Institutional knowledge and information ecology in a Free Software ecosystem: The early days of KIM
1311 days ago
Institutional knowledge and information ecology in a Free Software ecosystem: The early days of KIM was presented at the International conference on knowledge economy 2009. It documents some of the things we are thinking and doing at Wits only 9 months into the establishment of the Knowledge and Information Management Portfolio.
The two map slides are from worldmapper.org. I believe used under fair use, but will gladly remove them if this is not the case.
Note that there is a play button, which also includes the audio.
Opportunities to foster innovation based on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is my keynote talk from the LLiSA 2009 conference in Pretoria, a few minutes ago. The subtitle was There is more to innovation than secret science and patents! which is the title of this blog post.
The slides are below (they are not synchronized with the sound here).
Slidecast version of There is more to innovation than secret science and patents (#LLiSA09)!
1278 days ago
This is the slidecast of my talk on Opportunities to foster innovation based on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) which was my keynote talk from the LLiSA 2009 conference in Pretoria, yesterday.
Please note that you can view this presentation full screen using the icon on the presentation itself. Please note also that SlideShare did not convert the text correctly on some slides. This is a SlideShare bug and has nothing to do with Wits.
Open Source platforms, tools & approaches for 21st Century connected learning: A Wits case study delete
1099 days ago
These are the slides from my talk at the IST Africa conference in Durban, Thursday May 20th, 2010. Unfortunately, I didn't record it for podcasting.
If you are at Wits, you can also upload your presentations to http://presentations.wits.ac.za and share them online like this.
Free and Open Source Software at Wits
1076 days ago
The KIM strategy and the eLearning strategy that arises out of it have both been approved by the Senior Executive Team (SET) and the Strategic ICT Board (which consists of SET + the Director of Computer and Networking Services). Both strategies take a strong view that Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) must play a role in our ecosystem in the implementation of the strategies. SET requested me as DVC KIM to prepare an information session to provide SET members with a better understanding of FOSS so that they would be better equipped to answer questions if asked to do so.
With my colleagues in the KIM portfolio, I prepared an overview presentation, and asked Arno Web from the State IT Agency to prepare a talk on FOSS in the South African Government. Two hours were allocated for this event, and the two presentations appear below.
Out of this, a number of questions were identified for follow up. These questions appear below. In future blogs, I will be tackling these questions, one per post. If you have other questions regarding FOSS or FOSS at Wits you can please send them to me, and I will do my best to answer them here.
Questions raised at SET
- IT in general is an area where members of the University community strongly believe that they can exercise autonomy and academic freedom. Will accepting a FOSS strategy remove any of that academic freedom?
- By ‘innovating’ using FOSS, is there a risk that we end up with a system that hardly talks to the other systems that it has to talk to, both internally and externally?
- We aim to ‘standardize’ certain packages so that we can exchange information across the institution and across the sector. I have a strong suspicion that, if people decide to stick with certain packages, because they don’t believe in FOSS, we end with an institution where we are not communicating effectively. Will FOSS reduce our ability to communicate effectively across the institution?
- Does FOSS mean costless?
- What do you mean about marginal cost of production for software being zero?
- What will the criteria be for future platforms/applications and where will the decision(s) lie?
A note on FOSS and this blog post
You are viewing this blog post because it is coming from a server that is running FOSS. The blog software itself is Chisimba, an Africa-led FOSS project in which Wits is a strong player. The presentations used were prepared on Open Office Presenter, a FOSS presentation tool. The images used were edited and prepared in the Gimp, a FOSS equivalent to photoshop. They are made presentable here through the Wits presentation server which extracts and uses a component of Open Office and runs it as a web service to the presentation server itself, which runs Chisimba's webpresent module. Thus, you are seeing this through some of the ways in which we are giving life to our FOSS ecosystem at Wits, consistent with the KIM and eLearning strategies.
FOSS and academic freedom
1075 days ago
One of the questions raised during the SET presentation on FOSS (see my previous blog post) was:
As an academic who has spent all but two years of my adult life working in universities, I am very aware of the importance of academic freedom. It is the life blood of academic institutions. I would hope that in my time in management at a university, I will never do anything that will remove academic freedom, or affect it negatively in any way.
For that reason, I believe that FOSS - taken as the technologies, approaches and mindsets, not just as technology - will only serve to enhance academic freedom.
