The French city of Toulouse saved 1 million euro by migrating all its desktops to LibreOffice. This project was rooted in a global digital policy which positions free software as a driver of local economic development and employment.
Toulouse in south-west France is one of the successes of the free software movement, having replaced Microsoft solutions with LibreOffice. Free software and open source in general is now an established part of the city’s comprehensive digital policy, and the open model promotes economic development and employment in the region. However, the process of adopting free software was a long one, says Erwane Monthubert, who until April 2014 was responsible for implementing IT policy.
Located in the Midi-Pyrénées region, Toulouse is the fourth-largest city in France, with 447,000 inhabitants in 2011. For local government purposes the city is part of Toulouse Métropole (“Greater Toulouse”), which includes 37 neighbouring communities and has a total population of around 714,000. Toulouse Métropole employs some 10,000 staff to manage its administrative operations.
Pierre Cohen, an IT professional who served as the Socialist mayor of Toulouse between 2008 and 2014, began the city’s digital policy in collaboration with Monthubert, a teacher and researcher at at Sciences Politiques Toulouse.
Following the elections of April 2014, Jean-Luc Moudenc of the centre-right UMP party succeeded Cohen. Bertrand Serp replaced Monthubert and now manages digital policy in Toulouse and Toulouse Métropole.
Monthubert, meanwhile, now works for the company Ekito as a sociolosgist studying the acceptance of technological innovations in businesses. Ekito employs 40 people and is working on the next generation of the Carte Vitale, a card that stores medical information. Ekito’s customers also include eBay and the national weather agency Météo France.
IT department maintains a pragmatic approach
In Toulouse, Monthubert explains, policies for software are based primarily on pragmatism. Free software is not a religion, but the municipality chooses free software if it meets the requirements of the IT department exactly.
In 2008, when Pierre Cohen became mayor of the city and president of Toulouse Métropole, no public digital policy had previously been established in any area whatsoever. The IT department focused on internal management. Its only public relationships with the citizens of Toulouse related to the equipment installed at municipal sites. These are important – the city has 200 schools, for example – but the municipality provided no IT guidance and had no digital culture to reflect its commitment to citizens, Monthubert admits.
Previously, all the city’s workstations used Microsoft Windows and MS Office, though some business applications were based on open source and the IT department had some knowledge of free software. “The Chief Information Officer (CIO) did not reject free software,” says Monthubert. “Some applications were developed internally and shared with the free software community.”
For some years Toulouse has been a member of Adullact, a French association for developers and users of free software for governments and local authorities. Adullact certifies business-oriented free software, makes it available, and helps with software integration and use.
“In tenders, free software and open source were certainly never ruled out. There were quite a few open source proposals in 2008–2009, for instance,” Monthubert says. “Both at that time and now, the various CIOs have always taken a pragmatic position. Free or not, they have opted for whatever solution is the best.”
The IT department’s move towards preferring free software came with a change in the internal structure of the local government: the merging of two IT departments. “To begin with, the city and the suburbs had separate IT departments,” says Monthubert. “With the creation of Toulouse Métropole these departments merged. The former CIO for the suburbs became deputy director of the newly enlarged IT department, and the CIO began to take a more active policy on open source. The use of open source stepped up to a higher level, though it was done very gradually. At the political level, the position of open source software was debated regularly.”
While retaining a pragmatic approach to software procurement, however, in 2011 Toulouse confirmed its commitment to free software by becoming the first big city to join the French free software group April (Association pour la Promotion et la Recherche en Informatique Libre; Association for the Defence and Promotion of Free Software). Both Monthubert and her successor Bertrand Serp see this commitment as a way to formalise the approach to open source undertaken by the city and the urban community, and also to show that open source fits more generally into a strategy of economic and employment development. In time, this strategy will support businesses and industry associations rooted in free software. “It will also highlight the economic impact of the adoption of free software on the local economy,” says Monthubert.
Free software still weakly represented in business applications
Toulouse now has websites, web applications and intranet portals (toulouse.fr, toulouse-metropole.fr, data.grandtoulouse.fr) supported by free software. Collaborative tools and electronic document management portals are based on Liferay and Alfresco, Serp says. He explains that Joomla is also used to “accelerate the development of small websites”.
Portals and servers used by the city’s administration to publish content have been based on free software since 2009. However, Serp explains, “Free software is mostly absent on the functional side. I think the reason is the difficulty of finding a viable business model and governance in a quite confidential market.”
As a result, he says, “The strategic core of business applications remains on UNIX systems, IBM’s AIX, or Windows, with Oracle databases because of their high usability and maturity, as well as their ability to handle large volume of data on highly secure systems.”
The city’s e-administration services do not use open source. “However, all the technologies related to the swimming pool and to transport have benefited from a public NFC tender to promote interoperability with the system through open source software,” says Monthubert. To integrate the new NFC system, free software has been used.
She also cites a “first bad experience” with open source related to a management system for cemeteries. At the time, at least, the available open source software for this task was not up to the city’s demands, and they returned to a proprietary solution.
Finally, a mobile app for employees of the city’s cleaning service was developed internally. “It allows workers to report incidents on the ground using their smartphones, with the aim of speeding up the operation. It was open-sourced,” Monthubert says.
All in all, Serp explains, “50 per cent of the operating systems in Toulouse are based on Linux. These systems support the majority of our intranet, extranet and internet sites, plus some web-based business applications, all based on a LAMP architecture – Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP”.
