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Universal Credit possible if politicians don't interfere, says IT chief

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Benefits sign.pngDWP can manage the massive reorganisation of computer systems demanded by Universal Credit as long as politicians don't move the goalposts and over-complicate matters for departmental techies, said a senior departmental techie.

The department has meanwhile concluded after an audit of the shanty town of benefits systems on which it has to build Universal Credit, some of which are genuine antiques, that it must scrap some of them because it would be impossible to adapt them in the time given.

The project, which involves merging six different benefits systems into one in five years, has also thrust DWP into a close partnership with HMRC that will involve building a unified system from components consolidated across their two computing infrastructures.

Steve Riley, IT director at Job Centre Plus, told Computer Weekly the two departments were already working to consolidate their systems into core components to be incorporated into a unified Universal Credit system, under the eye of programme director Terry Moran, former chief executive of pensions.

But an ongoing review of DWP systems was determining whether the strategy would indeed deliver UC and another two major policy reforms the coalition government had requested be implemented simultaneously: replacing disability living allowance with an independent living payment and introducing a single tier pension.

"Our part for the politicians is that if they keep the benefits simple, we can do this," said Riley.

"One of the projects I worked on was pension credit, which was supposed to have been a simplification of pensions. It ended up being more complicated than what we had. So there is a partnership with politicians that they keep it nice and simple as well," he said.

Scrapping VME

Riley described the systems strategy at a recent Inside Government conference, where he said the DWP had concluded that it must scrap some of its oldest computer systems to get the job done.

"What we are building with Universal Credit, we are hoping to re-use a lot of what we've already got. [But] Our big systems are really difficult to change. The testing of them is three or four months alone

Old VME system compressed.png"We've got a large number of outdated, inflexible IT systems - VME systems," he said. "Changes take about 18 months in the lifecycle of a VME application."

"We can't manage it with those VME systems. We will have to replace those with systems that are componentised."

DWP hoped it could extend the consolidation and reuse programme beyond UC, so that it could build its other major reform projects using the same systems components. The matter was being reviewed to see if reuse would allow the systems to be delivered simultaneously.

It was certain, however, that UC would reuse core components consolidated across numerous existing systems.


It was a vast project, but DWP hoped it would be made simpler by delivering it in smaller chunks, in the agile fashion promoted in the Cabinet Office ICT Strategy.

Reform

DWP had bought into a rules engine called OPA it hoped would cut months from the time it would take to systemize the rules for UC.

It had also identified the core activities that would be consolidated from all its existing benefits systems: things like collecting evidence, calculating payments, making payments, maintaining accounts.

Citizens were meanwhile expecting things to be done in an online. Job Centres were no longer like miserable betting shops. But the VME systems were holding back DWP's rejuvenation.

It took 26 weeks to train DWP staffers to use the systems. There were 11 different systems employers used to put information online. It aimed to handle 80 per cent of claims online.

It's new policy was self-service and digital by default as long as it didn't exclude people with accessibility issues. It had cut its use of paper 50 per cent and aimed to automate 75 per cent of its processes. But about 30 per cent of people who relied on the DWP were digitally excluded in one form or another.

Government to end ICT "oligopoly"

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The government has promised to bring down the ICT oligopoly as part of a strategy that may have seismic consequences for the public and private sectors.

The 18 large ICT suppliers that have controlled 80 per cent of Britain's much maligned public sector IT will have the rug pulled from beneath them if the reforms promised in today's Cabinet Office IT Strategy work as envisaged.

Big Ben.pngPolicy makers will be freed from the lead shoes put on them by the lumbering, multi-billion IT contracts that have tied them to the big suppliers and hold political initiative back, the policy claims.  

Open standards will be "imposed" on technology in the public sector, creating a country-wide computing platform that will subvert the misshapen procurement regime by allowing young, innovative firms to merely plug-in to UK.gov.

Such an ecosystem may become a feat of civil engineering to define the early 21st Century: a public work to make monoliths like the National Programme for IT seem like the work of 19th Century engineers.

The reforms will bring far-reaching changes to every corner of the public sector. They will require the civil service to agree common working practices in order for the computer system processes built upon them to be interoperable.

"The government will put an end to the oligopoly of large suppliers that monopolise its ICT provision," declared the strategy.