When I arrived at Wits, I found an institution that was suffering from technology gridlock from an over-reliance on proprietary technologies and proprietary mindsets, as well as an excessive dependence on consultants and vendors. Academic freedom was severely compromised, as people who chose to work with FOSS were disadvantaged by our infrastructure, and were unsupported in their legitimate desire to carry out their academic work using FOSS technologies and approaches. In effect, their academic freedom was compromised. Some of the cutting edge technology research that has led the world would be impossible at Wits under those circumstances.
By adding support for FOSS as a legitimate way to pursue academic excellence, we are increasing academic freedom, not decreasing it. Much has already been accomplished, but that is outside the scope of answering this question.
Academic freedom carries with it certain implicit responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is taking knowledge based decisions. When a particular IT decision is being taken, it should be done with an understanding of the consequences, both long and short term, as well as of the alternatives. When we believe that FOSS technologies and approaches are in the best interest of the institution, we will endeavour to win people over with pursuasive arguments. It is neither in our strategy, nor in our intention, to force people to choose FOSS for work that they believe can better be accomplished using proprietary or combinations of technologies or approaches, nor is it our intention to stop people implementing proprietary technologies in areas where the decision is theirs to make. It is our intention to raise awareness of FOSS, and increase the support available for it, so that decisions can be taken from a knowledge perspective.
Exceptions to this will be where decisions apply to core infrastructure, such as email systems, eLearning systems, etc. However, where such decisions are implemented with FOSS, we will ensure that the user end has full cross platform capability. No end user will be required to switch to FOSS on the desktop, or have an inferior experience, due to decisions that involve the back-end systems.
In this way, we believe that enhancing our FOSS ecosystem will enhance academic freedom, not decrease it.
A litmus test for academic freedom in the IT sphere itself can be posed as a mental exercise: Could Google or Facebook arise at Wits? The answer to that is currently an emphatic "no!" FOSS alone will not create a "yes" answer, but FOSS taken together with improvements to our environment to enhance academic freedom will do. Until we can say "yes", we do not have the level of academic freedom necessary to accomplish our goals.
Click the images for more information.
FOSS and standard software packages
1075 days ago
One of the questions raised during the SET presentation on FOSS (see my previous two blog posts) was:
Standardizing on 'packages' is the old way, the 20th Century way. The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC, the UK IT advisory body to higher education) recommends adherence to open standards, rather than standardizing on software packages. The focus on open standards is being driven by:
- data lock-in, caused by the inability to transfer data between different applications
- vendor lock-in, caused by de facto standardisation within the market.
Both of these forms of lock-in are caused by the use of proprietary file formats that don't adhere to open standards, and are, in fact, very closely interlinked in terms of the problems they cause. Many governments, the SA government included, now mandate adherence to open standards as the way to avoid these forms of lock-in.
In the 21st Century, Wits should be adhering to open standards (see also my previous post regarding file format standards), and loose coupling of applications (I will make another post regarding the loose coupling of applications).
Following open standards, our increased use of FOSS should enhance, not reduce, our ability to communicate effectively across the institution. We have established previously that documents today are largely interoperable. Indeed, it is possible to upload a word document to any of our Chisimba-based servers and view it in a web browser using built in interoperability tools. Our presentations server (http://presentations.wits.ac.za) can make presentations available in different formats for download and use online. Email is a fairly standard, and indeed, whatever the future of our email systems (proprietary or FOSS), they will be implemented in a way that is as transparent as possible to the user.
Our FOSS ecosystem gives us a ready route into 21st Century communication avenues. Avenues for communication that we have access to through our current FOSS ecosystem (many not yet implemented), include:
- text-based, cross platform instant messaging
- instant messaging access to data
- microblogging technologies such as Twitter
- blogging technologies such as you are viewing here on this blog
- social networking technologies such as Facebook, Flickr and YouTube, as well as our own internal implementations of similar technologies
- syndication of content across multiple locations
- enhanced document retrieval
- location based services within the campus
- Voice over IP
- free cellphone calls within the campus or between our campuses (if we implement open source PABX technologies)
- voice based interaction with data (if we implement open source PABX technologies)
- enhanced way-finding and social navigation using technologies such as QR codes applied to our signage
- free digital identity (including email) for life for Wits degree graduates
FOSS opens many avenues for communication that are not accessible or accessible only after paying difficult to ascertain and predict license fees with proprietary technologies. Hence, strengthening our FOSS ecosystem should strengthen us as a 21st Century university and enhance our ability to communicate, including communicating content through the use of open standards.
I will write a separate post regarding what we are doing with respect to digital asset management (documents, archives, preservation, the Wits web content), and what awesome cutting edge communcations technology we will be deploying in September / October when the new web goes live. All of it is open source, and it will enhance our communications capability considerably.
