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'Governments that embrace open data will also switch to open source'

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Public administrations that grasp the benefits of making publicly available their data will also increase their use of free and open source, experts on open data agree. Open data and open source face comparable threats: initial lack of support and a fear for the impact on the organisation.

"Using proprietary tools for open data is not as useful as using open source", says Jeanne Holm, Evangelist for Data.Gov, the open government initiative of the US government. "Open source makes it easier for organisations, even those without much funds, to start working on sets of government data. This type of software gathers the intelligence of the whole community."

Holm was one of the keynote speakers at the Semantic Interoperability Conference 2012, which took place in Brussels on 18 June. "I'm a fan of open source, so a little biased. But this type of software gives governments a way to modernise their IT systems, without falling out of time as they would with proprietary software."

Holms says that public administrations do no longer consider open source to be controversial. "Not all of them see the benefits yet. Open source takes them away from their comfort zone."

A similar explanation is offered by Julia Glidden, e-government expert and managing director of the UK-based 21c Consultancy. IT departments can come up a million excuses for not using open source, she says. "They can point to robustness, security and other technical limitations."

Big spender
Glidden says that the switch to open source in governments is largely a matter of change management. Open source threatens the career structures of IT staffers, she says. It changes the relationships they have with the big IT-vendors and impacts the large budgets they enjoy. "They see open source in terms of risks to their careers, their sense of place in the organisation. It is safe to stay with what they know."

She says the same is true for open data. "They fear, for instance, that if the data is abused, they will lose their job."

On the plus side, public administrations can now find help in the market to use open source, says Glidden. It has reached a critical acceptance threshold. "There are suppliers, there are service providers. That is not yet the case for open data. There is a need for consultancies to help them with the mental change of approach that is needed for this kind of information sharing."

Glidden says open data and open source are mutually reinforcing. "Closed government is dead, it is just a matter of time. They will move to open source, they will move to open data."

Government philosophy
Katleen Janssen, a legal researcher at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Law and ICT at the Catholic University of Leuven is less sure of the link between open data and open source. "If open data becomes part of the philosophy of the public administrations, they will also move to open source. If open data is something they do because everybody else is, or because they are forced to, the effect will be limited."

Both Glidden and Janssen spoke at a conference on open data organised by the government of the Flanders region, in Brussels on 15 June.

More information:
SEMIC 2012 - Semantic Interoperability Conference 2012
Open Data Dag (in Dutch)


Geographic coverage:
Pan European