But government would "move away from large ICT projects that are slow to implement or pose a greater risk of failure" only "where possible". The government is already locked into IT contracts, such as the £8.5bn Aspire deal HMRC has with Capgemini, that preceded the last Parliamentary term and may yet outlive the present government.

The government would nevertheless adopt a "presumption against" IT contracts above £100m, while HMRC got a special mention for a plug and play website into which IT SMEs have been plugging tax data apps.

Open source

The strategy also carried forward a raft of reforms begun under the last government. The coalition would re-use its software systems, instead of buying them anew for different departments.

It would build an "asset register" and a government app store. Senior officials would be made to take more interest in and responsibility for their IT systems so fewer of them turned into hash.

But just as the last government in 2009 promised "a level playing field for open source", and a year later promised the same again. It has now been promised again. Open source would get a level playing field and would be used "where possible".

Both the government may have to step up their campaigning efforts if it wants its next ICT strategy, in 2014, to reflect any serious support it may be have for open source.

The programme of reform would, appropriately enough for one proposing lean and agile development methodologies, only last 24 months.

Any longer would be too long to leave the large ICT suppliers unsupervised.

MOD test flies Universal Credit elastoplast

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Systems analyst letches over old Univac computer operator.pngThe Ministry of Defence has been struggling to patch together a vast estate of creaky old computer systems to make them fit for interconnection in the 21st century.

It's travails may provide insight into the challenges being faced at the Department for Work and Pensions, which aims to build its ambitious Universal Credit system on a veritable shanty town of legacy systems.

Kevin Wallis, lead applications architect at the MOD, heckled open standards purists with the legacy problem at a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group last week.

This chatter about open standards and interoperability was all very well, but legacy systems simply did not conform to new world thinking.

You can glue disparate systems together, he said, "provided the whole of the architecture has been designed around open standards.

"We are working in a brownfield site where we do not have that bit. That is the problem I face architecting the Ministry of Defence application suite. We don't have open standards that we can plug and play. That's the problem."

Having lobbed the inconvenient truth into the open source meeting, Wallis was forced to admit that the MOD IT section had earned itself the nickname "the Microsoft/Oracle department". But, he said, 70 per cent of MOD IT projects used some element of open source software.

The MOD headache will become familiar to departments across government as the Cabinet Office presses ahead with plans to make its systems interoperable through the use of open standards.

Open standards didn't exist 30 years ago

Very old codger with very old computer possibly from DWP but origin uncertain.pngAfter the meeting, Wallis told Computer Weekly: "The MOD has systems that are 30 years old. They are mission critical. How can we work round them to go to an open standards architecture? Mostly open standards didn't exist then."

The MOD was solving the problem on "a case-by-case basis" using a variety of approaches.

"One of the options is, can we wrap it into a web services wrapper so we can pull that existing system as a web service," said Wallis.

"It can work. The huge advantage is that we don't have to redevelop the application," he said.

Another advantage was business continuity, said Wallis. It could plonk a new IT system on top of the old one, getting some of the advantages of modern computing without the usual delay. That would win the department breathing space where it might consider a long-term strategy for upgrading its decrepit systems.

The department's long-term plan was to do this with all its old systems. But it had a finite budget. And the government was considering whether the MOD was a special case whose systems deserved special attention.

The MOD was had been reviewing all its software applications and asking: "Can we eliminate, can we migrate, do we have to tolerate or do we invest," said Wallis. One MOD programme alone was seeking to "rationalise" 600 applications. The Defence Information Infrastructure had rationalised about 2,000 applications to just 500.

Universal credit

The MOD approach may win the backing of duffers at the Institute for Government, whose report into government IT last week itself won the backing of Ian Watmore, head of the Cabinet Office Efficiency and Reform Group.

The report said the DWP's proposed £2bn Universal Credit system would be built using agile development methods, which effectively means it would be developed piecemeal, with a high degree of autonomy given to software development teams and outputs being produced iteratively as they were in the commercial software world.

The Universal Credit system proposes to integrate 51 separate state benefits into a single credit in just three years. DWP disperses £90bn-a-year through the present system, which is said to rely on 51 separate computer systems, some of which are 30 years old.

Watmore reportedly said at the launch of the Institute's report that Universal Credit would be built on top of the DWP's legacy systems.

Parliament illustrates gov.IT malfunction by example

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Empty Parliamentary Committee Room.pngAs MPs on the Public Administration Committee opened their inquiry into government IT today, they exemplified the problem they are seeking to solve: why is government IT often such a hash?