Here is a presentation to the OFE Executive Council about the OFE Standardisation Special Interest Group, held in London on 31 October 2008 by Trond Arne Undheim.
Here is a presentation by Oracle on Open Standards and why they make business sense. This presentation was given at the European Standards Organization, on 8 December 2008 at their 4th Interoperability of eBusiness Conference in Utrecht, The Netherlands by Trond Arne Undheim.
Everything you see here is cross platform, and brought to you through the power of FOSS technologies.
Does FOSS mean costless?
1062 days ago
One of the questions raised during the SET presentation on FOSS (see my previous three blog posts) was:
The short answer is "Depends!" FOSS means costless only in terms of the license.
For me, as an individual user of FOSS desktop systems, the answer is definitely "yes" and most emphatically so. I use an operating system that is without cost to me, I use office software (word processor, database, vector drawing, presentation, spreadsheet) that is definitely without cost. I use an awesome graphics application called 'the GIMP' that is without cost. I watch videos and listen to music using applications that are without cost to me. I browse the web on software that is without cost to me. I create animations and videos using a variety of software tools that are without cost to me. I manage my extensive photo collection using software that is without cost to me. I do software development as a hobby, and all the tools I use for development are without cost to me. My daughter uses the same system, and plays a lot of games that are without cost to her. Indeed, there is almost nothing that I can think of that I need to do for fun or work that would require me to pay a software license fee. So, yes, for me as an individual, FOSS is certainly without cost. Indeed, I once make a mapping of the software I use against proprietary packages, and I have in excess of R300 000 worth of software (based on full commercial prices) on my computer, for free.
If we look at the diagram below, we can see a stack of different ways of using or working with FOSS. While actual costs are case specific, there would be a reasonable expectation of increasing costs as one moves higher in these layers.
Thus, the reason the cost to my daughter and I is zero is that we are able to use existing software, as is, in the form in which it is supplied. This is the most trivial way in which software is deployed, although it is an important one. Most real problems in large organizations cannot be solved using simple deployment of software as is, with no customization. This applies to both FOSS and proprietary software.
In a typical, large software project, licenses are an important and recurring cost, but do not generally consititute more than 25% of a typical project implementation, often less. Thus, the cost of implementation of large systems will be similar for both proprietary and FOSS systems, unless one area requires more customized code to be written than the other. This cannot be addressed in the abstract, however.
A very important cost impact of proprietary licenses lies in vendor lock-in and consequent exit costs. Exit cost for proprietary software can be so significant that organizations may be reluctant to exit even when there are compelling reasons to do so. The cost of Wits exiting the Oracle Student System, a typical proprietary, tightly coupled system are likely to be double digits, without even including the costs of implementing the alternative solution. Let me say that again, because it is so often overlooked: the exit costs are huge, and the time pressure adds additional costs and constrains our choices severely.
There will be times when a FOSS solution to a given problem will be more expensive than a proprietary solution when taken from the perspective of a particular project. However, measured in terms of contribution to building a broader ecosystem, such extra costs may be justified; or they may not be. Decisions in this case will require a full examination of the costs and benefits, both long and short term, and an application of wise minds - just as you have to do with any software project whether based on FOSS or proprietary software.
When an organization is undergoing change from predominantly proprietary to substantially FOSS (for example), there will be a typical change or pain curve. It may cost more in the short term to implement FOSS than to go with the 'standard' proprietary solutions. Sometimes - due to lack of understanding of the nature of pain curves - organizations change back to the old way before they have emerged from the pain curve, and never realised the long term value of building a FOSS ecosystem.
When you measure the total cost over the life of a system, in general FOSS should come out cheaper, but there is no general guarantee that this will be true in the abstract. Most costs in a software project are part of implementation, and it is possible to have very expensive implementations of either a FOSS or a proprietary technology. The cost impact will be determined by the degree to which you have created or have access to an ecosystem of support. This ecosystem will consist of:
- internal skills
- companies providing support
- local and global communities.
Over time, with adequate support, FOSS will reduce costs for most areas. However, there will be some for which it will not. Therefore, it is vital to evaluate each case on merit and to do so skillfully and with knowledge and understanding of all the nuances. In this respect, FOSS is no different from any other technology acquisition. It is certainly not costless. And how much it reduces costs will be highly dependent on what you do with it. You might, for example, discover that you can innovate more with FOSS and achive higher value, and therefore your costs may increase along with value.
Indeed, the notion of cost in the abstract is not really very useful. There are a number of business models for FOSS in an organization, and they are all different, with different cost impacts, and the costs vary with the nature of the project, the availability of in-house skills, the degree to which the principles are understood and embraced, and the availability of external resources that can be called on when needed.
