Archive for the ‘Norway’ Category
I have had reason to consider the way organisations make technology choices in recent months, particularly where the public sector is concerned, and although my conclusions may not come as a surprise to some people, I think they sum up fairly well how bad decisions get made even if the intentions behind them are supposedly good ones. Approaching such matters from a technological point of view, being informed about things like interoperability, systems diversity, the way people adopt and use technology, and the details of how various technologies work, it can be easy to forget that decisions around acquisitions and strategies are often taken by people who have no appreciation of such things and no time or inclination to consider them either: as far as decision makers are concerned, such things are mere details that obscure the dramatic solution that shows them off as dynamic leaders getting things done.
Assuming the Position
So, assume for a moment that you are a decision-maker with decisions to make about technology, that you have in your organisation some problems that may or may not have technology as their root cause, and that because you claim to listen to what people in your organisation have to say about their workplace, you feel that clear and decisive measures are required to solve some of those problems. First of all, it is important to make sure that when people complain about something, they are not mixing that thing up with something else that really makes their life awkward, but let us assume that you and your advisers are aware of that issue and are good at getting to the heart of the real problem, whatever that may be. Next, people may ask for all sorts of things that they want but do not actually need – “an iPad in every meeting room, elevator and lavatory cubicle!” – and even if you also like the sound of such wild ideas, you also need to be able to restrain yourself and to acknowledge that it would simply be imprudent to indulge every whim of the workforce (or your own). After all, neither they nor you are royalty!
With distractions out of the way, you can now focus on the real problems. But remember: as an executive with no time for detail, the nuances of a supposedly technological problem – things like why people really struggle with some task in their workplace and what technical issues might be contributing to this discomfort – these things are distractions, too. As someone who has to decide a lot of things, you want short and simple summaries and to give short and simple remedies, delegating to other people to flesh out the details and to make things happen. People might try and get you to understand the detail, but you can always delegate the task of entertaining such explanations and representations to other people, naturally telling them not to waste too much time on executing the plan.
On the Wrong Foot
So, let us just consider what we now know (or at least suspect) about the behaviour of someone in an executive position who has an organisation-wide problem to solve. They need to demonstrate leadership, vision and intent, certainly: it is worth remembering that such positions are inherently political, and if there is anything we should all know about politics by now, it is that it is often far more attractive to make one’s mark, define one’s legacy, fulfil one’s vision, reserve one’s place in the history books than it is to just keep things running efficiently and smoothly and to keep people generally satisfied with their lot in life; this principle alone explains why the city of Oslo is so infatuated with prestige projects and wants to host the Winter Olympics in a few years’ time (presumably things like functioning public transport, education, healthcare, even an electoral process that does not almost deliberately disenfranchise entire groups of voters, will all be faultless by then). It is far more exciting being a politician if you can continually announce exciting things, leaving the non-visionary stuff to your staff.
Executives also like to keep things as uncluttered as possible, even if the very nature of a problem is complicated, and at their level in the organisation they want the explanations and the directives to be as simple as possible. Again, this probably explains the “rip it up and start over” mentality that one sees in government, especially after changes in government even if consecutive governments have ideological similarities: it is far better to be seen to be different and bold than to be associated with your discredited predecessors.
But what do these traits lead to? Well, let us return to an organisational problem with complicated technical underpinnings. Naturally, decision-makers at the highest levels will not want to be bored with the complications – at the classic “10000 foot” view, nothing should be allowed to encroach on the elegant clarity of the decision – and even the consideration of those complications may be discouraged amongst those tasked to implement the solution. Such complications may be regarded as a legacy of an untidy and unruly past that was not properly governed or supervised (and are thus mere symptoms of an underlying malaise that must be dealt with), and the need to consider them may draw time and resources away from an “urgently needed” solution that deals with the issue no matter what it takes.
How many times have we been told “not to spend too much time” on something? And yet, that thing may need to be treated thoroughly so that it does not recur over and over again. And as too many people have come to realise or experience, blame very often travels through delegation: people given a task to see through are often deprived of resources to do it adequately, but this will not shield them from recriminations and reprisals afterwards.
It should not demand too much imagination to realise that certain important things will be sacrificed or ignored within such a decision-making framework. Executives will seek simplistic solutions that almost favour an ignorance of the actual problem at hand. Meanwhile, the minions or underlings doing the work may seek to stay as close as possible to the exact word of the directive handed down to them from on high, abandoning any objective assessment of the problem domain, so as to be able to say if or when things go wrong that they were only following the instructions given to them, and that as everything falls to pieces it was the very nature of the vision that led to its demise rather than the work they did, or that they took the initiative to do something “unsanctioned” themselves.
The Magic Single Vendor Temptation
We can already see that an appreciation of the finer points of a problem will be an early casualty in the flawed framework described above, but when pressure also exists to “just do something” and when possible tendencies to “make one’s mark” lie just below the surface, decision-makers also do things like ignore the best advice available to them, choosing instead to just go over the heads of the people they employ to have opinions about matters of technology. Such antics are not uncommon: there must be thousands or even millions of people with the experience of seeing consultants breeze into their workplace and impart opinions about the work being done that are supposedly more accurate, insightful and valuable than the actual experiences of the people paid to do that very work. But sometimes hubris can get the better of the decision-maker to the extent that their own experiences are somehow more valid than those supposed experts on the payroll who cannot seem to make up their minds about something as mundane as which technology to use.
And so, the executive may be tempted to take a page from their own playbook: maybe they used a product in one of their previous organisations that had something to do with the problem area; maybe they know someone in their peer group who has an opinion on the topic; maybe they can also show that they “know about these things” by choosing such a product. And with so many areas of life now effectively remedied by going and buying a product that instantly eradicates any deficiency, need, shortcoming or desire, why would this not work for some organisational problem? “What do you mean ‘network provisioning problems’? I can get the Internet on my phone! Just tell everybody to do that!”
When the tendency to avoid complexity meets the apparent simplicity of consumerism (and of solutions encountered in their final form in the executive’s previous endeavours), the temptation to solve a problem at a single stroke or a single click of the “buy” button becomes great indeed. So what if everyone affected by the decision has different needs? The product will surely meet all those needs: the vendor will make sure of that. And if the vendor cannot deliver, then perhaps those people should reconsider their needs. “I’ve seen this product work perfectly elsewhere. Why do you people have to be so awkward?” After all, the vendor can work magic: the salespeople practically told us so!
The Threat to Diversity
In those courses in my computer science degree that dealt with the implementation of solutions at the organisational level, as opposed to the actual implementation of software, attempts were made to impress upon us students the need to consider the requirements of any given problem domain because any solution that neglects the realities of the problem domain will struggle with acceptance and flirt with failure. Thus, the impatient executive approach involving the single vendor and their magic product that “does it all” and “solves the problem” flirts openly and readily with failure.
Technological diversity within an organisation frequently exists for good reason, not to irritate decision-makers and their helpers, and the larger the organisation the larger the potential diversity to be found. Extrapolating from narrow experiences – insisting that a solution must be good enough for everyone because “it is good enough for my people” – risks neglecting the needs of large sections of an organisation and denying the benefits of diversity within the organisation. In turn, this risks the health of those parts of an organisation whose needs have now been ignored.