Their attempt to expose the problem to democratic scrutiny was hobbled by their dependence on the same proprietary computer systems that made such a hash government IT in the first place.

If you tuned in to Parliament TV this morning you may have seen some of the UK's leading academics of computing shine a light on the problem. Then you may have not. Parliamentary internet broadcasts are optimised for people using Microsoft software.

This is the very sort of bind the government is trying to escape with its G-Cloud and open source strategies. Proprietary software vendors and systems integrators have been free to mop up behind the scenes of the public sector for years because they supply IT systems over which they control the rights and can therefore charge monopoly rents.

Their position looks untenable now government is relying on their software to support democratic processes.

Blue screen

So Microsoft may have been chuffed when Parliament chose its lackluster Silverlight multimedia technology to deliver live video streams of British democracy in action. It now looks like the most striking illustration of the blight such proprietary software is on society and democracy.

How can a democracy address the systematic problem of proprietary software when the only people who can hear the debate are those users and compadres of proprietary software vendors?

This became a pertinent matter for your humble correspondent this morning. He was unable report on the PASC enquiry because he wasn't using a Microsoft system. Parliament's website said it was unable to deliver its video to anyone who wasn't using Microsoft Silverlight. It asked users of competing systems to install alternative software. Only the alternative software doesn't work, at least not without maintenance beyond the means of all citizens but the ITerati.

Interoperability is a problem for web video, colonized as it is by proprietary software interests. It has not proved beyond the wit of the BBC, whose own Democracy Live website relies on the imperfect but universal, proprietary Flash technology. But the Beeb doesn't bother transmitting committee proceedings. The broadcast rights holder (of which it is a shareholder) probably asks for too much money.

Sir Tim Berners Lee.pngAt least when Parliament publishes the written transcript of the PASC inquiry tomorrow it will be available to everyone. The textual components of Parliament web site are delivered using standards defined by the World Wide World Web Consortium, an independent body which (unlike Parliament) is answerable not to self-serving software corporations, but to Britain's beloved internet champion, Sir Tim Berners Lee.

Perhaps Sir Tim will make a contribution to enquiry. Will anyone outside of Westminster's proprietary software circle get to hear about it if he does?

Ban the Microsoft "virus", government told

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Microsoft web software is like a computer virus in government computer systems and must be banned, a meeting of the British Computer Society's Open Source Specialist Group heard last week.

Called by Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid, the meeting formed part of an investigation into why government open source policy has floundered. Rashid got a clutch of executives from the systems integrators who control 80 per cent of the UK's £16-24bn public sector IT industry, sat them before a room full of open source advocates, and asked them to explain why the computer industry had become so stagnant under their watch.

Why for example, asked Rashid, had proprietary Microsoft technologies become entrenched in government systems? The audience seemed more sure of the answer than the panel of executives. The problem was proprietary Microsoft software. Rashid agreed.

Chris Kenyon, vice president of global OEM sales at Linux publisher Canonical, said some technologies had such a malignant effect they should be "banned" from government systems.

"Some software components are so fundamentally viral in the way they get used that the government may want to [reconsider], given that there's convicted monopolist behind a couple of them," said Kenyon.

Rashid had wanted to know why the "vast majority" of government websites were delivered using Microsoft's Internet Information Services Web Server (IIS). Before long the meeting was considering how a phalanx of Microsoft internet technologies, including its Internet Explorer (IE) Browser and ActiveX system for distributing software applications, reinforced one another to the detriment of competing technologies.

Kenyon referred to his sales conversations with the IT chiefs of large organisations: "If they are predominantly on IE, you can guarantee that they have built ActiveX requirements in, and will have used IIS," he said. He went on: "But...IIS encourages the use of ActiveX. You are automatically encouraging people to use IE, automatically locking them into Windows laptops."

Was IIS "too dangerous and viral" to permit at all, he asked. "There are a few key elements of software stacks globally that if you choose proprietary software, you are setting a dreadful precedent," he said.

"Outlook and exchange!", someone shouted from the audience.

Kenyon, said these technologies "may be just so fundamentally viral" that their continued use prevented the government fulfilling its open source policy.

Approached after the meeting, Microsoft refused to comment. The open source community would say Microsoft was a virus, wouldn't it? Kenyon sits on the board of Canonical, Microsoft's arch rival.

But this was not all.

"I have to agree with what you are saying," replied the government lead architect.

