January 16, 2007

Ten big Dutch cities demand open standards

Author: Koen Vervloesem

In the beginning of 2003, the Dutch government started a program called Open Standards and Open Source Software (OSSOS) to stimulate Dutch government agencies to use open standards in their software and to inform them about open source software. Last month, 10 big Dutch cities signed a Manifesto of the Open Cities, signaling that the OSOSS program is working.

By stimulating open standards, the OSOSS program wants to raise the quality of government IT systems in the domains of accessibility, transparency, safety, and durability. Moreover, OSOSS strives to lower the total cost of ownership, because the use of open standards gives the flexibility to combine different software components from different manufacturers and the opportunity to choose the best combination. OSOSS wants government agencies to become less dependent on external software suppliers, such as Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. As a consequence of these two main goals, the data exchange between different government agencies should become better.

"Open source software is ready to use in government agencies," says Bouke Koelstra, OSOSS adviser for the municipalities. "Most of the technical problems of the beginning are solved now, and the functionality of most open source alternatives for commercially available software are satisfactory. The recent evaluation by the city of Amsterdam shows that Linux and OpenOffice.org are serious alternatives to Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. A couple of smaller municipalities have tried OpenOffice.org and other open source software and they didn't have any problems with the software. However, the suppliers of some of the applications the municipalities used didn't support the open source software."

Four demands

The Manifesto of the Open Cities defines the demands for software proposals for participating cities in the future. Together, the 10 cities that signed the manifesto have about 3 million of the total Dutch population of 16 million inhabitants. The cities that signed the manifesto have explicitly embedded the following four elements of openness in their IT strategies:

Vendor independence: All software should perform equally well on different platforms. The city should have the choice of vendors to maintain and support the software.

Interoperability: The software should have application-independent interfaces and support open standards for text editing, email, middleware, and geographical information systems. This means for example that the citizens of the cities shouldn't be forced to use Microsoft Word to read official documents.

Transparency, insight, and control: All processing of personal data must be transparent in accordance with relevant laws and regulations and provide insight for audits and information security checks. This means that the government should be able to protect the privacy of its citizens. "Especially the big cities find it important that they can read the source code," Koelstra says.

Digital durability: All software must be able to be supported by several vendors, and not just the vendor responsible for the implementation. Data must be stored in a well-documented and open format. The rationale is that official documents should be readable even when the original software doesn't exist anymore.

The manifesto doesn't mention "open source," but the four demands make it clear: there is a preference for open source software. The four demands are difficult to answer with closed source software.

All cities that signed the manifesto explicitly ask their suppliers that all software being procured or developed on their behalf, in official bids and outsourcing contracts, should consider these four elements. "This is a signal from the Dutch cities," Koelstra says. "We demand: 'If you want to do business with us, you have to follow our rules of openness.' Because most of the software companies won't choose open standards spontaneously, we have to do this and hit them where it hurts: their money."

With these big cities as forerunners, a lot of smaller municipalities are jumping on the bandwagon. "We have now 30 smaller municipalities that will sign the manifesto," Koelstra says. "They find themselves comfortable with the support of the big cities. OSOSS has collected the municipalities to make a fist to 'don't take this anymore.'"

The suppliers

How did the software suppliers answer the manifesto? "A couple of software suppliers have said that they support Linux and OpenOffice.org," Koelstra says. "Others have answered furiously." Koelstra mentions that the municipalities could save a lot of money, but that a lot of software suppliers don't cooperate. "Suppliers should give us choice. If I buy a Volkswagen car and the supplier demands that I use only Pirelli tires, I wouldn't accept it. In the software world, we all accept that the supplier limits our freedom. Software is an immature market."

Sander Rispens of the city of Leeuwarden has the same experience with suppliers. "Some of our software suppliers aren't enthusiastic to adapt their software. They wait for enough critical mass in the market. For these suppliers, the manifesto is a clear signal that a big part of the Netherlands demands open standards. In the past they could dismiss objections of the municipalities as incidental. Now they can't -- they have to adapt. Other suppliers are already using open standards or developing their own open source software. The manifesto will give them an advantage now."


Anton van Gemert, head of the IT department of the city of Nijmegen, says that most software suppliers want to embrace open standards. "For open source, the picture is more difficult, because source code is part of their assets. We have been using [de facto] standards since 1990, so our big systems are relatively open. We see that small suppliers are mostly still using closed solutions. If they don't adapt, Nijmegen will not keep doing business with them."

The city council of Nijmegen accepted in 2004 a project to consider open source software as a real alternative when purchasing software. "Our primary reason for considering open source software is less dependence on software suppliers," van Gemert says. "We don't want to target Microsoft specifically and we didn't have financial reasons. The Manifesto is important for us because we can emphasize now, together with other cities, the need for more independence on our suppliers." Van Gemert considers this independence to be a start for more innovation, more continuity, and less problematic data exchange.

"For Nijmegen, the manifesto is more important for the open standards part than for the open source part," van Gemert says. "We are using a lot of software and we will not replace all of them by open source software and software using open standards. If we would do that, I suspect we would face many problems. It's not realistic and it would make us even more dependent on suppliers." Nijmegen has researched how it could use open source software and open standards in its infrastructure. "We see serious opportunities for Internet portals, content management systems, and parts of our firewall system. But as it is now, it's not wise to use open source software exclusively."


Leeuwarden adviser Sander Rispens says, "We are developing digital services for our inhabitants. Because we are using software from different suppliers, open standards would ease the communication between different software packages and would give us more freedom of choice."

"Since 2004, we have been using a specific software policy," Rispens says. "All software we want to acquire has to use open standards. Moreover, when we are comparing a closed source and an open source application and both are considered equally good, we have a preference for the open source application." Some of the digital services and the middleware are already using open standards and open source software. Moreover, the city's Web site is using an open source content management system called MMBase, which has Dutch origins.


Amsterdam, the capital of The Netherlands, waited some time before signing the manifesto because it was in the course of an evaluation of the use open standards and open source software in its departments. This evaluation was the result of the city council asking how the city could become less dependent on its software suppliers. Amsterdam will use €300,000 to test open source software in two of its departments. If the results are positive, a "standard open workplace" will be offered as a shared service to all city departments.

Amsterdam has a contract with Microsoft until the end of 2008 for its office software. The city doesn't want to rule out all closed source software, but "it is expected that the new contract with Microsoft will be smaller," a press release of the city council says.


  • Government
Click Here!