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Building networks: The Mancomún project in Galicia, Spain

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Started in May 2006 as an initiative of the Galician government, Mancomún is designed to support Galicia\'s progress towards the information society. The project promotes growth in the regional ICT sector through the advantages of free software and open standards. For the past two years, the Mancomún portal has been spreading knowledge about open source. The initiative has organised numerous projects such as the translation of free software applications into the local language. Now Mancomún is taking the next step, transforming itself into a regional reference centre for open source.

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Introduction

In the local language Galego, the word "mancomún" stands for a joint effort to build something that will be used by all. The project was set up by the Ministry of Industry.

With Mancomún, the Galician government has been working for the past two years to connect different efforts to promote free software that were already under way in the region. The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, decided to set up a point of encounter, trying to facilitate greater collaboration between those already engaged with open source software in Galicia.

Located in Spain\'s north-west corner, Galicia is an autonomous region with a population of about 2.7 million people. From the capital of Santiago de Compostela, the Xunta de Galicia as the regional government administrates a territory of 29,574 square kilometres.  The main industrial activities of the region are in shipbuilding and textiles.

"The government wanted to build a reference point that all the actors could connect to, and that they could all work with", explains Suso Baleato, the Mancomún project coordinator. "Things were decided together, in a very collaborative fashion."

According to Baleato, Galicia has one characteristic that makes free software ideally suited for this task: while the local language, Galego, is widely spoken in the province,  most proprietary software is not translated into this language.

Quick Facts
Project name Mancomún
Sector Government
Start date May 10, 2006
End date n/a
Objectives Use open source as a tool for regional development
Target group Businesses, administration, volunteers
Scope Regional
Funding Regional & EU
Achievements Built strong links between relevant players. Approach attracts international attention.

"When you want to introduce ICTs, you have to make them useful for your society, for the people you\'re aiming at", argues Baleato. "One of the things that people want is software tools in Galego, their own language." For this reason, part of Mancomún\'s work is to translate open source applications into the local idiom.

Beyond this, he also considers that free software gives the province a fair shot at sustainable economic development by strengthening the regional industrial fabric. Local open source companies can sell their services to the large industries of the region, namely textile makers shipbuilders, and car makers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Organisation and political background

After one year of preparations, the regional government in 2007 published the "Plano Estratéxico Galego da Sociedade da Información (PEGSI) 2007-2010", the Galician Strategic Plan for the Information Society. The plan has a total budget of 800 million Euro.
The Strategic Plan aims to promote the sustainable development of the region and to provide all citizens with access to the opportunities of the information society. This plan is the political basis of the Mancomún project.

Mancomum logoIt calls for the adoption of open standards and free software in the Xunta and the Galician society. A priority is to allow citizens and businesses to interact with the administration without being obliged to use a specific software tool for the purpose. Regarding the private sector, the plan\'s goal is to make room for innovative business models, and create favourable conditions for Galician companies to compete in the marketplace.

The strategic plan is based on a comprehensive assessment of the use of ICTs in Galicia, with special emphasis on technology companies. The administration gathered data through a survey of 3000 people, and set up an expert panel to provide input on the issue. Though Mancomún technically predates the plan, it implements those parts of it that relate to open source and open standards. An important starting point for the initiative was the European Interoperability Framework published by IDABC, which, among other things, calls for the use of open standards in the public sector.

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Open source in the Xunta: step by step

Following the lines of the European Interoperability Framework, Galicia\'s Strategic Plan for the Information Society recommends the use of Open Standards, but it doesn\'t mandate them. According to Baleato, this is because there wouldn\'t have been enough companies at the time to cope with the corresponding surge in demand from the public administration. Also, the administration itself currently depends too heavily on proprietary technologies to allow such a move overnight.

Instead, the Xunta has opted for a strategy of many small steps. First, it made sure that all of its websites complied with accessibility standards. The next step, taken only recently, is that in competitions for subsidies by the Ministry of Innovation and Industry, companies are preferred that present projects based on open Flag of the autonomous community of Galiciasource software. When they are accepted, they also receive 10% higher subsidies; though  Javier Vazquez, the founder of a Galician free software company called Igalia, points out that at the time of writing, no project had yet been approved under this policy. He says that in 2008, projects based on proprietary software are expressively excluded. While this matches the PEGSI\'s goal of using open source as a tool to build an information society, he points out that subsidy policies of other ministries often do not use the same rules.