"We pay through the nose with when we get stuck with applications that are ActiveX-specific or browser-specific, which then in turn is desktop specific," said Rashid.

It was, he stated, a question of open interoperability standards, or not as the case may be. He derided the use of "secret codes", meaning the proprietary standards by which it was implied Microsoft systems interoperate - to the exclusion of competitors unless those competitors conceded to build their systems on Microsoft's terms.

The meeting proceeded on the assumption that most public sector procurement officers had not even heard of Apache, an open source alternative to IIS, let alone considered that it might be preferable. The procurement system was much to blame. The public sector was awash with Microsoft and Oracle consultants. Procurement officers didn't know anything about technology, they just did what they were told.

The government was doing a host of things to address it. Some might even discourage government procurement officers from installing IIS in a zombie-like fashion. They include ways of promoting open source software. They include a mandate for open standards "where possible". They have not yet extended to hazard warnings for unhealthy proprietary systems, let alone a ban.

Rashid is hosting another meeting of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group this evening.

Prime Minister puts weight behind open source software push

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The Prime Minister's office has put its weight behind a drive to make the government's open source policy overcome the obstacles that have seen it flounder for the last two years.

Word of Prime Minister Cameron's intervention came as the Cabinet Office unveiled a raft of measures to designed to fulfil the coalition government's policy commitment to "create a level playing field for open source". The Cabinet Office is working on an open source reference stack, a software assessment model, a CIO training programme and an system to survey open source use in government and finger those departments who don't do enough.

"Number 10 are pushing this," Tariq Rashid, lead architect of the Home Office Technology and Solutions Assurance Team, told Computer Weekly.

Rashid, who was helping the Cabinet Office unearth the reasons why systems integrators have ignored the government's open source policy, said there had been more pressure from Number 10 over open source than there had been from the Cabinet Office, which was responsible for the policy.

open-source-si-forum.pngThe Cabinet Office told systems integrators the Prime Minister was pushing the open source policy when it assembled them for a telling off on Monday, said Mark Taylor, CEO of Sirius Corporation, an open source supplier who attended the meeting.

<<< Read the presentation to the Cabinet Office's first Open Source Integrator Forum <<<

The first meeting of the government's Open Source Integrator Forum was a dressing down in which the big 12 systems integrators, who supply 80 per cent of all government IT, were told firmly that they were preventing the government from carrying out its policy and had better change their ways.

Reform

The Cabinet Office this week trailed a series of programmes designed to break the open source deadlock. First among them was a promise to create an open source reference stack: a certified list of software that when put together could create an assuredly functional system.

A meeting of the British Computer Society heard on Tuesday night how the government relied on reference stacks produced by the leading software vendors in preference of their own applications and those produced by their strategic allies. The practice excluded competitors and left procurement professionals across government ignorant of alternatives even when they were better and cheaper.Open_Source_Options_v0.1.png

>>> Read the government's draft list of approved open source software >>>

The Cabinet Office was also working on a draft software assessment model after losing patience with systems integrators whose own assessments typically failed to approve open source alternatives to software produced by the dominant corporations.

Rashid told integrators about the plan on Tuesday: "In my experience, when we've spoken to some of the integrators there's been a reluctance to work with some open source software that this department's wanted to work with. Systems integrators say the software isn't suitable."

"Quite often, the refrain from the integrators is that the software is not appropriate, not mature enough and not suitable based on their internal assessment approach."

Open_Source_for_Govt_Assessment_Model_v0.1.pngOne way we can try and help that is if the Cabinet Office starts producing an assessment model to separate good software from bad software, looking at things like support, how established is it, is there good governance around development, these sorts of things. That would enable customers to say, 'We want to use WordPress and according to this model it's not going to fail'".

<<< Read the government's draft Open Source Assessment model <<<

Rashid said the Cabinet Office was also planning to put departmental IT heads through an education programme after discovering they "aren't as up to scratch in open source technologies". The education programme may extend to those people overseeing procurement reform under the Cabinet Office's IT Strategy review.

"We have people looking at it, but they are not really experienced in setting out procurement paths to open source," said Rashid.

He asked the open source community to contribute to the Cabinet Office's draft policy documents.

Cabinet Office was also formulating a means of checking to see if departments were implementing the open source policy, and giving growing consideration to open source software. This would be something short of an audit, said Rashid, but the Cabinet Office would use it to finger departments that were not stepping up.