But diversity goes beyond what people happen to be using to do their job right now. By maintaining the basis for diversity within an organisation, it remains possible to retain the freedom for people to choose the most appropriate systems and platforms for their work. Conversely, undermining diversity by imposing a single vendor solution on everyone, especially when such solutions also neglect open standards and interoperability, threatens the ability for people to make choices central to their own work, and thus threatens the vitality of that work itself.
Stories abound of people in technical disciplines who “also had to have a Windows computer” to do administrative chores like fill out their expenses, hours, travel claims, and all the peripheral tasks in a workplace, even though they used a functioning workstation or other computer that would have been adequate to perform the same chores within a framework that might actually have upheld interoperability and choice. Who pays for all these extra computers, and who benefits from such redundancy? And when some bright spark in the administration suggests throwing away the “special” workstation, putting administrative chores above the real work, what damage does this do to the working environment, to productivity, and to the capabilities of the organisation?
Moreover, the threat to diversity is more serious than many people presumably understand. Any single vendor solution imposed across an organisation also threatens the independence of the institution when that solution also informs and dictates the terms under which other solutions are acquired and introduced. Any decision-maker who regards their “one product for everybody” solution as adequate in one area may find themselves supporting a “one vendor for everything” policy that infects every aspect of the organisation’s existence, especially if they are deluded enough to think that they getting a “good deal” by buying all their things from that one vendor and thus unquestioningly going along with it all for “economic reasons”. At that point, one has to wonder whether the organisation itself is in control of its own acquisitions, systems or strategies any longer.
Somebody Else’s Problem
People may find it hard to get worked up about the tools and systems their employer uses. Surely, they think, what people have chosen to run a part of the organisation is a matter only for those who work with that specific thing from one day to the next. When other people complain about such matters, it is easy to marginalise them and to accuse them of making trouble for the sake of doing so. But such reactions are short-sighted: when other people’s tools are being torn out and replaced by something less than desirable, bystanders may not feel any urgency to react or even think about showing any sympathy at all, but when tendencies exist to tackle other parts of an organisation with simplistic rationalisation exercises, who knows whose tools might be the next ones to be tampered with?
And from what we know from unfriendly solutions that shun interoperability and that prefer other solutions from the same vendor (or that vendor’s special partners), when one person’s tool or system gets the single vendor treatment, it is not necessarily only that person who will be affected: suddenly, other people who need to exchange information with that person may find themselves having to “upgrade” to a different set of tools that are now required for them just to be able to continue that exchange. One person’s loss of control may mean that many people lose control of their working environment, too. The domino effect that follows may result in an organisation transformed for the worse based only on the uninformed gut instincts of someone with the power to demand that something be done the apparently easy way.
Getting the Message Across
For those of us who want to see Free Software and open standards in organisations, the dangers of the top-down single vendor strategy are obvious, but other people may find it difficult to relate to the issues. There are, however, analogies that can be illustrative, and as I perused a publication related to my former employer I came across an interesting complaint that happens to nicely complement an analogy I had been considering for a while. The complaint in question is about some supplier management software that insists that bank account numbers can only have 18 digits at most, but this fails to consider the situation where payments to Russian and Chinese accounts might need account numbers with more than 18 digits, and the complainant vents his frustration at “the new super-elite of decision makers” who have decided that they know better than the people actually doing the work.
If that “super-elite” were to call all the shots, their solution would surely involve making everyone get an account with an account number that could only ever have 18 digits. “Not supported by your bank? Change bank! Not supported in your country? Change your banking country!” They might not stop there, either: why not just insist on everyone having an account at just one organisation-mandated bank? “Who cares if you don’t want a customer relationship with another bank? You want to get paid, don’t you?”
At one former employer of mine, setting up a special account at a particular bank was actually how things were done, but ignoring peculiarities related to the nature of certain kinds of institutions, making everyone needlessly conform through some dubiously justified, executive-imposed initiative whether it be requiring them to have an account with the organisation’s bank, or requiring them to use only certain vendor-sanctioned software (and as a consequence requiring them to buy certain vendor-sanctioned products so that they may have a chance of using them at work or to interact with their workplace from home) is an imposition too far. Rationalisation is a powerful argument for shaking things up, but it is often used by those who do not care how much it manages to transfer the inconvenience in an organisation to the individual and to other parties.
Bearing the Costs
We have seen how the organisational cost of short-sighted, buy-and-forget decision-making can end up being borne by those whose interests have been ignored or marginalised “for the good of the organisation”, and we can see how this can very easily impose costs across the whole organisation, too. But another aspect of this way of deciding things can also be costly: in the hurry to demonstrate the banishment of an organisational problem with a flourish, incremental solutions that might have dealt with the problem more effectively can become as marginalised as the influence of the people tasked with the job of seeing any eventual solution through. When people are loudly demanding improvements and solutions, an equally dramatic response probably does not involve reviewing the existing infrastructure, identifying areas that can provide significant improvement without significant inconvenience or significant additional costs, and committing to improve the existing solutions quietly and effectively.
Thus, when faced with disillusionment – that people may have decided for themselves that whatever it was that they did not like is now beyond redemption – decision-makers are apt to pander to such disillusionment by replacing any existing thing with something completely new. Especially if it reinforces their own blinkered view of an organisational problem or “confirms” what they “already know”, decision-makers may gladly embrace such dramatic acts as a demonstration of the resolve expected of a decisive leader as they stand to look good by visibly banishing the source of disillusionment. But when such pandering neglects relatively inexpensive, incremental improvements and instead incurs significant costs and disruptions for the organisation, one can justifiably question the motivations behind such dramatic acts and the level of competence brought to bear on resolving the original source of discomfort.
Thinking that putting down money with a single vendor will solve everybody’s problems, purging diversity from an organisation and stipulating the uniformity encouraged by that vendor, is an overly simplistic and even deluded approach to organisational change. Change in any organisation can be very expensive and must therefore be managed carefully. Change for the sake of change is therefore incredibly irresponsible. And change imposed to gratify the perception of change or progress, made on a superficial basis and incurring unnecessary and avoidable burdens within an organisation whilst risking that organisation’s independence and viability, is nothing other than indefensible.
Be wary of the “single vendor fixes it all” delusion, especially if all the signs point to a decision made at the highest levels of your organisation: it is the sign of the organisational panic button being pressed while someone declares “Mission Accomplished!” Because at the same time they will be thinking “We will have progress whatever the cost!” And you, not them, will be the one bearing the cost.
Things were certainly different when I started my university degree many years ago. For a start, institutions of higher education provided for many people their first encounter with the Internet, although for those of us in the United Kingdom, the very first encounter with wide area networking may well have involved X.25 and PAD terminals, and instead of getting a “proper” Internet e-mail address, it may have been the case that an address only worked within a particular institution. (My fellow students quickly became aware of an Internet mail gateway in our department and the possibility, at least, of sending Internet mail, however.)