When the Xunta contracts a company to develop software, the contracts, whenever possible, include a clause to ensure that the software is released as open source under the GPL or EUPL licenses. When a company develops software with financial support from the regional government, it is also encouraged to use Mancomún\'s forge. "This has led companies to see that free software has an advantage for them, and they\'ve started hiring people who know about this type of software", says Baleato.

Regarding the software used by the public administration itself, Baleato admits that Mancomún has not made great progress. Most or all of the public offices in Galicia use proprietary software. According to the Mancomún coordinator, to achieve change here would require not only political will, but also a foundation in law in order to justify the expenses associated with a migration to open source. "If there\'s no clear obligation, things usually stay the way they are", he says.

In spite of this, some public employees have installed OpenOffice on their computers. The free software package has the advantage of a Galician language mode and a grammar checker that, Baleato claims, works much better than the tool provided in the proprietary package. "Some people write their texts in Microsoft Office, paste it into OpenOffice, run the grammar check, and paste it back into Microsoft Office.” People began to use the software because they found it attractive, not because they were ordered to do so.

Within the Xunta\'s network, there is also a small prototype of a subnetwork that works entirely with open source software. The Information Society Network, run by the Galician Directorate General for the Promotion of the Information Society, uses the Ubuntu and Debian GNU/Linux operating systems. This prototype provides an example of the possibilities: "It shows that it\'s possible, that free software is efficient, that it saves money, and it works in Galego." Baleato says. One company is working to prepare a portable prototype of this network setup, aimed at small offices of the public administration.

 

A network of cooperations

Mancomún is run as a project of a public foundation. It is a formally independent entity which is fully funded by the Ministry for Innovation and Industry. The foundation\'s stated objective is to promote the industrial development of Galicia.

Map of GaliciaMancomún works through a set of contracts between the Xunta and other legal entities. According to Baleato, one of the first contracts was with the Galician GNU/Linux user groups. Under this contract, the Xunta gave financial support to the user group\'s efforts of publicly promoting open source software. The groups, in return, agreed to continue their promotional efforts, and to generate content that is being published on the Mancomún portal.

After this first phase, it was necessary to have people to organise, edit and publish the material generated by the user groups. This time, the contract partner was the Galician Supercomputing Centre in Finisterre. This institute was already a prolific user of free software. It also already had a small team of people actively monitoring various open source projects for programs that might be useful for the centre\'s work.

Under the contract with the Xunta, the Supercomputing centre took over the work with the GNU/Linux user groups. It also hired four people with a technical profile and one PR person, who organises events and builds contacts with the commercial sector.

The next step was to build links to Galicia\'s three universities. Each of these universities is interested in developing free software projects, and the Xunta agreed to financially support those efforts. The universities in their turn write articles and reports on recent developments in open source, which are then published by the team at the Supercomputing Centre.

Next, one of the three universities, the one at A Coruña, became interested in setting up a forge for Galician software developers. To this end, the Xunta signed a separate contract with that university.
At its peak around the middle of 2007, Mancomún employed a total of 17 people (though not all of them full-time): five people at the Supercomputing Centre, two at each university, a separate team of five at the University of A Coruña running the forge, and Baleato himself as coordinator.

Most of these contracts have run out, and at the moment, the only remaining contractor for Mancomún is the team of five at the Supercomputing Centre, plus Baleato himself. However, three more people are now being added to the team. Furthermore, the Xunta has just signed accords with the three Galician universities to set up permanent "Free Software Offices", with at least one staffer each.

"Each one of these people contributes content from their special area, and that content is aggregated in Mancomún", Baleato explains. "For example, a directory of free software for enterprises was compiled by Vigo University, under their contract with the Xunta. This study was published on Mancomún, and distributed on the DVD for SMEs that we put out."