Other elements of the initiative include an Open Source Advisory panel, being led by campaign group Open Forum Europe. This is intended to act as a counterweight to the Open Source Integrator Forum, populated by the systems integrators believed to be blocking government policy. A cross-government Open Source Implementation Group will have its first meeting in two weeks.

Computer Weekly understands the open source policy was put on the shelf last year when the Cabinet Office declared its IT contracts moratorium and required every hand to go through proposed procurements with a cost-cutting comb. Qumar Yunus, employed to lead the open source policy, was put straight on the moratorium instead. He came off it only in recent weeks.

A spokesman for Number 10 avoided answering questions about the Prime Minister putting his weight behind the open source policy.

Parliament wants to dump Microsoft Silverlight

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Saying you can only watch Parliamentary debates on the internet if you have a computer compatible with Microsoft is like saying you can only enter the House of Lords if you shop on Savile Row.

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office (PICT) has therefore stalled its rollout of Silverlight, Microsoft's latest multimedia technology, while it considers if there is a better way.

PICT's reports on the matter, which we are publishing here today, reveal why PICT is reviewing its relationship with Microsoft. It is seeking to increase public participation in the democratic process, and break the limitations that proprietary software and broadcast licences place on Parliament's use of its own recordings.

Broadcasting Improvements Feasibility Study.pngThe strategy is described in the Feasibility Study for PICT's BroadCast Improvement Plan, published internally last year.

<<< Read the Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology Office's Broadcast Improvement Plan <<<

PICT faces the mother of all standards dilemmas. It's Feasibility Study expresses a preference for digital video standards that don't lock it into a single vendor's technology.

But there may be no viable alternative. The digital video landscape has been perverted by years of domination by proprietary software vendors.

Industry-wide efforts to establish an open standard have increased a pace, but may not be resolved by PICT's self-imposed deadline of summer 2011.

Parliament is a thoroughbred Microsoft House. The Parliamentary Broadcast Unit delivers its recordings in a Microsoft format. PICT delivers them over the internet using Microsoft software. TwoFour Group, which builds PICT's media systems, is a Microsoft House. British voters can best view parliamentary proceedings if they have Microsoft software on their computers.

TwoFour told Parliament to upgrade to Microsoft, says the Feasibility Study. Parliament started preparing to do so. It started working with TwoFour on a pilot Silverlight media player called Karaoke, as described in another report Computer Weekly is publishing today, PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for Broadcast Improvement Plan.PICT BroadCast Improvement Plan - Final Options and recommendations - July 2010.png

>>> Read PICT's Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan >>>

But PICT put the Karaoke pilot on hold while it considers its options. The Broadcast Improvement Plan had raised the prospect that being locked into Microsoft might be a disability.

This is a classic example of the way in which proprietary standards lock customers in. Parliament has been using Microsoft Windows Media Software. Microsoft is switching to a new platform called Silverlight. It has to bring all its customers along. Microsoft suppliers like TwoFour chivvy them along. Customers like Parliament decide its not in their interest. But they have little choice.

PICT's Feasibility Study considered that Silverlight fell short as a proprietary standard because its user base was too small. That was on top of the fact that it had the proprietary features inherent Windows Media, its predecessor, that PICT considered a distinct disadvantage. But without a viable alternative, even Parliament may not find reason enough to abandon the costs it has sunk into Microsoft's proprietary technology.

The wild card is the democratic interest. What is lost by building the gateways to Parliament with technologies that place limitations on who can pass?

See also:

Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy


Parliament mulls Hansard for YouTube


Hansard's Cloud Plan

Hansard's cloud plan

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Hansard Broadcast Improvement Plan Systems Diagram.jpg
Diagram produced by The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office and published in its July 2010 Report, Final Options and Recommendations for the Broadcast Improvement Plan - a scheme to improve the publication of Hansard data on the web by making greater use of its multimedia recordings.

The diagram (click on image to enlarge) describes two scenarios for embedding indexed multimedia recordings of Parliamentary proceedings in text transcripts published on Hansard's web pages.

It was envisaged that once PICT had developed a Hansard API that could deliver video into web pages, it could make the facility available to anyone who wanted to embed recordings of Parliamentary proceedings into their blogs or wotnot.

One of the project's over-riding objectives was: "To improve access to Parliamentary content by using open standards to achieve maximum possible audience reach, both today and in the future."