These days, students beginning their university studies have probably already been using the Internet for most of their lives, will have had at least one e-mail address as well as accounts for other online services, may be publishing blog entries and Web pages, and maybe even have their own Web applications accessible on the Internet. For them, arriving at a university is not about learning about new kinds of services and new ways of communicating and collaborating: it is about incorporating yet more ways of working online into their existing habits and practices.
So what should students expect from their university in terms of services? Well, if things have not changed that much over the years, they probably need a means of communicating with the administration, their lecturers and their fellow students, along with some kind of environment to help them do their work and provide things like file storage space and the tools they won’t necessarily be able to provide themselves. Of course, students are more likely to have their own laptop computer (or even a tablet) these days, and it is entirely possible that they could use that for all their work, subject to the availability of tools for their particular course, and since they will already be communicating with others on the Internet, communicating with people in the university is not really anything different from what they are already doing. But still, there are good reasons for providing infrastructure for students to use, even if those students do end up working from their laptops, uploading assignments when they are done, and forwarding their mail to their personal accounts.
The Student Starter Kit
First and foremost, a university e-mail account is something that can act as an official communications channel. One could certainly get away with using some other account, perhaps provided by a free online service like Google or Yahoo, but if something went wrong somewhere – the account gets taken over by an imposter and then gets shut down, for example – that channel of communication gets closed and important information may be lost.
The matter of how students carry out their work is also important. In computer science, where my experiences come from and where computer usage is central to the course, it is necessary to have access to suitable tools to undertake assignments. As everyone who has used technology knows, the matter of “setting stuff up” is one that often demands plenty of time and distracts from the task at hand, and when running a course that requires the participants to install programs before they can make use of the learning materials, considerable amounts of time are wasted on installing programs and troubleshooting. Thus, providing a ready-to-use environment allows students to concentrate on their work and to more easily relate to the learning materials.
There is the matter of the nature of teaching environments and the tools chosen. Teaching environments also allow students to become familiar with desirable practices when finding solutions to the problems in their assignments. In software engineering, for example, the use of version control software encourages a more controlled and rational way of refining a program under development. Although the process itself may not be recognised and rewarded when an assignment is assessed, it allows students to see how things should be done and to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn provided by the institution.
Naturally, it should be regarded as highly undesirable to train students to use specific solutions provided by selected vendors, as opposed to educating them to become familiar with the overarching concepts and techniques of a particular field. Schools and universities are not vocational training institutions, and they should seek to provide their students with transferable skills and knowledge that can be applied generally, instead of taking the easy way out and training those students to perform repetitive tasks in “popular” software that gives them no awareness of why they are doing those things or any indication that the rest of the world might be doing them in other ways.
So even if students arrive at their place of learning somewhat equipped to learn, communicate and do their work, there may still be a need for a structured environment to be provided for them. At that place of learning they will join those employed there who already have a structured environment in place to be able to do their work, whether that is research, teaching or administration. It makes a certain amount of sense for the students to join those other groups in the infrastructure already provided. Indeed, considering the numbers of people involved, with the students outnumbering all other groups put together by a substantial margin, one might think that the needs of the students would come first. Sadly, things do not always work that way.
First of all, students are only ever “passing through”. While some university employees may be retained for similar lengths of time – especially researchers and others on temporary contracts (a known problem with social and ethical dimensions of its own) – others may end up spending most of their working life there. As a result, the infrastructure is likely to favour such people over time as their demands are made known year after year, with any discomfort demanding to be remedied by a comfortable environment that helps those people do their work. Not that there is anything wrong with providing employees with a decent working environment: employers should probably do even more to uphold their commitments in this regard.
But when the demands and priorities of a relatively small group of people take precedence over what the majority – the students – need, one can argue that such demands and priorities have begun to subvert the very nature of the institution. Imposing restrictions on students or withholding facilities from them just to make life easier for the institution itself is surely a classic example of “the tail wagging the dog”. After all, without students and teaching an institution of higher education can no longer be considered a university.
With students showing up every year and with an obligation to provide services to them, one might imagine that an institution might take the opportunity to innovate and to evaluate ways in which it might stand out amongst the competition, truly looking after the group of people that in today’s increasingly commercialised education sector are considered the institution’s “customers”. When I was studying for my degree, the university’s mathematics department was in the process of developing computer-aided learning software for mathematics, which was regarded as a useful way of helping students improve their understanding of the course material through the application of knowledge recently acquired. However, such attempts to improve teaching quality are only likely to get substantial funding either through teaching-related programmes or by claiming some research benefit in the field of teaching or in another field. Consequently, developing software to benefit teaching is likely to be an activity located near the back of the queue for attention in a university, especially amongst universities whose leadership regard research commercialisation as their top priority.
So it becomes tempting for universities to minimise costs around student provision. Students are not meant to be sophisticated users whose demands must be met, mostly because they are not supposed to be around for long enough to be comfortable and for those providing services to eventually have to give in to student demands. Moreover, university employees are protected by workplace regulation (in theory, at least) whereas students are most likely protected by much weaker regulation. To take one example, whereas a university employee could probably demand appropriate accessibility measures for a disability they may have, students may have to work harder to get their disabilities recognised and their resulting needs addressed.
The Costs of Doing Business
So, with universities looking to minimise costs and to maximise revenue-generating opportunities, doing things like running infrastructure in a way that looks after the needs of the student and researcher populations seems like a distraction. University executives look to their counterparts in industry and see that outsourcing might offer a solution: why bother having people on the payroll when there are cloud computing services run by friendly corporations?
Let us take the most widely-deployed service, e-mail, as an example. Certainly, many students and employees might not be too concerned with logging into a cloud-based service to access their university e-mail – many may already be using such services for personal e-mail, and many may already be forwarding their university e-mail to their personal account – and although they might be irritated by the need to use one service when they have perhaps selected another for their personal use, a quick login, some adjustments to the mail forwarding settings, and logging out (never to return) might be the simple solution. The result: the institution supposedly saves money by making external organisations responsible for essential services, and the users get on with using those services in the ways they find most bearable, even if they barely take advantage of the specially designated services at all.
However, a few things may complicate this simplified scenario somewhat: reliability, interoperability, lock-in, and privacy. Reliability is perhaps the easiest to consider: if “Office 365” suddenly becomes “Office 360” for a few days, cloud-based services cannot be considered suitable for essential services, and if the “remedy” is to purchase infrastructure to bail out the cloud service provider, one has to question the decision to choose such an external provider in the first place. As for interoperability, if a user prefers Gmail, say, over some other hosted e-mail solution where that other solution doesn’t exchange messages properly with Gmail, that user will be in the awkward position of having to choose between a compromised experience in their preferred solution or an experience they regard as inconvenient or inferior. With services more exotic and less standardised than e-mail, the risk is that a user’s preferred services or software will not work with the chosen cloud-based service at all. Either way, users are forced to adopt services they dislike or otherwise have objections to using.
