February 28, 2005

Open source getting APLAWs in the UK

Author: Tina Gasperson

The United Kingdom is working to move all its local government services online by the end of 2005, because of an initiative spearheaded by Prime Minister Tony Blair called the Local Authorities Website National Projects (LAWs). In the process, APLAWs (sounds like "applause"), a huge open source content management project, has sprung up, and for UK local authorities, it appears to have risen head and shoulders above its proprietary competition.APLAWs is the result of Camden Borough Council's Pathfinder assignment, one of 25 government-funded exploration projects, aimed at exploring and developing new ways of implementing e-government. From its beginning, APLAWs was focused on developing an open source content management system (CMS) that would keep costs low for local governments and would maintain open standards. Red Hat developed and implemented the core system functionality, which sits on top of an Oracle database and Sun hardware.

Giles Palmer is the managing director of Runtime Collective, a Web engineering firm in the UK that is working with the Harrow Borough to help that local authority implement APLAWs. According to Palmer, back in February 2001, the Camden Borough of London expressed an interest in receiving funding from the UK government to begin work on an open source content management system. Camden's developer selection was an interesting one: United States-based ArsDigita, now defunct, which according to Camden's proposal was slated to receive about $750,000. Giles says ArsDigita "took the funding and didn't deliver," going bust late in 2001.

Fortunately, APLAWs was based on ArsDigita's open source Community System (ACS) software, which is also the software that runs ArsDigita founder Philip Greenspun's photo.net. The availability of source code made it possible for Red Hat to step in and rescue the project after ArsDigita disappeared. Red Hat turned ACS into Red Hat Content and Collaboration Management (CCM), which it further developed and customized to make what APLAWs is today.

Palmer and his associates at Runtime Collective are serving a niche by customizing APLAWs for the Harrow District Council as it works to get services online in an acceptable form by the deadline. Palmer saw an opportunity in the growth of APLAWs, snagged some former ArsDigita people and jumped into the market just in time. "The uptake has been quite good," he says. "Thirty of 400 local authorities have adopted APLAWs." Runtime also does training, installation, and ongoing support of the system.

Palmer says one of the biggest issues is integrating the client's desired look and feel, since each council's Web site is unique. "When we started, it was pretty cumbersome to do that and expensive." Palmer says because of the upfront costs, the open source solution seemed more expensive to clients than proprietary alternatives like Microsoft's CMS software. "We did some work to improve the way the system was installed and reduced the cost." Runtime accomplished that by developing a system and "productizing" it, according to Palmer, making it more like a traditional open source tool kit that Runtime uses internally to streamline installation and configuration. It makes the customized APLAWs systems easy to demo as well, which eliminates a lot of the perceived risk on the part of potential clients.

Palmer says one of the biggest challenges Runtime has faced in helping local authorities adopt APLAWs has been the government's aversion to upfront costs. With proprietary products, initial install fees seem reasonable, but once the system is up and running, getting the appropriate licenses can be exorbitantly expensive. Palmer and his associates try to educate potential clients about these hidden costs and present the APLAWs as a far less expensive alternative in the long run.

Palmer is excited about the growth of APLAWs, but he's also enthusiastic about the potential for other open source projects in UK government. "Local authorities are in a fantastic position when it comes to open source software," Palmer says. "They all do pretty much the same things and yet they're not in competition -- they just have a different set of citizens to deal with. So they're in an interesting position with respect to their ability to share. The next user group meeting for APLAWs (on March 8) has 60 different organizations coming, up from 30 last August. It's because of the desire for the guys to share. They want to help each other and they want to tell other people about their successes."

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