Free software, however, was not considered a priority in software procurement policies. “Instead, we kept a watchful eye on open source,” says Monthubert. “Since we now use open source for an office suite, publication servers and some business applications, it makes sense to continue, both in terms of the economics and to maintain our know-how as the technology develops.”
“Today, we could implement the principles of the Ayrault Circular in Toulouse,” Serp says. This communication from September 2012 by French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault sets out recommendations for open source in French administrations. “We’re pretty active on the issue of free software. We work with associations at the local level, particularly with SoLibre [a group of local actors promoting the use of free software]. We could also consider introducing a larger share of free software into tenders. But at the moment it is not systematised.” Serp confirms that he and his team currently operate a policy that is a continuation of the one set by the previous administration.
LibreOffice on the desktop: 1 million euro savings
The key project in Toulouse’s open source policy is the shift to LibreOffice. This covers several thousand people out of the 10,000 who work for the city and Toulouse Métropole. The migration – which Monthubert describes as a “major project” – was agreed in 2011 and started in 2012. It took a year and a half, and 90 per cent of the desktops now run LibreOffice, says Monthubert.
For her, as for Serp, the adoption of free software is logically linked to a cost-saving policy, now that French cities must rationalise costs within the context of reduced IT spending.
“Software licenses for productivity suites cost Toulouse 1.8 million euro every three years. Migration cost us about 800,000 euro, due partly to some developments. One million euro has actually been saved in the first three years. It is a compelling proof in the actual context of local public finance,” says Monthubert.
However, Serp cautions: “Adopting free software has a cost. It is estimated that the cost reduction can be effective if you can shift a certain volume of applications used by staff.” The IT department, which manages desktops, operated the migration processes internally, Monthubert says. No figures were available at the time of writing.
A migration schedule was put in place to facilitate the transition, department by department. Volunteers from each department put themselves forward to receive fairly simple training, after which they helped the other members of their departments to use the software.
Exemptions were granted to allow some staff to keep Microsoft Word on their desktops together with LibreOffice for periods of up to several years. It was an “intentionally flexible process”, says Monthubert, although somewhat “constraining” to the speed of the migration.
The exemptions were given because some Word macros and sophisticated Excel files could not be reproduced in LibreOffice or other open source productivity suites. These are examples of what Serp calls “some less mature features” in free software: “When it comes to making some kinds of presentations, for example, there is often a little extra to do [compared to the same process in PowerPoint]. So for some people the process is not so clear, and this can cause adaptability problems in everyday work.”
Serp and Monthubert admit to not knowing about the inter-ministerial project Mimo, which aims to certify a version of the LibreOffice suite to meet the needs of several ministries. The idea is also to pool all the resources and internal projects, so as to centralise all the work done on open source productivity suites.
Economic development and local jobs
For both Monthubert and Serp, the free software policy fits into a broader digital policy for Toulouse. They see free software not only as a route to cost reductions, but also a way to promote and accelerate innovation in e-administration and the digital services offered to citizens.
This includes support for local businesses, including providers of free software. “An overall coherence that implies a natural support for free software in tenders” is how Monthubert describes it. “The best solution is always considered, free or not. In tenders, the local criteria and open source have the same level of importance.”
“This use of free software is entirely part of the process of e-government, says Serp. “It is strongly linked to the smart city concept and what e-government could bring to the citizen. There is much to do in Toulouse. Every city is talking about smart cities, open data and free software. All this makes sense against a background of cost rationalisation and transparency in public and private policy. Free software is one of the bricks in the digital system we are currently building in the city.”
For Monthubert, cost saving is the first theme that a policy in favour of free software should highlight. This is the first step towards convincing sceptics that free software has a role to play in the local economy.
To implement a strategy in favour of free software, she first recommends assessing the budgetary savings. This should be followed by a structured plan built on studies showing that the future economic development of IT lies in free software. Such a plan requires a focus on economic development and the employment process.
“Free software is a great vehicle for economic development and employment locally,” Monthubert explains. “France has a high value in free software at the international level. Every decision-maker should know this. France has the largest number of developers and companies involved in the sector.”
To promote open source, it must be integrated into all the city’s digital policies – “though not exclusively,” she advises. “Local FOSS communities have for example participated in our policies against digital exclusion. Associations have given IT training sessions for seniors on free software.”
Open Data: another brick in Toulouse’s digital policy
Following its adoption of open source software, Toulouse has also positioned open data at the heart of its digital policy. In 2011, when the city announced its membership of the April organisation, Toulouse officially presented its open data portal Data Toulouse Métropole, built on open source solutions.
For both Monthubert and Serp, the idea of open data is not only to provide Toulouse with greater democratic transparency, but also to include this movement in the city’s economic development strategy and in regional employment. “This data openness aims for greater democratic transparency and for a significant increase in growth, since it facilitates the development of applications using this data as a foundation, especially for companies in the digital sector,” Serp says. The city has found some partners – Tisséo and La Poste – to publish data related to urban transport and postal informations, and more than 165 datasets are now available on the portal. One person is employed full-time to take care of open data topics.
“We have also carried out some lobbying,” Monthubert says. “Toulouse has been the driving force in the creation of the Association Française des Collectivités Open Data (ODF – Open Data France) – the French Association for the Open Data Community, based in Toulouse – whose objective is to support the development of open data in cities. ODF works with Etalab, a gouvernmental body in charge of the Open Data policy in France. One of the missions of the Association Française des Collectivités Open Data is to present, at international level, what France is doing in open data. JBertrand Serp was elected president of Open Data France on July 11 2014.