With users firmly parked on a specific vendor’s cloud-based platform, the temptation will naturally grow amongst some members of an organisation to “take advantage” of the other services on that platform whether they support interoperability or not. Users will be forced to log into the solution they would rather avoid or ignore in order to participate in processes and activities initiated by those who have actively embraced that platform. This is rather similar to the experience of getting a Microsoft Office document in an e-mail by someone requesting that one reads it and provides feedback, even though recipients may not have access to a compatible version of Microsoft Office or even run the software in question at all. In an organisational context, legitimate complaints about poor workflow, inappropriate tool use, and even plain unavailability of software (imagine being a software developer using a GNU/Linux or Unix workstation!) are often “steamrollered” by management and the worker is told to “deal with it”. Suddenly, everyone has to adapt to the tool choices of a few managerial product evangelists instead of participating in a standards-based infrastructure where the most important thing is just getting the work done.
We should not be surprised that vendors might be very enthusiastic to see organisations adopt both their traditional products as well as cloud-based platforms. Not only are the users exposed to such vendors’ products, often to the exclusion of any competing or alternative products, but by having to sign up for those vendors’ services, organisations are effectively recruiting customers for the vendor. Indeed, given the potential commercial benefits of recruiting new customers – in the academic context, that would be a new group of students every year – it is conceivable that vendors might offer discounts on products, waive the purchase prices, or even pay organisations in the form of services rendered to get access to new customers and increased revenue. Down the line, this pays off for the vendor: its organisational customers are truly locked in, cannot easily switch to other solutions, and end up paying through the nose to help the vendor recruit new customers.
How Much Are You Worth?
All of the above concerns are valid, but the most important one of all for many people is that of privacy. Now, most people have a complicated relationship with privacy: most people probably believe that they deserve to have a form of privacy, but at the same time many people are quite happy to be indiscreet if they think no-one else is watching or no-one else cares about what they are doing.
So, they are quite happy to share information about themselves (or content that they have created or acquired themselves) with a helpful provider of services on the Internet. After all, if that provider offers services that permit convenient ways of doing things that might be awkward to do otherwise, and especially if no money is changing hands, surely the meagre “payment” of tedious documents, mundane exchanges of messages, unremarkable images and videos, and so on, all with no apparently significant value or benefit to the provider, gets the customer a product worth far more in return. Everybody wins!
Privacy on Parade
When everyone is seeking to use your content for their own goals, whether to promote their own businesses or to provide nice imagery to make their political advocacy more palatable, or indeed to support any number of potential and dubious endeavours that you may not agree with, it is understandable that you might want to be a bit more cautious about who wants a piece of your content and what they intend to do with it once they have it. Consequently, you might decide that you only want to deal with the companies and services you feel you can trust.
One might claim that such trivia is of no interest to anyone, and certainly not to commercial entities who just want to sell advertising or gather demographic data or whatever supposedly harmless thing they might do with the mere usage of their services just to keep paying the bills and covering their overheads, but one should still be wary that information stored on some remote server in some distant country might somehow make its way to someone who might take a closer and not so benign interest in it. Indeed, the matter of the data residing in some environment beyond their control is enough for adopters of cloud computing to offer specially sanctioned exemptions and opt-outs. Maybe it is not so desirable that some foreign student writing about some controversial topic in their own country has their work floating around in the cloud, or as far as a university’s legal department is concerned, maybe it does not look so good if such information manages to wander into the wrong hands only for someone to ask the awkward question of why the information left the university’s own systems in the first place.
Cloud-based service providers are likely to respond to fears articulated about privacy violations and intrusions by insisting that such fears are disproportionate: that no-one is really looking at the data stored on their servers, that the data is encrypted somewhere/somehow, that if anything does look at the data it is merely an “algorithm” and not a person. Often these protests of innocence contradict each other, so that at any point in time there is at least one lie being told. But what if it is “only an algorithm” looking at your data? The algorithm will not be keeping its conclusions to itself.
How would you know what is really being done with your data? Not only is the code being run on a remote server, but with the most popular cloud services the important code is completely proprietary – service providers may claim to support Free Software and even contribute to it, but they do so only for part of their infrastructure – and you have no way of verifying any of their claims. Disturbingly, some companies want to enforce such practices within your home, too, so that when Microsoft claims that the camera on their most recent games console has to be active all the time but only for supposedly benign reasons and that the data is only studied by algorithms, the company will deny you the right to verify this for yourself. For all you know the image data could be uploaded somewhere, maybe only on command, and you would not only be none the wiser but you would also be denied the right to become wiser about the matter. And even if the images were not shared with mysterious servers, there are still unpleasant applications of “the algorithm”: it could, for example, count people’s faces and decide whether you were breaking the licensing conditions on a movie or other content by holding a “performance” that goes against the arbitrary licensing that accompanies a particular work.
Back in the world of the cloud, companies like Microsoft typically respond to criticism by pointing the finger at others. Through “shell” or “front” organisations the alleged faults of Microsoft’s competitors are brought to the attention of regulators, and in the case of the notorious FairSearch organisation, to take one example, the accusing finger is pointed at Google. We should all try and be aware of the misdeeds of corporations, that unscrupulous behaviour may have occurred, and we should insist that such behaviour be punished. But we should also not be distracted by the tactics of corporations that insist that all the problems reside elsewhere. “But Google!” is not a reason to stop scrutinising the record of a company shouting it out loud, nor is it an excuse for us to disregard any dubious behaviour previously committed by the company shouting it the loudest. (It is absurd that a company with a long history of being subject to scrutiny for anticompetitive practices – a recognised monopoly – should shout claims of monopoly so loudly, and it is even more absurd for anyone to take such claims at face value.)
We should be concerned about Google’s treatment of user privacy, but that should not diminish our concern about Microsoft’s treatment of user privacy. As it turns out, both companies – and several others – have some work to do to regain our trust.
I Do Not Agree
So why should students specifically be worried about all this? Does this not also apply to other groups, like anyone who is made to use software and services in their job? Certainly, this does affect more than just students, but students will probably be the first in line to be forced to accept these solutions or just not be able to take the courses they want at the institutions they want to attend. Even in countries with relatively large higher education sectors like the United Kingdom, it can be the case that certain courses are only available at a narrow selection of institutions, and if you consider a small country like Norway, it is entirely possible that some courses are only available at one institution. For students forced to choose a particular institution and to accept that institution’s own technological choices, the issue of their online privacy becomes urgent because such institutional changes are happening right now and the only way to work around them is to plan ahead and to make it immediately clear to those institutions that the abandonment of the online privacy rights (and other rights) of their “customers” is not acceptable.
Of course, none of this is much comfort to those working in private businesses whose technological choices are imposed on employees as a consequence of taking a job at such organisations. The only silver lining to this particular cloud is that the job market may offer more choices to job seekers – that they can try and identify responsible employers and that such alternatives exist in the first place – compared to students whose educational path may be constrained by course availability. Nevertheless, there exists a risk that both students and others may be confronted with having to accept undesirable conditions just to be able to get a study place or a job. It may be too disruptive to their lives not to “just live with it” and accept choices made on their behalf without their input.