Budget and funding

The first round of contracts, with a total budget of 532.000 Euro, set up collaborations with three partners: the supercomputing centre, the universities, and the GNU/Linux user groups. It also paid for the setup of the forge. In addition to this, 1.250.000 EUR were available for subsidies for ICT implementation in enterprises, and for dissemination events.

In 2007, there were contracts for software development for 441.660 EUR. These paid for the development of two portals (one for SMEs, the other for the internationalisation of the local economy), for grammar and spelling checkers for Galego, and for other developments.

The current batch of contracts is comprised of EUR 730.000 for latest contract with the supercomputing centre, EUR 240.000 in contracts with the universities, and EUR 60.000 in contracts with the LUGs. Mancomún\'s relatively powerful technical platform (see below) carried a price tag of 632.000 Euro.
From the side of the Xunta, Baleato is the only person who works directly on Mancomún, but may soon be joined by others. People at the Xunta\'s various ministries work with Mancomún where the remit of those ministries is concerned, for example in industrial policy.

Joining forces with SMEs

In line with much of Europe, the share of SMEs in Galicia\'s economy is around 95%. "That\'s why we found the EU\'s new industrial policy very adequate, in particular where interoperability is concerned”, says the project coordinator.

Mancomún started to identify the IT companies active in Galicia, and to encourage them to form an ICT cluster, in order to promote the use and spread of new technologies in the province.

Mancomún has also helped in the creation of a association of Galician free software companies, AGASOL, which was launched in August 2007 and currently has 23 members. With this association, Mancomún has an informal agreement to provide the association with tools for collaboration, such as mailing lists, regular meetings in which they are consulted on designing public tenders related to open source.

AGASOL LogoMost of the companies organised in AGASOL are small. Many are micro-businesses with less than ten employees. They all use open source software as the basis of all or part of their businesses, though not all of them actually collaborate with the community. By working together, they hope to consolidate their growth. They are also interested in cooperating with each other, since this enables them to jointly take on projects that they could not handle by themselves.

When AGASOL was launched, one of the first steps it took in November 2007 was to present a project by Mancomún. "Above all, Mancomún helps AGASOL to get its message out", says Vazquez. It also provides some infrastructure, such as mailing lists and the association\'s initial website.

Baleato sees the co-operation with Agasol in  the context of regional development: "We\'re trying to strengthen the ICT sector and free software, because the sectors where Galicia\'s economy is strong - shipbuilding, car making, textiles - benefit from more effective ICTs. We want to build up a network of companies that are able to provide these sectors with the technologies they need.

From an outside perspective, Javier Vazquez, the founder of the open source company Igalia, discusses some instances where his company has worked with Mancomún. Igalia is a firm that provides free software solutions. It was started in Galicia in 2001, and currently employs 34 people.

The company has two main lines of activity. One is adapting the GNOME desktop environment for makers of multimedia mobile devices. The company was for example involved in developing the "Modest" open source e-mail client for Nokia\'s GNOME Mobile and GNU/Linux powered Internet Tablets.

The other line of activity is to provide services in open source software to public administrations. As an example, Vazquez points to budget management software that his company developed for the University of Santiago de Compostela, as well as to a web portal for the Galician Ministry of Innovation and Industry.

Igalia interacts with Mancomún in various ways. The company is one of the principal promoters of free software among the Galician enterprises. In a more direct cooperation, Igalia has organised awards for the best open source graduation projects in computer sciences in 2007, and will do so again in 2008. Here, Mancomún works to publicise the award, and provides a forge for the students to use.

Vazquez says that Galician open source companies have felt the effects of Mancomún\'s work, though in the past they have mostly been indirect: "Their main impact during the last two years was to spread knowledge about free software."

The same goes for the impact of the translation of various open source programs into Galego. Vazquez says that though this hasn\'t directly helped his company, it has made free software more popular. This in turn improves the environment in which Igalia does business.

As Mancomún transforms itself into a reference centre, supporting the province\'s public administration, Vazquez expects positive effect for the open source companies in the region.

