Free and fair — and open source
- 08 June, 2009 22:00
The Electoral Enrolment Centre (EEC) found itself cited by both sides in the debate over collapsed software licence negotiations between the government and Microsoft last month.
Open source enthusiasts like Catalyst IT’s Don Christie point to the EEC system as proof that open source works for government agencies and changing away from proprietary software is not a difficult challenge.
Local Microsoft managing director Kevin Ackhurst, on the other hand, sees EEC’s open source use as proof that there has always been a free choice for government agencies and no-one is compelled to toe the Microsoft line.
“Both of them have a point,” says Enrolment Centre information systems manager Bob Chandler. He admits he is “a bit surprised” that open source has not taken off more widely in government since EEC adopted it in 2003. “It’s not my job to sell it,” he says. “All I can say is it meets our needs.”
Negotiations between the State Services Commission and Microsoft for a new, three-year software licence deal failed last month, leading to Christie, who is president of the New Zealand Open Source Society, to call on the Auditor-General to vet agencies buying Microsoft software. Christie says such agencies risk lock-in, fail to consider alternatives and become too reliant on a single multinational vendor.
In response, Microsoft New Zealand managing director Kevin Ackhurst said agencies are free to opt in and opt out of Microsoft - just as the EEC has done. He said Microsoft’s software is interoperable and supports a wide range of different databases, browsers and other systems so users do not have to deploy Microsoft products wall-to-wall.
Representatives of other government agencies are interested when talking informally to the enrolment centre, “but it never goes any further”, Chandler says. “The State Services Commission sent some people over to talk to us about it at the beginning, but they’re all long gone.”
EEC, a subsidiary of NZ Post, first adopted Debian GNU/Linux then later switched to the Ubuntu Linux distribution. All PCs in its 25 regional offices and most in the Wellington head office run open source software. There are still “five or six” Windows PCs in Wellington running old, special-purpose applications “for historic reasons”, says systems manager Jason Horncy.
The Linux PCs run a special-purpose application for inputting and updating electoral roll information, developed by Catalyst IT. These communicate though a web interface with 25 servers, also running exclusively open source software; the database is Postgres and the content-management system Drupal.
The PCs also carry Open Office.org. Horncy acknowledges this is “not perfect”; it cannot deal with some complex documents created by Microsoft Office.
The system also has an interface for call-centre operators. An SMS interface is about to be deployed, meaning text messages can be substituted for reminder letters to voters who have not enrolled or have queries.
However, under the present legislation a voter’s signature on paper is still required as ultimate authority to be listed on the roll. Future use of digital identifiers under the igovt authentication scheme has been discussed, “but that would need a law-change”, Horncy says.
Apart from the attraction of not having to pay for Microsoft licences, the software has the appeal of being “pretty customisable”, says Horncy; “you can tweak it to fit your needs,” while applications written for Windows would be impossible to adapt without access to the source-code.
“It’s good for the remote sites; there are a lot of inbuilt networking tools,” he says. And there’s a big range of free software, though “it’s not all great”, he acknowledges. “There is community support out there” in case of difficulty, though again this is better for some applications than others. EEC has contributed some of its own changes, such as routines for handling Maori macrons, back into the open-source pool.
“I couldn’t tell you why other government agencies haven’t approached us,” Horncy says. “We’re approachable and ready to talk. I’m not sure how well-known it is that we use open source for quite important systems.”
EEC has spoken about its approach with other electoral agencies, for example in Australia and Canada. “They’ve come across here during an election year and expressed some interest.”