December 22, 2005

Seminar leads to ongoing forum for UK FOSS interests

Author: Bruce Byfield

When Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli agreed to deliver a seminar on "Open Source in Government" to parliamentary staff members and representatives of local government in the United Kingdom earlier this month, he planned to introduce his audience to some basic concepts. However, when he got there, he found that most of the audience was already familiar with the concepts. As a result, instead of educating people in public life, he may have done more than he hoped -- he may have helped to create an ongoing forum in which the free and open source software (FOSS) communities, political lobbyists, and members of the governing Labour Party and the opposition Conservative Party can work together to promote the use of FOSS in the governments of the United Kingdom.

The seminar was held on December 1 at Portcullis House, an office and conference complex for British Members of Parliament and their staff. Sponsored by Dr. Andrew Murrison, Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Westbury, the seminar attracted a broad range of political interests. In addition to employees of both Conservative and Labour MPs, the audience included people with ties to Chelgate Limited, a major English PR and public affairs firm; the London Regional Council of the Confederation of British Industry, a well-known lobbying organization; Eurim, a technology lobbying group; mySociety, a organization to promote the use of the Internet in the public and non-profit sectors; Open Forum Europe, an advocacy group for FOSS; The Real Time Club, a high-tech networking society; and the UK Unix User Group. In short, members represented a broad cross-section of people interested in the role of technology in government.

Al-Ubaydli, the speaker for the seminar, is a medical doctor with a degree from Cambridge. Already interested in computing, Al-Ubaydli decided while serving his residency at Queen Elizabeth Hospital at King's Lynn that "my computing skills were useful for much more than research." After graduating in 2000, Al-Ubaydli designed software for handheld computers for Cambridge medical students and wrote Handheld Computers for Doctors.

In 2003 Al-Ubaydli became a Visiting Research Fellow at the National Library of Medicine in the United States. There, John Knight, an active member of the Washington area FOSS community, encouraged his interest in the subject. One result of this interest is the book Free Software for Busy People, an introduction to FOSS that has been praised by Cory Doctrow and Eric S. Raymond, and translated into Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese.

In addition, Al-Ubaydli is co-founder of Medical Futures, a company concerned with intellectual property issues in medicine, and Medical Approaches, a non-profit organization that provides free electronic textbooks in medicine. He currently works at the National Center for Biotechnology Information in Bethesda, Md.

Al-Ubaydli stresses that he delivered his talk on "Open Source Software for Government" in none of these capacities, but rather as a private citizen.

The presentation

Al-Ubaydli's presentation is now available online. For members of the FOSS communities, much of it is familiar, from his definition of open source and his debunking of myths about it to his point that, if you have used the Internet, you have used FOSS without knowing it.

What may be less familiar are the examples Al-Ubaydli used, and his call for action at the end. Both were carefully chosen to appeal to policy makers and policy influencers, as well, at times, as their national pride.

One example that Al-Ubaydli gave was the response to the tsunami in southeast Asia in early 2005. According to Al-Ubaydli, the software used to organize relief efforts in Sri Lanka was developed as an open source project with the assistance of IBM, and is now widely used by the United Nations. Similarly, the first charity to help earthquake victims in Pakistan used open source software for both its affordability and reliability. "The benefits of these developments flow back to our societies," Al-Ubaydli said. "And non-governmental organizations realise this."

In addition, Al-Ubaydli stress the transparency of FOSS -- the fact that users can confirm that the software did what it was supposed to do and nothing else, contrasting it with users' inability to know whether an application such as Skype really does protect their security.

Returning to this point later in the presentation, Al-Ubaydli brought the issue of transparency closer to home by commenting on the case of Helen Wilkinson, which was discussed in the British Parliament in June 2005. According to Al-Ubaydli, despite Wilkinson's experience with bureaucracy and the cooperation of government officials, she was unable to remove the erroneous claim in her medical health records that she was an alcoholic.

The new system for medical health records that caused Wilkinson's problem were built with proprietary software. Had open source software been used instead, Al-Ubaydli suggested, the National Health Service might have been able to track down the problem successfully. Instead, after months of effort, Wilkinson withdrew from the National Health Service.

Without the transparency that open source can provide, Al-Ubaydli predicted, in the near future, "There will likely be a backlash. This would mean that the tremendous and worth investment in electronic medical records in which Britain is leading the world will be reversed because of lack of faith in the system. Patients will demand to be removed just as Ms. Wilkinson did." In other words, the transparency of FOSS might prevent the loss of public faith in major British institutions -- an issue that the current Labour government is actively grappling with. Certainly the issue, Al-Ubaydli observed after the seminar, seemed of particular interest to his audience.

Britain, Al-Ubaydli went on to note, is far behind most of Europe in FOSS adaptation. According to Al-Ubaydli, only 32 percent of local English governments use FOSS, compared to 71 percent in France, 68 percent in Germany, and 58 percent in Holland.

In conclusion, Al-Ubaydli asked his audience to do three things. If nothing else, he asked them not to hinder FOSS by supporting software patents. More actively, he asked them to encourage competition in government software purchases, and to avoid exclusive deals with proprietary companies such as Microsoft. Finally, speaking as a taxpayer, he asked them to adapt FOSS to save money and raise the quality of government resources at the same time. Like much of his talk, these final calls to action were an explanation of ideas common in the FOSS communities expressed in language designed to appeal to his audience.

The discussion

The discussion after the presentation was chaired by Nick Wood-Dow, an IT specialist at Chelgate Limited. The topics raised were far-ranging. Most, however, dealt at least indirectly with how to encourage the use of FOSS in public affairs -- a tendency that some of the audience apparently thought inevitable.

Omar Salem, co-author of Wide Open, a book that advocates using FOSS as part of the solution to social problems, commented that "the politics of open source software are one of the issues that needs to be tackled. The OSS community needs to think of clear and compelling ways to explain to politicians and normal people why OSS is good."

Another attendee, Basil Cousins of Open Forum Europe agrees, saying, "We urgently need to work out how to communicate with others who generally have no interest or knowledge in open source."

According to Salem, the general feeling was that the educational process would be an uphill battle. Other members of the audience, he reports, said that "they knew of no more that 10 Members of Parliament who could be said to have an interest in OSS."

At this point, Cousins reports, the discussion turned to practical ways to raise awareness. Leslie Fletcher of the UK Unix User's Group raised the issue of FOSS education. Cousins himself mentioned that the Open Source Academy, funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, is currently developing accreditation programs for open source.

Others discussed ways in which the FOSS communities could work with parliament. According to Cousins, Andrew Murrison suggested a "formal independent review" or a parliamentary open forum that would bring Members of Parliament together with members of the public to discuss both general FOSS solutions and specific issues in education and health.

By the end of the seminar, attendees had agreed to respond as a group to the government's request for responses to the Department of Constitutional Affair's Transforming Public Services discussion paper by the February 3, 2006, deadline. The goals of this paper include "to deliver better services for the public" and "to ensure that the faith the public have in government is improved," making it an ideal vehicle for increasing awareness of FOSS. The group will meet in late January when Al-Ubaydli next visits London.

Meanwhile, simply by getting together to discuss their common interests rather than their differences, the seminar attendees may have made an important contribution to the cause of FOSS in the United Kingdom.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge.

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