Excuses from the Other Side
Recent events have probably made people wary of where their data goes and what happens with it once it has left their own computers, but merely being concerned and actually doing something are two different things. Individuals may feel helpless: all their friends use social networks and big name webmail services; withdrawing from the former means potential isolation, and withdrawing from the latter involves researching alternatives and trying to decide whether those alternatives can be trusted more than one of the big names. Certainly, those of us who develop and promote Free Software should be trying to provide trustworthy alternatives and giving less technologically-aware people the lifeline that they need to escape potentially exploitative services and yet maintain an active, social online experience. Not everyone is willing to sacrifice their privacy for shiny new online toys that supposedly need to rifle through your personal data to provide that shiny new online experience, nor is everyone likely to accept such constraints on their privacy when made aware of them. We should not merely assume that people do not care, would just accept such things, and thus do not need to be bothered with knowledge about such matters, either.
As we have already seen, individuals can make their own choices, but people in organisations are frequently denied such choices. This is where the excuses become more irrational and yet bring with them much more serious consequences. When an organisation chooses a solution from a vendor known to share sensitive information with other, potentially less friendly, parties, they might try and explain such reports away by claiming that such behaviour would never affect “business applications”, that such applications are completely separate from “consumer applications” (where surveillance is apparently acceptable, but no-one would openly admit to thinking this, of course), and that such a vendor would never jeopardise their relationship with customers because “as a customer we are important to them”.
But how do you know any of this? You cannot see what their online services are actually doing, who can access them secretly, whether people – unfriendly regimes, opportunistic law enforcement agencies, dishonest employees, privileged commercial partners of the vendor itself – actually do access your data, because how all that stuff is managed is secret and off-limits. You cannot easily inspect any software that such a vendor provides to you because it will be an inscrutable binary file, maybe even partially encrypted, and every attempt will have been made to forbid you from inspecting it both through licence agreements and legislation made at the request of exactly these vendors.
And how do you know that they value your business, that you are important to them? Is any business going to admit that no, they do not value your business, that you are just another trophy, that they share your private data with other entities? With documentation to the contrary exposing the lies necessary to preserve their reputation, how do you know you can believe anything they tell you at all?
It is all very well for an individual to make poor decisions based on wilful ignorance, but when an organisation makes poor decisions and then imposes them on other people for those people to suffer, this ignorance becomes negligence at the very least. In a university or other higher education institution, apparently at the bottom of the list of people to consult about anything, the bottoms on seats, the places to be filled, are the students: the first in line for whatever experiment or strategic misadventure is coming down the pipe of organisational reform, rationalisation, harmonisation, and all the other buzzwords that look great on the big screen in the boardroom.
Let us be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with storing content on some network-accessible service, provided that the conditions under which that content is stored and accessed uphold the levels of control and privacy that we as the owners of that data demand, and where those we have elected to provide such services to us deserve our trust precisely by behaving in a trustworthy fashion. We may indeed select a service provider or vendor who respects us, rather than one whose terms and conditions are unfathomable and who treats its users and their data as commodities to be traded for profits and favours. It is this latter class of service providers and vendors – ones who have virtually pioneered the corrupted notion of the consumer cloud, with every user action recorded, tracked and analysed – that this article focuses on.
Students should very much beware of being sent into the cloud: they have little influence and make for a convenient group of experimental subjects, with few powerful allies to defend their rights. That does not mean that everyone else can feel secure, shielded by employee representatives, trade unions, industry organisations, politicians, and so on. Every group pushed into the cloud builds the pressure on every subsequent group until your own particular group is pressured, belittled and finally coerced into resignation. Maybe you might want to look into what your organisation is planning to do, to insist on privacy-preserving infrastructure, and to advocate Free Software as the only effective way of building that infrastructure.
And beware of the excuses – for the favourite vendor’s past behaviour, for the convenience of the cloud, for the improbability that any undesirable stuff could happen – because after the excuses, the belittlement of the opposition, comes the betrayal: the betrayal of sustainable and decentralised solutions, the betrayal of the development of local and institutional expertise, the betrayal of choice and real competition, and the betrayal of your right to privacy online.
I was interested to read about the new Norwegian electronic voting administration system, EVA, and a degree of controversy about whether the system can scale up to handle the number of votes expected in Oslo during the upcoming parliamentary elections. What I find more controversial is the claim that the system has been made available as “open source” software. In fact, a quick look at the licence is enough to confirm that the source code is really only available as “shared source”: something which people may be able to download and consult, but which withholds the freedoms that should be associated with open source software (or Free Software, as we should really call it).
So, here is why the usage of the term “open source” is dishonest in this particular case:
- The rights offered to you (as opposed to the Norwegian authorities) cover only “testing, reviewing or evaluating the code”. (The authorities have geographical and usage restrictions placed on them.)
- The licence restricts use to “non-commercial purposes”.
- Anything else you might want to do requires you to get “written approval” from the vendors of the different parts of the system in question.
- The software is encumbered by patents, but there is no patent grant.
Lost in Translation
In fairness, the page covering the source code does say the following about the use of the term “open source” which I have translated from the Norwegian:
When we use the term “open source”, we do not mean that the entire solution can be regarded as “free software”, meaning that you can download the software, inspect it, change it, and use it however you like. Anyone can download and inspect the source code, but it may only be used to carry out Norwegian elections. The solution should be available for research, however, and you are allowed to develop it further for such academic purposes.
Why translate from Norwegian when the English is underneath in the same page? Here’s why:
When we are using the term “open source code”, we do not say that the source code as a whole is what’s known as “open source”, that is code that can be freely downloaded, examined, changed and used. Anyone can download our source code, but it is only permittable to use it for elections in Norway. However, research on the solution is allowed and you are hence allowed to develop the system for an academic purpose.
In other words, while there are people involved who are clearly aware of what Free Software is, they apparently reserve the right to misuse the term “open source” to mean something other than what it was intended to mean. By consulting the Norwegian text first, I even give them the benefit of the doubt, but the contradiction of saying that something both is and is not something else should have awakened a degree of guilt that this could be regarded as deception.
Now, one may argue that the Open Source Initiative should have been more aggressive in upholding its own brand and making sure that “open source” really does act as a guarantee of openness, but the “open” prefix is perhaps one of the most abused terms in the field of computing, and thus one might conclude that the OSI were fighting a losing battle from the outset. Of course, people might claim that the term “free software” is ambiguous or vague, which is why I prefer to write it as Free Software: the use of capital letters should at least get English readers unfamiliar with the term to wonder whether there is more involved than the mere juxtaposition of two widely-used words.
In Norwegian, “fri programvare” communicates something closer to what is meant by Free Software: the “fri” does not generally mean “for free” or “gratis”, but rather communicates a notion of freedom. I imagine that those who translated the text quoted above need to improve their terminology dictionary. Nevertheless, this does not excuse anyone who takes advantage of the potential ambiguity in the common sense perception of the term to promote something that has only superficial similarities to Free Software.
The Good, the Bad, and the Evry
I suppose we should welcome increased transparency in such important systems, and we should encourage more of the same in other areas. Nevertheless, with a substantial amount of activity in the field of electronic voting, particularly in the academic realm and in response to high-profile scandals (with some researchers even apparently experiencing persecution for their work), one has to wonder why the Norwegian government is not willing to work on genuinely open, Free Software electronic voting systems instead of partnering with commercial interests who, by advertising patent coverage, potentially threaten research in this area and thus obstruct societal progress, accountability and democracy.
