Israel and UK deepen digital, open source relationship

The two countries have been working on several important joint digital government projects over the past several years.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor
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UK ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould announces the winners in a recent startup event sponsored by the UK-Israel Tech Hub. Image: Mati Milstein

Israel and the UK recently furthered their digital relationship, with officials from the two countries last week signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on digital government.

Under the MoU, governments of both countries will work together to develop digital services by sharing information and technologies based on open source systems.

"There's a great deal we can learn from one another," Francis Maude, UK Cabinet Office minister, said in a statement. "Sharing knowledge and experience will maximise growth, efficiency and creativity in technology. When we open up government business to the best digital and technology companies, we open the door to innovation and growth."

The MoU is just the latest in an increasingly close digital relationship between Israel and the UK. Among other projects, for example, the UK-sponsored TeXchange programme brings Israeli entrepreneurs to London (and other UK locations) to meet with entrepreneurs, investors, and potential customers.

The programme is targeted at startups and entrepreneurs working in the hottest technologies, such as gaming, advertising technology, mobile technology, e-commerce, video, convergence, social media, convergence technology, and other areas of emerging tech. Participants attend networking events, conduct mentoring sessions with top industry pros, and network with their British business counterparts.

The lynchpin of the programme, and of other tech cooperation between the two countries, is the UK-Israel Tech Hub, a Foreign Office-run organisation dedicated to enhancing the digital relationship between the two countries. Britain is the first — and only — country to have established (in 2012) a special government-sponsored mission in Israel for this purpose. The program has been such a success that last year, UK prime minister David Cameron, announced the appointment a special tech envoy to Israel, an appointment Cameron said he hoped would even further enhance tech relations between the two countries.

The UK "wants to work much more closely with Israel on innovation and technology," Cameron said of the appointment of UK businessman Saul Klein to the post last August. "That's why a year ago we launched the UK-Israel tech hub at our Embassy to link up with UK Israel Business, the Israeli Embassy here in London and countless talented young people in both our countries."

The MoU also represents not only an expansion of the tech relationship between the two countries, but a further commitment by Israel to an open source future. In recent years, Israeli government and defence institutions and agencies have been trading in proprietary software and systems from Oracle and Microsoft, and opting for open source substitutes.

The move to open source is experimental, said lieutenant colonel Eric (last name withheld for security reasons), CTO of the Israeli Army's Lotem Technological Division. On the one hand, open source allows organisations to structure systems to their own specifications, on their own schedule.

The army has numerous programs to recruit top tech talent, so getting creative programmers who know their way around code, and can come up with innovative and secure solutions quickly, is not a problem.

On the other hand, he said, not having the support of a large, professional organisation supporting the systems (as Oracle or Microsoft would) means that programmers have to be very alert to what they are doing, as the organisation is literally resting on their shoulders.

"There are positives and negatives to adopting open source fully," Eric said. "I believe that there are more reasons in favour, but only provided the systems are well-supervised."

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