the fear of legal problems

General Public Licence (GPL) as a copyleft licence, the Mozilla Public Licence with weaker copyleft provisions and some additional restrictions, and the permissive licences such as the BSD licence family.

A precondition for public institutions to share software is that they have to hold the copyright to it, or at least be allowed to share it. This can also mean that freely licensed components need to be separated from proprietary vendor-owned components. A recurring problem is that many public bodies do not hold the copyright in the software they have commissioned. Through procurement guides and other activities, the Videnscenter is working to raise awareness for this problem.

According to Mortensen, there are no real legal obstacles in sharing public sector software besides this. "One of the biggest barriers that we see when we talk to public institutions is not legal problems. It\'s the fear of legal problems." People working in public administrations are often unsure what consequences they might be facing if they make their software available to others.

"You talk to the IT manager, and he really likes the idea [of sharing software]. And then, an hour later you have their legal department on the phone, who are worried about the consequences", says Mortensen. The worry is usually liability: What happens if the shared software is used elsewhere, fails, and causes damage? "They ask: \'Will we be held responsible?\' The answer, of course, is no. Open source licences usually include a disclaimer that the software is provided \'as is\'." The Videnscenter has published a guide on Open Source licensing to address this problem.

All applications on softwarebørsen.dk are distributed under an open source licence. Mortensen says that three basic types of licences usually cover the demands of the public bodies sharing the software: The

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The road to success

Having only been online for six months, softwarebørsen.dk is still very young. When the site was launched in April 2007, the goal was to attract four projects during the first year. Six months after the launch, there already are more than 20 active projects on the site. Mortensen modestly puts the progress into perspective: "We are satisfied with the 20 projects we have so far. But to become a real success, we need communities to be established, and we need a lot more re-uses. So we also need a lot more software projects."

Kjærsgaard agrees that communities still have to grow around the site. "Until now, it\'s mostly single companies and single IT managers." The Videnscenter\'s goal for softwarebørsen.dk is to become self-sufficient. "It\'s a success when we don\'t have to nurse it anymore", says Mortensen, "when it\'s a business model that can sustain itself."

The success of the project rests on the fact that public bodies and private companies have worked closely together in designing the platform. Kjærsgaard says: "Through all this time, we\'ve been very focused on what should make me, as a private sector businessman, spend time on the software exchange; and what should make a public sector IT manager spend time on the software exchange. I think that\'s one of the success factors." The result is that the portal is a meeting place for both sides of the procurement process, clients and vendors. It also ensures that both sides have a lively interest in participating in the site and sharing their software. During the winter 2007/2008, the platform will be improved based on the users\' feedback: "We\'ll have version 1.5", says Mortensen.

"Some of the best experience I\'ve had out of this is that we just did it", says Kjærsgaard. "Instead of discussing forever, we just did it together with the ministry. And I was so happy that they dared to do it. I know that if they had discussed too much with other institutions, the proprietary vendors will eventually show up and attack the project. They\'ll say that it\'s against competition rules. That is nonsense, of course, but the public sector bodies would have gotten nervous, and that might have prevented the entire project."

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The challenge: changing mindsets

Though softwarebørsen.dk has had an excellent start, challenges remain.In the end, softwarebørsen.dk will be judged on the number of re-uses it facilitates. Fostering lively communities around the portal is one element in improving this measure. Another challenge is to get stakeholders not only to accept, but to truly adopt the model. This goes for the public sector as well as for companies. Kjærsgaard admits that even for him as a businessman, it takes time to change his mindset. "I should probably try to sell more through softwarebørsen.dk, rather than acquiring clients the traditional way."

The platform greatly reduces the effort that a public body needs to make in order to share its software and, perhaps even more importantly, re-use applications developed by others. Yet sharing is still an additional effort, which requires motivation, as the returns can take time to arrive. "You hardly see any reuse of software in the public sector today. I\'ve seen different public bodies buying exactly the same software from exactly the same companies over and over again", says Kjærsgaard. The Videnscenter is betting on direct talks with individual public bodies. Magenta APS\' director is optimistic: "I hope in the future, half of the public sector will be exchanged through this software exchange or other software exchanges. I hope that softwarebørsen.dk will become the place where all public bodies are going to exchange software with each other."

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Links

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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: Karsten Gerloff, UNU-MERIT
This study is based on interviews with Martin Høegh Mortensen, the Videnscenter\'s communications officer, and Morten Kjærsgaard, owner and manager of Magenta APS.

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This case study for download

 

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Copyright
© European Communities 2007
Reproduction is authorised provided the source is acknowledged.
Disclaimer
The opinions expressed in this study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission. 

 


 

 

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