The second of the options shown in the diagram shows PICT's recommended Hansard Improvement Plan. The mass transfer of Hansard data into a cloud repository would provide an opportunity to do a bulk transcoding at the same time. The transcoding would convert Hansard's data from proprietary multimedia formats over which there were inherent usage restrictions that contravened its "maximum possible audience" aim. It would encase them with open standards.

PICT provided a definition of Transcoding in its feasibility study for the Improvement Plan: "This is usually done to incompatible or obsolete data in order to convert it into a more suitable format."

Banned in Parliament: the technology that offends democracy

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Parliament has taken advice over what technology it should and shouldn't use if it wants to prevent private software companies from determining who can and can't access Hansard, the official record of Parliamentary proceedings. 

The Parliamentary Information Communication and Technology (PICT) office used the advice, from two of the UK's most prominent standards experts, to develop a policy that reflected how computer standards have become a matter of significance to democracy.

Central to the advice is a concern over multimedia standards, which has informed PICT's decision to overhaul Hansard's electronic publications, introducing open standards and ditching technology that puts restraints on what computer users can access public Parliamentary records.

Providing a list of forbidden technologies, the advice came from a May 2009 report (called Principles of Data and System Design for the Acquisition, Management and Delivery of Parliamentary Information) written by Francis Cave, chair of the controversial International Standards Organisation committee that oversees the OOXML and OpenDocument file formats, and Alex Brown who sits on the British Standards Institute Technical committee that does the same.

"The following technologies must not be used as they either hinder operability, impose a burden on the user, damage the chances of long term stability, or are obsolete," said Cave and Brown in the report.

"W3C 'Web Services' technologies (SOAP etc)", SGML, RTF, ActiveX, COM, OLE, "CORBA (etc)" and Java applets, were all forbidden.

The report also said Adobe's ubiquitous Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight multimedia standards "must not be used" unless there were simply no alternative open standards that might replace them. Parliament makes use of both technologies and though PICT has opted to replace them, it has not determined whether the technical limitations of HTML5, the comparatively immature open standard that competes with them, is yet up to scratch.

The four commandments

Cave and Brown's advice made it into a feasibility plan for Parliament to modernise Hansard on the Web. It was subsumed into a set of design principles ("constraints") imposed on future developments of Hansard's Web system.

These constraints, obtained by Computer Weekly under FOI, included the following four key points:

  • Non-open standard formats should not be used to deliver content
  • Proprietary components or 3rd party plug-ins should not be used
  • The project should meet the requirements for digital preservation.
  • The solution should reach the widest possible audience

The policy reflected a wider concern that the historic record would be threatened by the way software vendors imposed restrictions on data stored using their proprietary formats. PICT has joined forces with Parliament's Digital Preservation team to find an open standard in which Parliamentary records can be stored.

PICT admitted with the publication of the same constraints that recordings of Parliament's proceedings had been stored (using non-open Microsoft formats) without any thought for the consequences for digital preservation. PICT rejected Microsoft's Silverlight but recommended waiting to see if the HTML5 open standard improved before making a decision.

Not so flash

Flash appeared to have proved the point for PICT. In a feasibility study for Hansard's modernisation, the department noted that even though Flash was used by more than 95 per cent of computer users, Apple had prevented Flash from being used on its iPhone and iPad. Apple develops QuickTime, a competing technology, but allowed HTML5 to be used on its platform.

PICT's analysis reflected the fact so many software vendors had been competing to dominate the multimedia industry with their own proprietary standards that HTML5 had been left by the wayside. 

But Flash's popularity would pass. It was, said PICT, "predominantly down to the popularity of YouTube". The video website had opted to use Flash at a time when the multimedia market had been "fragmented" by Windows Media, QuickTime and RealPlayer, each of whom had their own proprietary format, multimedia codec and delivery platform.

"YouTube's success was down to its ability to provide free, easy-to-use tools to upload, play and share video in a joined-up manner and in the absence of any open standards for video on the web," said PICT's report.

But with the backing of Apple, Google and YouTube, HTML5 was, implied PICT, looking more like a viable open standard.

How Bristol made a fudge from open source

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Editor's note: Computer Weekly's public sector IT blog is back, with a new blogger - this is the first entry by Mark Ballard, an experienced writer with a history of great scoops on public sector IT, who will be filing his insights regularly during a time when public sector technology is under greater focus than ever.