In Vazquez\' view, Mancomún\'s most innovative aspect is its cooperation with GNU/Linux user groups. "This is really something new, and I don\'t know that it\'s done anywhere in the rest of Spain or in other parts of Europe." He says that by engaging with these groups, Mancomún is able to spread knowledge about open source to almost every part of Galicia.

Although Mancomún\'s activities have positive effects for regional SMEs, there aren\'t any precise indicators that measure how the efforts to promote free software and the growth of an information society are affecting the Galician economy. Yet Baleato points out that on several macroeconomic measures, such as industrial productivity, Galicia is growing faster than the rest of Spain, though he is careful not to link this firmly with Mancomún\'s work. A comparison is also possible with the north of Portugal, which is in a similar geographical and economic situation as the Spanish province, but does not have a similarly active policies regarding the information society.

Baleato repeats his call for caution: "We just can\'t measure the impact", he says. On the other hand, he points out that the Xunta\'s investment in Mancomún has not been very large.

Technical issues

The Mancomún platform itself runs on 13 quad-core servers, all of them using the Debian GNU/Linux operating system, and Xen as a virtual machine monitor. Each of the servers has 16 GB of RAM, 1 Terabyte of storage, and 1Gbps network cards. The web portal itself uses Typo3 as content management system.

On the technical side of its activities, the Xunta initially considered putting out a localised distribution of GNU/Linux, as the Spanish provinces of Extremadura and Andalucia have done. But Baleato says that when the idea was suggested to local companies and the open source community, it wasn\'t well received. Many people considered such a localised distribution as an unnecessary duplication of effort. They preferred the Xunta to help them create the tools necessary to let any GNU/Linux distribution function in Galician.

This meant that the basic elements of the operating system and the desktop had to be translated, Work on this has been going on since 2006. "What we\'re going to do is create a metapackage that makes it possible to integrate the translations we\'ve prepared into any standard distribution", says Baleato.

The process is being carefully documented, in order to let others imitate the feat. Once the approach has succeeded, the next step will be to port the metapackage to other GNU/Linux distributions, such as Debian, RedHat or Suse.

Baleato with Xusto A. Rodriguez RioAn advantage of this approach is that it does not depend on the government\'s goodwill. If the Xunta at one point decides to end its efforts in the direction of free software, this metapackage will not only remain functional; it can also continue to be updated.

Baleato points out that this is a new concept that hasn\'t been tried out yet. “It\'s not something that the Xunta has invented; it\'s the result of three years of working together with the community, the Galician companies and volunteer organisations", says Baleato.

The Xunta also contracted companies to provide a multimedia office desktop in Galego. This meant translating a version of the GNU/Linux operating system, along with OpenOffice, a web browser, a mail client and a multimedia player.

Furthermore, the regional government supported the creation of a grammar checker for the Galician version of OpenOffice. This was achieved in cooperation with the Brazilian free software community, taking advantage of the fact that the Galician language is very similar to Portuguese.

Mancomún\'s activities to encourage the use and development of open source software and the use of open standards are based on the European drive towards interoperability, which Baleato calls “a key concern”.

Galicia follows the EU\'s recommendation of encouraging public authorities to buy and use free software and Open Standards.

The project coordinator sees the Xunta\'s emphasis on interoperability mainly as a socio-political issue, not a way of cutting costs. "We\'re applying the idea of interoperability to the Galician case, by demanding open standards, by promoting open source where we can, and by guaranteeing the technological rights of our citizens, our enterprises and our public administrations. We\'re also looking to reduce public spending."

 

Legal issues

Mancomún\'s work hasn\'t faced any legal obstacles so far. Baleato instead speaks of “resistance with legal excuses”. One such instance from the technicians in the Xunta was the decision companies proposing open source software development for funding by the Xunta should receive higher subsidies than those offering proprietary projects. Mancomún overcame these obstacles because the effort is backed by European industrial policy, and especially the European Interoperability Framework. "I can only advise anyone who launch themselves into the adventure of promoting free software in the public administration to be prepared", Baleato says only half-jokingly. "You have to know the laws and regulations." In his view, most problems are political rather than legal.