One might suggest that the involvement of EDB ErgoGroup, now known as Evry, provides some answers to questions about how and where taxpayer money gets spent. With substantial state involvement in the company, either through the state-owned postal monopoly or the partly-state-owned incumbent telephone operator, one cannot help thinking that this is yet another attempt to funnel money to the usual beneficiaries of public contracts and to pick winners in an international market for electronic voting systems. Maybe, with voting problems, banking system problems and the resulting customer dissatisfaction, public departments and ministries think that this vendor needs all the help it can get, despite being appointed to a dominant position in the nation’s infrastructure and technology industry to the point of it all being rather anti-competitive. When the financial sector starts talking of monopolies, maybe the responsible adults need to intervene to bring a degree of proper functioning to the marketplace.
But regardless of who became involved and their own rewards for doing so, the Norwegian ministry responsible for this deception should be ashamed of itself! How about genuinely participating in and advancing the research and development of voting systems that everyone on the planet can freely use instead of issuing dishonest press releases and patronising accounts of how Norway doesn’t really need to learn from anyone? Because, by releasing patent-encumbered “shared source” and calling it “open source”, some decision makers and their communications staff clearly need lessons in at least one area: telling the truth.
I also find it distasteful that the documentation hosted on the government’s electoral site has adverts for proprietary software embedded in it, but I doubt that those working in the Microsoft monoculture even notice their presence. These people may be using taxpayer money to go shopping for proprietary products, but I do not see why they should then be advertising those products to us as well using our money.
There is a classic XKCD comic strip where the programmer, “slacking off” in the office and taking a break from doing work, clearly engaging in horseplay, issues the retort “Compiling!” to get his supervisor or peers off his back. It is seen as the ultimate excuse for not doing one’s work, immediately curtailing any further investigation of what really is going on in the corridor. Having recently been investigating some strategic public sector purchasing decisions, it occurred to me that something similar is going on in that area as well.
There’s an interesting case that came up a few years ago: Oslo municipality sought to acquire infrastructure for e-mail and related functionality. The scope of the tender covered “at least 30000 accounts” for client and server software, services and assistance, which is a pretty big tender but not unexpected given that the municipality is one of the largest single employers in Norway with almost 50000 employees (more statistics available here). Unfortunately, the additional documents are no longer available (and are generally not publicly available at the state procurement portal – you have to register as an interested party), but they are quoted in various places. Translating one particular requirement…
“Oslo municipality has standardised on Microsoft Office as office productivity software. It is therefore expected that solutions use MS Outlook 2003 and later as client.”
Two places where the offending requirements are reproduced are in complaints to the state procurement panel: 2009/124 and 2009/153. In these very similar complaints, it is pointed out that alternatives to Outlook can be offered as options (this is in the original tender), but that the municipality would only test proposed solutions with Outlook. As justification for insisting on Outlook compatibility, the municipality claimed that they had found “six different large companies of relevant software in connection with the drafting of the requirements”, and thus there was a basis for real competition. As a result, both complaints were rejected.
The Illusion of Compatibility
Now, one might claim that it is perfectly reasonable to want to acquire systems that work with the ones you already have. It is a bit like saying, “I’ve bought all this riding equipment: of course I want a horse!” The deeper issue here is whether anyone should be allowed to specify product compatibility to limit competition. In other words, when you just need transport to get around, why have you made your requirements so specific that you will only ever be getting a horse?
It is all very well demanding compatibility with a specific product, but when the means by which compatibility can be achieved are controlled by the vendor of that product, it is never going to be a fair competition for anyone trying to provide compatibility for their own separate products and solutions, especially when the vendor of the specified product is known to have used compatibility breakage to deliberately undermine the viability of competitors’ products. One response to this pitfall is to insist that those writing procurement tenders specify standards instead of products and that these standards must be genuinely open and not de-facto proprietary standards.
Unfortunately, the regulators of procurement do not seem to go even this far. The Norwegian government states that public sector institutions must support various standards, although the directorate concerned appears to have changed these obligations from the original directive and now insists that the dubious, forcibly- and incompletely-standardised Office Open XML document format must be accepted by the public sector in communications; they have also weakened the Internet publishing requirements for public sector institutions by permitting the use of various encumbered, cartel-controlled audio and video formats. For these changes, entertained in a review process, we can thank the likes of Statistics Norway who wanted “Word format” as well as OOXML to be permitted in the list of acceptable “standards”.
In any case, such directives only cover the surface of public sector activity, and the list of standards do not in general cover anything more than storage and interchange formats plus basic communications standards. This leaves quite a gap where established Internet standards exist but are not mandated, thus allowing proprietary protocols and technologies to insert themselves into infrastructure and pervert the processes of procurement and systems integration.
The Pretense of “Standards!”
But even if open standards were mandated in the public sector – a worthy and necessary measure – that wouldn’t mean that our work to ensure a level playing field – fairness in procurement – would be done. Because vendors can always advertise compliance with standards, they can still insist that their products be considered in any procurement contest, and even if those products do notionally support standards it does not mean that they will end up using them when deployed. For example, from the case of the Oslo municipality e-mail system, the councillor with responsibility for finance and development indicated the following:
“Oslo municipality is a complicated and comprehensive organisation and must take existing integration with specialist/bespoke systems into account. A procurement of other [non-Microsoft] end-user software will therefore result in unnecessary increases in costs for the municipality.”
In other words, even if existing software was acquired under the pretense that it supported standards, in deployment it may actually only function with other software using proprietary mechanisms, and the result of this is that newly-acquired software must also support these proprietary mechanisms. And so, a proprietary infrastructure grows, actively repelling components that employ open standards, with its custodians insisting that it is the fault of standards-compliant software that such an infrastructure would need to be dismantled almost in its entirety and replaced if even one standards-compliant component were to be admitted.
Who benefits the most from this? The vendor peddling the proprietary platforms and technologies that enable this morass of interdependency, of course. Make no mistake: any initial convenience promised by such a vendor fades away when the task of having to pursue an infrastructure strategy not dictated by outside interests is brought to bear on the purchaser. But such tasks are work, of course, and if there’s a way of avoiding it and insisting it doesn’t need attending to, a distraction can always be found.
And so, the horseplay continues under the excuse of “Standards!” when there is no real intent to uphold them or engage in the real work of maintaining a sustainable infrastructure that does not exclude open competition or channel public money to preferred vendors. Unlike the character in the comic strip whose code probably is still compiling, certain public sector institutions would have experienced a compilation error and be found out. It appears, unfortunately, that it is our job to peer around the cubicle partition and see what is happening on screen and perhaps to investigate the noises coming from the corridor. After all, our institutions don’t seem to be particularly concerned about doing so.
I recently had reason to respond to an article posted by the head of my former employer, the Rector of the University of Oslo, about an initiative to persuade students to come up with ideas for commercialisation to solve the urban challenges of the city of Oslo. In the article, the Rector brought up an “inspiring example” of such academic commercialisation: a company selling a security solution to the finance industry, possibly based on “an idea” originating in a student project and patented as part of the subsequent commercialisation strategy leading to the founding of that company.
