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Photos: Centre launched to promote open source

The National Open Centre, which will help form public policy and promote open source software and standards, was launched at Parliament on Monday
By Richard Thurston, Contributor on
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An institute that aims to promote the national use of open-source software was launched at the Houses of Parliament on Monday.

The National Open Centre (NOC), backed by the National Computing Centre, has won the support of the European Commission and members of parliament.

The NOC, which will be based in Birmingham, aims to help form public policy on the use of open-source software and open standards, acting as a think tank for discussions. The centre is currently running a programme of seminars to bolster knowledge of open-source products and services.

The concept of the NOC was originally touted in October, when the National Computing Centre outlined its plans to develop the concept with Open Advantage, a West Midlands-based open-source development centre, and Birmingham City Council, which began an abortive £500,000 Linux project in 2005.

The group originally planned to launch the NOC in January, but the launch was subsequently delayed until this week. The NOC is seeking further funding, and is currently seeking an award from Advantage West Midlands, a regional development agency.

Although the NOC will be based in Birmingham, it is keen to maintain a national remit and develop links with key suppliers, business users, MPs and the European Commission. It will be run by a 26-strong unpaid advisory board.

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John Pugh MP spoke at the launch, and said he was "astonished" that open source hadn't been more successful in the UK public sector.

"There is widespread public sector ignorance: they often do not know what you are talking about," Pugh warned, adding that the open-source community itself should also take some blame. "There are divisions within it. I listen to the conversations in the open-source community, and there is no point in hardening the divisions."

Pugh also warned that open-source software faced some formidable challenges within the political space.

"Open source has its enemies and its enemies are very close to government. They are very close to the top of governments and they are intending to stay there," said Pugh in his speech, although he didn't elaborate on this point.

Pugh, the author of a recent parliamentary Early Day Motion protesting against the restriction of open-source software in schools, also lashed out at Becta, the government's advisor on IT in schools.

"Becta's frameworks cut out a lot of innovation... and are damn right unfair to the open-source community. There have been concerns over the long-term stability of open-source companies on Becta's mind. There are some companies, but open source has not always been so good at salesmanship," Pugh said

Pugh added there was a real danger that children would grow up being proficient in Microsoft software such as PowerPoint, but with little knowledge of computing as a whole.

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Scott Thompson, director of Open Advantage — a West Midlands-based open-source development centre — told the event that the NOC had spent the last four months "understanding the technologies", running seminars and workshops and working with open-source communities.

"We will have a national focus for open-source matters in the UK," said Thompson, who believes the centre could play an important role. 

"We will ensure UK participation in international debates concerning open-source policy. Open source is the ICT phenomenon of the first decade of the 21st century. Penetration in the public sector is high, albeit in piecemeal fashion," said Thompson.

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The launch event was also attended by Barbara Held, seconded national expert for e-government services at the European Commission. She insisted that the Commission is committed to encouraging software interoperability and open standards.

Held said: "I'm very sorry, there is no official open-source strategy. There is one for internal use. But going out to member states, there is no viewpoint."

"In the Commission, you will find people who are very distrustful of open source, and also open-source evangelists."

The Commission has recently faced controversy over a report it commissioned on open-source software, which calculated the positive impact open source could have on the European economy. Some industry observers suggested that the Commission's stance on open source might be changing, while the Commission denies any bias.

Held added that: "We promote the use of open source in public administrations", saying it was an important part of her department's mission. "Open source is a key element in interoperability and open standards. We want freedom of choice. And we might get better [quality] code.

"The National Open Centre is important because there is a lot of potential in that market. It is not only about governments. It is about information, and the dissemination of good practice. The more people know about open source, the more likely they are to implement it."

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