UK government funds new open-source initiative

The UK government will launch the Open Source Academy, aimed at local councils, by the end of April.

The U.K. government is backing a new initiative aimed at promoting the use of open-source software in the public sector, providing a forum for those working in the public sector to test and use such software.

The Open Source Academy initiative is an umbrella for a number of projects designed to foster the use of open-source software by local governments, called local authorities in the U.K., and also to facilitate the growth of a national community of software developers who can collaborate on centralized software projects.

The Open Source Academy will be funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) under its e-Innovations investment program. According to sources close to the project, the final details of the program are currently being finalized with vendors and the ODPM will formally launch the Open Source Academy by the end of the month.

The program is funded through the fiscal year and is expected to last for about 10 months. Should the initiative prove successful, its funding could potentially be extended or other backing could be found.

Representatives from the ODPM could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Open Source Academy includes the local councils in Bristol, Cheshire, Birmingham and Shepway as well as the National Computing Centre (NCC), the University of Kent, the Institute of IT Training, OpenForum Europe, the Open Source Consortium and Socitm, the professional association for public sector IT managers.

"People are very uncertain about open source and want to see what can be done with it. This project provides an opportunity for local authorities to get the resources as well as the time and space to try things out without risking their own infrastructures," said Andy Hopkirk, head of research and development at the NCC. "It's a type of sand-pit area."

Projects will include the creation of a government-specific code repository, a directory of open-source suppliers and a professional accreditation system for open-source consultants.

Shepway District Council and the University of Kent are behind the proposal for the software repository, based in large part on the Government Open Code Collaborative in the U.S., which shares software codes and applications developed by government agencies such as electronic voting and car registration systems.

Participants in the Open Source Academy are hoping that the program will help the U.K. government catch up with the rest of Europe in implementing open-source software as part of government projects. A Dutch study published in January by the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology found that 32 percent of local authorities in the U.K. use open-source software, compared with 71 percent in France, 68 percent in Germany and 55 percent in the Netherlands.

Though Hopkirk isn't certain himself that the U.K. is lagging so far behind on open source, he said that there is indeed a perception that the U.K. has been less enthusiastic about open-source software than other countries. "There is a cultural difference between the U.K. and rest of the world -- the U.K. is conservative in the uptake of new things and has a let's-wait-and-see attitude. There is also the 'not invented here' syndrome," Hopkirk said.

However, Hopkirk is enthusiastic that the Open Source Academy will create solid inroads for open source within local governments. "If it's successful, people involved will be pleased and delighted with what they have found. What other parties outside of the project pick up remains to be seen, but things spread by peer review and peer recommendation," Hopkirk said. "This is an innovations project."

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