Governments are making increasingly effective use of Ubuntu in large-scale projects, from big data to little schools. There is growing confidence in open source in government quarters, and growing sophistication in how they engage with it.
But adopting open source is not just about replacing one kind of part with another. Open source is not just a substitute for shrink-wrapped proprietary software. It’s much more malleable in the hands of industry and users, and you can engage with it very differently as a result. I’m interested in hearing from thought leaders in the civil service on ways they think governments could get much more value with open source, by embracing that flexibility. For example, rather than one-size-fits-all software, why can’t we deliver custom versions of Ubuntu for different regions or countries or even departments and purposes? Could we enable the city government of Frankfurt to order PC’s with the Ubuntu German Edition pre-installed?
Or could we go further, and enable those governments to participate in the definition and production and certification process? So rather than having to certify exactly the same bits which everyone else is using, they could create a flavour which is still “certified Ubuntu” and fully compatible with the whole Ubuntu ecosystem, can still be ordered pre-installed from global providers like Dell and Lenovo, but has the locally-certified collection of software, customizations, and certifications layered on top?
If we expand our thinking beyond “replacing what went before”, how could we make it possible for the PC companies to deliver much more relevant offerings, and better value to governments by virtue of free software? Most of the industry processes and pipelines were set up with brittle, fixed, proprietary software in mind. But we’re now in a position to drive change, if there’s a better way to do it, and customers to demand it.
So, for a limited time only, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org (there were just too many cultural references there to resist, and it’s not a mailbox that will be needed again soon ;). If you are in the public service, or focused on the way governments and civic institutions can use open source beyond simply ordering large numbers of machines at a lower cost, drop me a note and let’s strike up a conversation.
Here are a few seed thoughts for exploration and consideration.
Local or national Ubuntu editions, certified and pre-installed by global brands
Lots of governments now buy PC’s from the world market with Ubuntu pre-installed. Several Canadian tenders have been won by companies bidding with Ubuntu pre-installed on PC’s. The same is true in Brazil and Argentina, in China and India and Spain and Germany. We’re seeing countries or provinces that previously had their own-brand local Linux, which they had to install build locally and install manually, shifting towards pre-order with Ubuntu.
In part, this is possible because the big PC brands have built up enough experience and confidence working with Canonical and Ubuntu to be able to respond to those tenders. You can call up Dell or Lenovo and order tens of thousands of laptops or desktops with Ubuntu pre-installed, and they will show up on time, certified. The other brands are following. It has been a lot of work to reach that point, but we’ve got the factory processes all working smoothly from Shenzen to Taipei. If you want tens of thousands of units, it all works well.
But Ubuntu, or free software in general, is not Windows. You shouldn’t have to accept the one-size-fits all story. We saw all of those local editions, or “national linux”, precisely because of the desire that regions have to build something that really suits them well. And Ubuntu, with it’s diversity of packages, open culture and remix-friendly licensing is a very good place to start. Many of the Spanish regional distro’s, for example, are based on Ubuntu. They have the advantage of being shaped to suit local needs better than we can with vanilla Ubuntu, but the disadvantage of being hard to certify with major ISV’s or IHV’s.
I’m interested in figuring out how we can formalise that flexibility, so that we can get the best of both worlds: local customizations and preferences expressed in a compatible way with the rest of the Ubuntu ecosystem, so they can take advantage of all the software and skills and certifications that the ecosystem and brand bring. And so they can order it pre-installed from any major global PC company, no problem, and upgrade to the next version of Ubuntu without losing all the customization that work that they did.
Security certifications by local agencies, with policy frameworks and updates
A European defence force has recently adopted Ubuntu widely as part of an agility-enhancing strategy that gives soldiers and office workers secure desktop capabilities from remote locations like… home, or out in the field. There’s some really quite sexy innovation there, but there’s also Ubuntu as we know and love it. In the process of doing the work, it emerged that their government has certified some specific versions of key apps like OpenVPN, and it would be very useful to them if they could ensure that those versions were the ones in use widely throughout the government.
Of course, today, that means manually installing the right version every time, and tracking updates. But Ubuntu could do that work, if it knew enough about the requirements and the policies, and there was a secure way to keep those policies up to date. Could we make the operating system responsive to such policies, even where it isn’t directly managed by some central infrastructure? If Ubuntu “knows” that it’s supposed to behave in a particular way, can we make it do much of the work itself?
The same idea is useful in an organizational setting, too. And the key question is whether we can do that, while still retaining both access to the wider Ubuntu ecosystem, and compatibility with factory processes, so these machines could be ordered and arrive pre-installed and ready to go.
Local cultural customization
On a less securocratic note, the idea of Ubuntu being tailored to local culture is very appealing. Every region or community has its news sites, it’s languages, it’s preferred apps and protocols and conventions. Can we expand the design and definition of the Ubuntu experience so that it adapts naturally to those norms in a way much richer and more meaningful than we can with Windows today?
What would the key areas of customisation be? Who would we trust to define them? How would we combine the diversity of our LoCo communities with the leadership of Ubuntu and the formality of government or regional authorities? Would we *want* to do that? It’s a very interesting topic, because the value of having officially recognised platforms is just about on a par with the value of having agile, crowdsourced and community-driven customisation. Nevertheless, could we find a model whereby governments or civil groups could underwrite the creation of recognised editions of Ubuntu that adapt themselves to local cultural norms? Would we get a better experience for human beings if we did that?
Local skills development
Many of the “national linux” efforts focus on building small teams of engineers and designers and translators that are tasked with bringing a local flavour to the technology or content in the distro. We have contributors from almost (perhaps actually?) every country, and we have Canonical members in nearly 40 countries. Could those two threads weave together in an interesting way? I’m often struck, when I meet those teams, at the awkwardness of teams that feel like start-ups, working inside government departments – it’s never seemed an ideal fit for either party.
Sometimes the teams are very domain focused; one such local-Linux project is almost entirely staffed by teachers, because the genesis of the initiative was in school computing, and they have done well for that purpose.
But could we bring those two threads together? The Ubuntu-is-distributed-already and the local-teams-hired-to-focus-on-local-work threads seem highly complimentary; could we create teams which are skilled in distro development work, managed as part of the broader Ubuntu effort, but tasked with local priorities?
Public investments in sector leadership
Savvy governments are starting to ensure that research and development that they fund is made available under open licenses. Whether that’s open content licensing, or open source licensing, or RAND-Z terms, there’s a sensible view that information or tools paid for with public money should be accessible to that public on terms that let them innovate further or build businesses or do analysis of their own.
Some of that investment turns out to be software. For example, governments might prioritise genomics, or automotive, or aerospace, and along the way they might commission chunks of software that are relevant. How could we make that software instantly available to anybody running the relevant local flavour of Ubuntu? Would we do the same with content? How do we do that without delivering Newspeak to the desktop? Are there existing bodies of software which could be open sourced, but they don’t have a natural home, they’re essentially stuck on people’s hard drives or tapes?
There are multiple factors driving the move of public institutions to open source – mainly the recognition, after many years, of the quality and flexibility that an open platform provides. Austerity is another source of motivation to change. But participation, the fact that open source can be steered and shaped to suit the needs of those who use it simply through participating in open projects, hasn’t yet been fully explored. Food for thought.
And there’s much more to explore. If this is interesting to you, and you’re in a position to participate in building something that would actually get used in such a context, then please get in touch. Directly via The Governator, or via my office.