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COP26: Lord Maude on using open source to help fight against climate change

Public and private sector organisations need to pool their resources and collaborate to address the climate crisis by using open source technologies, urged Lord Maude during OpenUK’s COP26 event

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Can the tech community show us how to save the world?

Businesses and governments across the world could accelerate their technological efforts to arrest the pace of climate change by adopting open source-like ways of working, claims ex-Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude of Horsham

Speaking to Computer Weekly at OpenUK’s COP26 fringe event in Glasgow, Maude said taking an open, collaborative approach to tackling the urgent and complex issue of climate change would garner faster results compared with invested parties all trying to do their own thing.

By working together, organisations across the private and public sector could save huge amounts of time, energy and resources, and “unleash the innovation” needed to address the climate crisis.

“The open approach to technology makes its own contribution to energy conservation because you’re not constantly reinventing the wheel,” he said.

“The contribution that open can make through recycling ideas, encouraging collaboration, removing duplication [of effort] and replication… all of that can – in itself – be valuable.”

As defined by Maude during his keynote speech at the OpenUK Technology for Sustainability Day, taking an open approach to technology means companies making their software and hardware available to others to use and develop it further over time.

“This community collaborative approach builds the community faster, encourages sharing and collaboration and delivers high quality, rather than everyone trying to do their own thing,” he said. “Today, open source has led to the creation of some of the world’s most valuable technology companies,” he continued. “These are indications that open is now [something of] value.”

Promoting efficiency at government level

Much of Maude’s time at the Cabinet Office involved working on initiatives designed to help departments streamline their processes, become more efficient and transform the way they deliver public services.

Some of this work was delivered through the work of the coalition government’s Efficiency and Reform Group, which was operational between 2010 and 2014 and is credited with helping to cut the government’s operating costs by £52bn during this time.

“We [the Cabinet Office] had inherited government IT that was the most expensive in the world, [and I] don’t want to boast, but also notorious for car crash failures,” he told attendees. “We were ensnared in a spider’s web of huge, multi-year, impenetrable IT contracts with built-in dependence on proprietary products and exclusive services provided by a pretty narrow group of multi-national vendors.”

Maude also had a hand in creating the Government Digital Service (GDS) in 2011, which sought to revamp the way that government services are provided to citizens by moving to a digital-by-default delivery model, underpinned – wherever possible – by open source technologies.

One of GDS’s landmark projects was the creation of the Gov.uk website, which provides a single, centralised hub where citizens can find information about government services.

As detailed during the keynote, the creation of Gov.uk paved the way for nearly 2,000 government websites to be removed from the web, making it easier for citizens to find the information they need. “We onboarded the whole of government onto a single website, built rigorously around the needs of the user,” said Maude.

“Built largely in-house with open source code and code that has been used by numerous other governments; each one – of course – developing and enhancing the code for the benefit of themselves, but also for all of us. We broke open this closed system. We reformed how we procured citizen IT and unleashed a vibrant ecosystem.”

Read more about green issues and open source

He also touched on another initiative embarked on during his time in government that was designed to eradicate the duplication of IT resources at a datacentre level through the creation of the Cabinet Office’s private sector joint venture, Crown Hosting.

“One of the worst mischiefs we discovered laid in the opaque world of the government’s datacentre estate,” said Maude. “No-one knew where they were, how many there were, their location and who – if anyone – controlled them. 

“There was no coordination and hideously limited interoperability. There was absurd over-provisioning. Every department and agency – and often every part of every department and agency – had provided its own business continuity capacity. Unsurprisingly, in some parts of government, it emerged there was as much as 97% redundancy.”

To address this, Crown Hosting launched in March 2015. The venture was intended to help government departments shutter their datacentres by providing them with a centralised hosting environment where all of their legacy, on-premise workloads could reside.

“[It was] much more energy efficient, much more financially efficient and it lead to the eradication of vast swathes of redundancy,” said Maude. “So [using] this same approach: collaboration and communication, sharing, and recycling and reusing technology is needed today around climate change.”

Leaner, greener datacentres

Maude’s comments on this point came ahead of the launch at OpenUK’s event for its carbon-negative datacentre blueprint, Patchwork Kilt, which is geared towards encouraging datacentre operators to recycle and refurbish their under-utilised datacentre equipment.

The blueprint is still a work in progress, and the idea is that the open source community will throw its weight behind the initiative and contribute their own ideas about what can be done to make datacentres more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

On a related point, during his interview with Computer Weekly, Maude said one of the defining characteristics of COP26 was the willingness of private sector organisations to get involved with doing what needs to be done from a technology perspective to address climate change.

One of the reasons for that, he continued, is because time is running out to save the planet, which is why it is so important to pick up the pace of developing the technologies needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and hasten the renewable energy transition.

“What’s marking this COP out against previous ones is how the private sector has shown up, and how there is a real excitement around innovation, technological innovation and finding new ways to address climate change,” he told Computer Weekly.

“We’ve seen how the cost of renewables is plummeting compared with carbon, we’ve se how new technologies are emerging rapidly around electric vehicles, around carbon capture and the open approach to allowing and encouraging these technologies to be more widely available.

“The greater the extent to which that can permeate through climate change, technological change and innovation, the quicker the results will come through,” he said.

Read more on Datacentre energy efficiency and green IT

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