My response made the following points:
- Patents stand counter to the academic principle of the dissemination of unencumbered knowledge, where people may come and learn, then make use of their new knowledge, skills and expertise. Universities are there to teach people and to undertake research without restricting how people in their own organisations and in other organisations may use knowledge and thus perform those activities themselves. Patents also act against the independent discovery and use of knowledge in a startlingly unethical fashion: people can be prevented from taking advantage of their own discoveries by completely unknown and inscrutable “rights holders”.
- Where patents get baked into attempts at commercialisation, not only does the existence of such patents have a “chilling effect” on others working in a particular field, but even with such patents starting life in the custody of the most responsible and benign custodians, financial adversity or other circumstances could lead to those patents being used aggressively to stifle competition and to intimidate others working in the same field.
- It is all very well claiming to support Open Access (particularly when snobbery persists about which journals one publishes in, and when a single paper in a “big name” journal will change people’s attitudes to the very same work whose aspects were already exposed without such recognition in other less well-known publications), but encouraging people to patent research at the same time is like giving with one hand while taking with the other.
- Research, development and “innovation” happens more efficiently when people don’t have to negotiate to be able to access and make use of knowledge. For those of us in the Free Software community who have seen how real progress can be made when resources – in our case, software – are freely usable by others through explicit and generous licensing, this is not news. But for others, this is a complete change of perspective that requires them to question their assumptions about the way society currently rewards the production of new work and to question the optimality of the system that grants such rewards.
On the one hand, I am grateful for the Rector’s response, but I feel somewhat disappointed with its substance. I must admit that the Rector is not the first person to favour the term “innovation”, but by now the term has surely lost all meaning and is used by every party to mean what they want it to mean, to be as broad or as narrow as they wish it to be, to be equivalent to work associated with various incentives such as patents, or to be a softer and more photogenic term than “invention” whose own usage may be contentious and even more intertwined with patents and specific kinds of legal instruments.
But looking beyond my terminological grumble, I remain unsatisfied:
- The Rector insists that openness should be the basis of the university’s activities. I agree, but what about freedoms? Just as the term “open source” is widely misunderstood and misused, being taken to mean that “you can look inside the box if you want (but don’t touch)” or “we will tell you what we do (but don’t request the details or attempt to do the same yourself)”, there is a gulf between openly accessible knowledge and freely usable knowledge. Should we not commit to upholding freedoms as well?
- The assertion is made that in some cases, commercialisation may be the way innovations are made available to society. I don’t dispute that sometimes you need to find an interested and motivated organisation to drive adoption of new technology or new solutions, but I do dispute that society should grant monopolies on entire fields of endeavour to organisations wishing to invest in such opportunities. Monopolies, whether state-granted or produced by the market, can have a very high cost to society. Is it not right to acknowledge such costs and to seek more equitable ways of delivering research to a wider audience?
- Even if the Rector’s mention of an “inspiring example” had upheld the openness he espouses and had explicitly mentioned the existence of patents, is it ethical to erect a fence around a piece of research and to appoint someone as the gatekeeper even if you do bother to mention that this has been done?
Commercialisation in academia is nothing new. The university where I took my degree had a research park even when I started my studies there, and that was quite a few years ago, and the general topic has been under scrutiny for quite some time. When I applied for a university place, the politics of the era in question were dominated by notions of competition, competitiveness, market-driven reform, league tables and rankings, with schools and hospitals being rated and ranked in a misguided and/or divisive exercise to improve and/or demolish the supposedly worst-performing instances of each kind.
Metrics of “research excellence” are nothing new, either. It seemed to me that some university departments were obsessed with the idea of research rankings. I recall at least one occasion during the various tours of university departments of being asked which other universities us potential applicants were considering, only to have the appointed tour leaders consult the rankings and make an on-the-spot comparison, although I also recall that when the top-ranked universities were named such comparison exercises drew to a swift close. Naturally, the best research departments didn’t need to indulge in such exercises of arguable inadequacy.
The Real Challenge for Students
But does the quality of research have anything to do with the quality of an institution for the average student? Furthermore, does the scale of commercialisation of research in a teaching institution have anything to do with the quality of research? And anyway, why should students care about commercialisation at all?
My own experiences tell me that prospective students would do better to pay attention to reliable indicators of teaching quality than to research ratings. Many of them will end up having relatively little exposure to the research activities of an institution, and even if researchers actively attempt to engage students with “real world” examples from their own work, one can argue that this may not be completely desirable if such examples incorporate the kind of encumbered knowledge featured in the “inspiring example” provided by the Rector. It is, however, more likely that researchers would rather be doing research than teaching and will be less engaging, less available for consultation, and just less suited to providing high quality tuition than the teaching staff in a decent teaching institution. Who cares if a department is doing “cutting edge” research if all you see as a student is a bored and distracted lecturer having to be dragged out of the lab for an hour once or twice a week?
Even the idea that students will go on to do research after their undergraduate degree in the same institution, presumably by forging contacts with researchers in teaching positions, should be questioned. People are encouraged to move around in academia, arguably to an extent that most well-qualified people would find intolerable even in today’s celebrated/infamous “global economy”. That undergraduates would need to relate to the research of their current institution, let alone any commercialisation activity, is in many respects rather wishful thinking. In my entire undergraduate era I never once had any dealings or even awareness of what went on in the university research park: it was just a block of the campus on the map without any relevance and might have well been a large, empty car park for all the influence it had on my university education.
My advice to undergraduates is to seek out the institutions that care about high-quality teaching, whose educators are motivated and whose courses are recognised for providing the right kind of education for the career you want to pursue. Not having been a postgraduate as such, I don’t feel comfortable giving advice about which criteria might be more important than others, although I will say that you should seek out the institutions who provide a safe, supportive, properly-run and properly-supervised working environment for their researchers and all their employees.
The Circus of Commercialisation
Lots of money is being made in licensing and litigation around commercial and commercialised research, and with large sums being transferred as the result of legal rulings and settlements, it is not particularly difficult to see why universities want in on “the action”. In some countries, with private money and operational revenue ostensibly being the primary source of income for universities, one can almost understand the temptation of such institutions to nail down every piece of work and aggressively squeeze every last revenue-earning drop of potential each work may have, if only because a few bad years of ordinary revenue might lead to the demise of an institution or a substantial curtailment of its reputation and influence. For such institutions, perhaps the only barrier being broken voluntarily is an ethical one: whether they should be appointing themselves as the gatekeepers to knowledge and still calling themselves places of learning.
In other countries, public money props up the education sector, in some nations to the extent that students pay nominal fees and experience as close to a free higher education as one can reasonably expect. Although one might argue that this also puts universities at the mercy of an ungenerous public purse and that other sources of income should be secured to allow such institutions to enhance their offerings and maintain their facilities, such commercial activities deservedly attract accusations of a gradual privatisation of higher education (together with the threat of the introduction of significant fees for students and thus an increased inequality between rich and poor), of neglecting non-applied research and commercially unattractive areas of research, and of taking money from taxpayers whilst denying them the benefit of how it was spent.