Bristol City's Council Cabinet passed its controversial ICT strategy last week. And it went without a hitch.

Unless you happen to use open source software. Then it went the way of many another open source project, like a clown's car.

And this not merely because the council decided to buy Microsoft software licences for 7,000 desktops, effectively throwing a five-year old Linux strategy out with the rubbish.

Bristol webcasted the event in a Microsoft format. You had little hope of watching it from a Linux machine unless you were nerd enough to troubleshoot the incompatibility yourself.

Not that you would have missed anything. Council Cabinet meetings are merely ceremonial anyway. This LibDem Cabinet had already decided to approve its LibDem ICT policy.

It looked remarkably similar to any other LibDem policy in power. Call it a fudge if you like. Call it deluded, or snake oil. You may even call it a heroic stand against the forces of Conservatism. But the effect is the same: declare open source and buy Microsoft.

Ladyboys

But for Councillor Mark Wright, that would have been the end of it. Wright is a golem someone made from powerful LibDem icons in the Stoney Littleton Barrow on the night of the Flower Moon.

So he's a rocket scientist and software engineer who wears a goatee. His only declarations of interest to the council authorities have been his membership of numerous charitable, church, school and civil rights bodies.

The only time he ever accepted hospitality as a councillor was to watch African music performed with a hiphop beat. Apart from the time he accepted tickets to see "The Ladyboys of Bangkok" in Bristol Castle Park, which is as expected as well.

Satan

Being a died in the wool LibDem means he also "gets" open source software. He pushed through what was left of Bristol's open source policy after the "buy Microsoft" clause was put in against the only opposition it could possibly encounter: befuddlement and indifference.

Or ignorance and lethargy, as its called by the open source faithful.

It's the same attitude that makes people buy ready-made, frozen Yorkshire puddings instead of mixing their own batter: they may cost ten-times as much, taste half as good and be stuffed with E-numbers - but it's easier on a Sunday when the Eastenders Omnibus is on TV.

Some Bristol councillors were saying, 'Why don't you do us all a favour and just buy Microsoft'. The LibDem policy was to buy Microsoft, but then to squeeze open software and open standards into every bloody crack and crappy crevice they could find in the great Satan's hide.

Some people don't want the complication: just buy Microsoft, and let us all get back to our tea and scones, or class A's and piercings, or whatever it is that old ladies do to the pass the time in Bristol nowadays.

What swung them in the end was the fact that a fudged open source strategy was still cheaper than going all out with Microsoft. And it has the Big Society Zeitgeist: it costs less and can only work if the locals get involved.

This do-it-yourself computing is behind the most enlightening aspect of Bristol's policy. It's same idea with which do-gooders have tried to inflict open source software on Africa.

Why pay some leeching multinational for software, it goes, when it could be produced locally with all the progress in skills, wealth and health that would entail?

Gaga

The same refrain can now be heard in the Council Cabinet webcasts being broadcast from Bristol (though only by people with Microsoft software).

Cllr Wright, who as a Linux user cannot listen to his own Council webcasts, put it to Bristol's Cabinet thus: "Bristol is rich with small and medium-sized software and media companies, many of them with excellent open source and modern software skills.

"We want to help those companies grow, and ensure more IT spend of this council goes into the local economy instead of being mailed off to California, which is the situation at the moment with licence fees."

Microsoft is actually based in Redmond, Washington. But just think of any Imperial metropolis and you will get the picture. Think of 18th Century Liverpool, wage slave. The modern software economy has a familiarly infantilising dependency on colonial technology and capital.

Open source is therefore what development economists call intermediate technology. People like Wright hope the deprived corners of inequitable Britain will take to open source like toddlers to bicycles with stabilizers. Some years from now British enterprise will take off on its own and Microsoft will go the way of the East India Company.

Or imagine Microsoft as Ford and that Bristol is seeing the birth of Toyota. The problem is the only work Bristol City Council will have for local open source developers is in support of the Microsoft software they have been forced to buy because proprietary Microsoft standards are as sure a drain on progress as any protectionist trade agreement foisted by European colonial powers on hapless African chieftains.

That's not any reason to hate Microsoft, as they say. Not any more than a teenager might hate an overbearing parent.

It's all part of growing up. And the turn of generations. Something has to give. Because from Bristol's perspective, "the only realistic alternatives are revolution or continued dependency", to quote the development sociologist Ian Roxborough.

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