Over time, Mancomún has developed a network of legal experts, including those in public administrations and universities. They provide advice in various forms, such as a small legal studies, newspaper articles, or even clarifications over the phone.

Making open source known

An important tool for Mancomún\'s work is the "Red de dinamización de la sociedad de la información" (Dynamisation Network for the Information Society). This currently consists of 85 offices around Galicia, each staffed by a "dynamiser" who works to help the population bridge the digital gap. Through this network, Mancomún organises seminars, workshops and other events to overcome the digital divide that exists between women and men, as well as between younger and older people.

In a study of its own, Mancomún has found that the awareness of businesspeople to free software has risen from 40% to 70% in the course of a single year. In secondary education, the change is even more striking: Awareness has increased from a mere 10% to 60%, says Baleato.

He attributes the latter improvement to the efforts of the teachers, rather than anything that Mancomún has done: "They\'re very, very active in selecting the technologies that are used by their institutions." He says that teachers in Galicia have produced specialised distributions and "exemplary" network setups.

One initiative of the teachers was to ensure that when schools bought computers, they were set up to dual-boot GNU/Linux and Windows. This way people can use and slowly get to know GNU/Linux. As in other instances, Mancomún\'s role was to facilitate communication between interested people and groups, rather than implementing change itself. The teachers had mailing lists at their disposal, and had the possibility to make their work visible through interviews and case studies published by the Xunta\'s project. This has given rise to a vibrant community: "The mailing list of teachers in secondary education is one of our most active ones”, explains Baleato.

Changing perceptions

According to Baleato, the way open source is perceived in Galicia has changed with Mancomún\'s efforts. It is now linked with positive values, such as efficiency in public spending. According to studies the project has conducted, both companies and individuals want to increase their use of free software. This provides encouragement and support for the region\'s nascent open source industry.

Vazquez confirms there has already been some success, as the climate for his open source company in Galicia has improved over the last five or six years. Where in the past working with free software might have put his company at a disadvantage, he says Igalia is enjoying a more or less level playing field in the region today. The open source strategy sometimes even provides advantages when applying for project subsidies from the regional government.

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Cooperation with others

Mancomún maintains a vibrant network of contacts with a variety of other bodies and initiatives. Most of these connections start with an email to the project\'s generic contact address, mancomun@mancomun.org. From there, requests are redirected to the appropriate project partner, be it universities, associations, companies, or the Xunta itself, and a process starts to identify points of interest that the newcomer has in common with the project. Connections of a more institutional nature are often set up via the regional government, with Mancomún in an advisory role.

Within Spain, Mancomún works both with the central government and regional administrations. Cooperation is especially close with the Andalusia\'s regional government, which has developed a large-scale free software strategy of its own. The project also has good connections with CENATIC, Spain\'s national reference centre for open source. Given the proximity of language, the project also has excellent contacts in Portugal. Here, most of the interaction happens through the respective associations of free software companies.

Further afield, Mancomún works together with Brazil in the community around the OpenOffice desktop productivity suite. Recently, the project established contacts with Angola, yet another Portugese-speaking country, through open source associations. “We don\'t set up new forums, but rather stick to those that already exist, and where we do our daily work”, says Baleato.

At the European level, Mancomún puts great emphasis on working with the initiatives of the the European Commission\'s IDABC programme, in particular the OSOR and the Semantic Interoperability Centre (SEMIC). The project is also participating in the process to redefine the European Interoperability Framework (EIF).

Evaluation

Achievements

Mancomún is now entering a new phase of its existence. From a portal that aggregates content, the project is moving on to become a reference centre for open source in Galicia. Two projects are going to occupy Mancomún in the immediate future. One is the metapackage, which will provide an easy way to set up a multimedia office desktop in Galego using free software.  The other is an initiative to promote the use of free software in SMEs.

Vazquez sees Mancomún in a good position to have a positive effect on the development of the region\'s ICT industry. "They have two years of experience, they know the players, and they\'re well connected to the enterprises in the area."