Commercialisation is undoubtedly used to help universities appear “relevant” to the general public and to industry, especially if large numbers can be made to appear next to items such as “patents” and “spin-offs” in reports made available to the press and to policy makers and if everyone unquestioningly accepts those things and the large numbers of them as being good things (which is far from being a widely-accepted truth, despite the best efforts of self-serving, high-profile, semi-celebrity advocates of patent proliferation), but the influence of such exercises can be damaging to things like Free Software, not merely creating obstacles for the sharing of knowledge but also creating a culture that opposes the principles of sharing and genuine knowledge exchange that Free Software facilitates and encourages.
Indeed, the Free Software movement and its peers provide a fairer and more sustainable model for the widespread distribution and further development of research than the continuing drive for the commercialisation and monetisation of academia. Free Software developers give each other explicit rights to their work and do not demand that others constantly have to ask permission to do the most elementary things with it. In contrast, commercialisation imposes barriers between researchers and their natural collaborators in the form of obligations to an institution’s “intellectual property” or “technology transfer” office, demanding that every work be considered for licensing and revenue generation (by a group of people who may well be neither qualified nor legitimately entitled to decide). Where Free Software emphasises generosity, commercialisation emphasises control.
Universities, whose role it is to provide universal access to usable knowledge, particularly when funded with public money, should be looking to support and even emulate Free Software practitioners. Instead, by pursuing an agenda of pervasive commercialisation, they risk at the very least a stifling of collaboration and the sharing of knowledge; at worst, such an agenda may corrupt the academic activity completely.
Can universities resist the temptations and distractions of commercialisation and focus on delivering a high-quality experience for students and researchers? That is the real ethical challenge.
Here, I’m obviously not referring to the football championship but to the outcome of an interesting thought experiment: which countries are making the best progress in adopting and supporting Free Software? As a resident of Norway, I’d like to think that I’m keeping my finger on the pulse here in a country that has achieved a lot in recent years: mandatory use of open standards, funding of important Free Software projects in education, and the encouragement of responsible procurement practices in the public sector.
Norway’s Own Goals
However, things don’t always go in the right direction. Recently, it has become known that the government will withdraw all financial support for the Norwegian Open Source Competence Center, founded to encourage and promote Free Software adoption in government and the public sector. One may, of course, question the achievements of the centre, especially when considering how much funding it has had and whether “value for money” has been delivered, or as everyone knows where any measure of politics is present, whether the impression of “value for money” has been delivered. Certainly, the centre has rolled out a number of services which do not seem to have gained massive popularity: kunnskapsbazaren (the knowledge bazaar) and delingsbazaren (the sharing bazaar) do not seem to have amassed much activity and appear, at least on the surface, as mostly static collections of links to other places, some of which are where the real activity is taking place.
But aside from such “knowledge repository” services, the centre does seem to have managed to provide the foundations for the wider use of Free Software, in particular arguing for and justifying the collaborative nature of Free Software within the legal framework of public sector procurement, as well as organising a yearly conference where interested parties can discuss such matters, present their own activities, and presumably establish the basis for wider collaboration. My own experience tells me that even if one isn’t involved with the more practical aspects of setting up such an event, such as the details of getting a venue in order, organising catering and so on, the other aspects can consume a lot of organising time and could quite easily take over the schedule of a number of full-time employees. (People going to volunteer conferences possibly don’t realise how many extra full-time positions, or the effective equivalent of such positions, have been conjured up from hours scraped together from people’s spare time.)
And it has also been noted that the centre has worked hard to spread the message on the ground, touring, giving presentations, producing materials – all important and underrated activities. So, in contrast to those who think that the centre is merely a way of creating jobs for the sake of it, I’m certainly willing to give those who have invested their energy in the centre the benefit of the doubt, even if I cannot honestly say that my awareness of their work has been particularly great. (Those who are so eager to criticise the centre should really take a long hard look at some other, well-established institutions for evidence of waste, lack of “value of money”, and failure to act in the public interest. I’m sure the list is pretty long if one really starts to dig.)
In Politics the Short Term Always Wins
In many ways – too many to get into here – Norwegian society offers plenty of contradictions. A recent addition appears regularly on the front pages of the tabloids, asserting a different angle at different times: there may be a financial crisis, but it apparently doesn’t affect Norway… or maybe it does, but here’s how you, the consumer, can profit from it (your mortgage is even cheaper and you can expect your house to increase even further in value!). I was told by someone many years my junior the other day as he tried to sell me a gym membership that “we’re in a recession” and so the chain is offering a discount to new recruits. I somehow doubt that the chain is really suffering or that the seller really knows what a recession is like.
Nevertheless, the R-word is a great way to tighten the purse strings and move money around to support different priorities, not all of them noble or sensible. There are plenty of people who will claim that public IT spending should be frugal and that it is cheaper to buy solutions off the shelf than it is to develop sustainable solutions collaboratively. But when so many organisations need to operate very similar solutions, and when everybody knows that such off-the-shelf solutions will probably need to be customised, frequently at considerable expense, then to buy something that is ostensibly ready-made and inexpensive is a demonstration of short-term thinking, only outdone by the head of IT at the nation’s parliament boasting about only needing to rely on a single vendor. Since he appears to have presided over the introduction of the iPad in the parliament – a matter of concern to those skeptical about the security implications – one wonders how many vendors are really involved and how this somehow automatically precludes the use of Free Software, anyway.
(Another great example of public IT spending has to be the story of a local council buying iPads for councillors while local schools have 60-year-old maps featuring the Soviet Union, with the spending being justified on the basis that people will print and copy less. It will be interesting whether the predicted savings will materialise after people figure out how to print from their iPads, I’m sure.)
The Role of the Referee
The public sector always attracts vested interests who make very large sums of money from selling licences and services and who will gladly perpetrate myths and untruths about Free Software and open standards in order to maintain their position, leaving it to others to correct the resulting misconceptions of the impressionable observer. There needs to be someone to remind public institutions that they are obliged to act in the public interest, conduct sustainable operations, and that the taxpayer should not have to cover every expense of those operations because they have delegated control to a vendor who decides which technologies they may or may not use, which roadmaps are available to them, burdening them with arbitrary migration exercises, extra and needless expenditure, and so on. Moreover, such institutions should protect those who have to interact with them from interference: taxpayers should not suddenly be required to buy a particular vendor’s products in order to discharge their public obligations.
As we have already seen, there is a need for education around the issues of sustainable public sector computing as well as a need to hold those responsible for public expenditure to account. Holding them to account should be more considered than the knee-jerk response of splashing their organisation across the media when something goes wrong, even if this does provide opportunities for parody; it should involve discussion of matters such as whether such organisations have enough resources, whether they are sharing the burden with others who have similar goals instead of needlessly duplicating effort, and whether they are appropriately resourced so that they may operate sustainably.
I don’t expect a competence centre to perform the task of referee in ensuring a properly functioning, sustainable, interoperable, transparent public sector, but just as a referee cannot do without his linesmen, it is clear that public institutions and the society that pays for them and gives them their role cannot do without an agent that helps and informs those institutions, ensuring that they interact fairly with technology providers both small and large, and operate in a manner that benefits both society and themselves, through the genuine empowerment that Free Software has to offer.