Improving conditions for open source companies is an important achievement, especially given that such companies often face massive obstacles due to procurement practices and the network effects favouring dominant proprietary software. The movement towards free software in the Galician administration is happening step by step, though progress is slow. Baleato reckons that ICT companies in the region have now evolved far enough to provide the Xunta with services for open source on a greater scale.

Mancomún has attracted interest not only from other Spanish provinces, but also from the rest of Europe, from Brazil and other parts of Latin America. But Baleato is careful: "We don\'t want to die from success. We want to carefully manage our growth." To do so, the project is now implementing a system for quality management according to the ISO 9000 standard.

"We\'re thinking globally, as European, and acting locally, as Galicians", says Baleato. He sees Mancomún\'s greatest success in the adaptation of free software to local needs. "We\'ve applied the European lessons on open source at the local level, using it to satisfy our needs in Galicia."

The project coordinator emphasises that these adaptations to local needs were done in a way that makes it easy for other groups in Europe to follow the same route of translating software into their own languages, thereby helping to preserve the continent\'s linguistic diversity.

Mancomún\'s focus is on interoperability; free software and open standards are only the means to this end. Baleato emphasises that Galicia is avidly working to apply European interoperability policies to Galicia.

The network of legal experts is another plus for the project. The area in which Mancomún operates is fraught with complex rules, though this would not be much different if the project pursued the proprietary software model. Many decision-makers are not yet familiar with open source and open standards. This can sometimes lead them to perceive legal uncertainties even when there is in fact no problem at all.

Lessons learnt

Baleato emphasises that Mancomún is all about creating and exploiting synergies. "You can\'t just put a centre there and watch it grow”, he says. The project\'s approach is to look for initiatives in the area of free software and open standards, and help them to work together.

This means that most of the results that the project has achieved are indirect, and many represent small steps. According to Mancomún\'s own findings the awareness of open source software and its advantages has grown, but this does not directly translate into greater deployment of this type of software. Open source companies now have a forum to talk to each other, but this has not led to a confirmed boost in this sector of the local economy.

Yet this sort of indirect influence is a crucial element of Mancomún\'s bottom-up strategy. Rather than mandating free software and open standards, it helps people discover their advantages by themselves, and provides them with at least some of the tools they require to use these technologies according to their own needs. This may very likely turn out to be a more sustainable approach than a straightforward policy push, which might generate resentment along with some quick results.

Conclusions

The most important problem faced by Mancomún is one of growth. Besides its work in Galicia, the project participates in many efforts on the European level, such as the IDABC project or the Semantic Interoperability Centre Europe (SEMIC). This puts quite a strain on its resources. Another aspect is that since Galicia is a part of Spain, all international cooperation runs through the central government. "We can\'t do everything we\'re asked to do right now", says Baleato.

In the longer term, changes in policy are a potential risk for Mancomún. The presently favourable climate is due to the Galician Nationalists, the junior partners in the regional government, which sees open source as a way of preserving the region\'s language. The bigger Socialist party does not have a similar commitment to this type of software, or to interoperability and open standards.

The project is set up as a public foundation, which in theory gives it political independence. Yet it is fully dependent on government funding. In the future, Mancomún hopes to involve large enterprises such as IBM and HP into its work. This would also give the centre some independence from the uncertainties of Galician politics. But until it can secure funding from other sources, Mancomún will depend on the interest and goodwill of the regional government.

Mancomún has achieved quite a lot in Galicia, thanks to its very inclusive approach. It has managed to bring together companies, volunteers and government officials, and get each of them to contribute in their own way to taking Galicia into the information society. It has also built a network of contacts not only within the region, but also on the national, the European and the global levels.

Even though the government\'s investment in the project is minor in the grand scheme of things, funding is relatively generous compared with similar initiatives in other European countries. Together with political backing from the Xunta, and the diligent efforts of those involved, Mancomún has managed to reach critical mass and to spark a broad and sustainable movement towards more openness in software and standards in Galicia.

 

Links

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 Xesús Manuel Benítez Baleato, Mancomún coordinator, working for the Galician Ministry of Innovation and Industry; and Javier Vazquez, the founder and legal representative of Igalia.com and president of AGASOL.

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