The same range of business models is true for proprietary software, so the only way to compare costs is to have exactly identical projects under exactly identical conditions. In such a situation, FOSS should be somewhat to significantly less costly because it lacks the license fee. However, such a situation is almost impossible to imagine creating in reality, so discussions of costs in the abstract are really a distraction. Until you have an actual project, and its implementation ecosystem, cost is not something that you can meaningfully consider.
I have always maintained that any savings from implementing FOSS are collateral benefit, the metaphorical cherry on the cake. Likewise, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) of the UK concluded that the real value of FOSS arise out of the options and flexibility that it brings. They conclude:
Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Share Alike
One of the great benefits of FOSS its ability to foster innovation. Below is a presentation that I gave at the Innovation Symposium, held at Wits in February of this year.
My whole point here is that whether FOSS is without cost or not depends very much on particular cases. Cost is one side of the cost-benefit equation. Value arises when benefits are greater than costs. Whether this is true for any given software project is not a function of FOSS versus proprietary, but how well you execute the project, and how long you can sustain the benefits. The question of cost is meaningless in the abstract, though very important nevertheless.
The marginal cost of producing a product is the cost of making one more unit, after you have covered the costs of making the first one. At each level of production and time period being considered, marginal costs include all costs which vary with the level of production, and other costs are considered fixed costs. It may cost millions of rands to produce one unit of a software product (fixed costs). However, producing another copy is as close to zero as you can get. Indeed, assuming the producer has a computer (part of the fixed cost), producing an additional copy is without measurable cost.
The reason this concept is important is that it has been known since the 19th Century that in a competitive economy, the prices of products tend to something close to the marginal cost of production over time. For rivalrous goods, or goods made artificially rivalrous, companies tend to compete on price or compete on quality. When prices are artificially inflated by mechanisms of control, legislation or the existance oligopolies, the price remains well above the marginal cost of production and the development of a counterfeit market is ensured and is almost impossible to eliminate.
Click image to view larger.
The important point here is that software is a non-rivalrous good. Proprietary software does not generally involve the sale of software, but - in economic terms - rather the rental of a license to use. This keeps the price artificially high. FOSS, on the other hand, represents an instance of the natural outcome of competitive processes in an uncontrolled capitalist market. When the price of a non-rivalrous good is close to zero, revenue streams tend to arise out of services, rather than the good itself. This is the FOSS business model: services based on non-rivalrous goods whose marginal cost of production is near enough to zero to be considered essentially zero.
Click image to view larger.
It is interesting that current business models for the production and sale of other non-rivalrous goods, such as movies, music, and eBooks may be subject to the same principles. Currently, prices are artificially inflated well above the marginal cost due to various controls that lead to artificial scarcity. Such controls may deviate from free market principles in countries such as the USA, where laws have been altered to protect business models at the expense of the rights of consumers. Interestingly, Lady Gagga recently said that she doesn't mind people downloading her music (marginal cost of production is zero) because she makes her money from concerts (a service). Even in the drug industry, collaborative production and low marginal costs are being experimented with by some of the large drug companies for some types of drugs.
FOSS in the institution: who makes the decisions
1038 days ago
One of the questions in the SET FOSS discussion (see previous posts) concerned decision-making around software.
For shared systems and services, the decision will continue to be made by a combination of management groups such as the senior management group in CNS, the change control board, and the Strategic ICT board where apropriate depending on the nature of the project. These stuctures will be guided by our enterprise architecture strategy, which is still in development, as well as agreed principles and practices that arise out of strategies such as the KIM strategy, the eLearning strategy, etc.
Where it is a major project or programme, there will be a project or programme board that will investigate various options and opportunities, and make recommendations to the Strategic ICT Board. This approach has proven itself well in the Student Information Management System (SIMS, formerly AIMS) programme, where decisions were taken after thorough investigation of the options.
Criteria will be described in the enterprise architecture strategy, under technical architecture. This document is in progress, and will be submitted for approval late in 2010 or early 2011. It is likely to include criteria such as:
- alignment to our skills base;
- level of lock-in relation to perceived benefits;
- adherence to open standards;
- ability to integrate in a loosely coupled environment;
- time to deployment in relation to urgency of need;
- overall costs and benefits;
as well as others.
A governance review is currently under way with a view to addressing current gaps in ICT governance. The diagram below indicates the kind of process that software decisions will follow within the institution if the revised governace mechanisms are approved.
The truth about proprietary software at Wits
1015 days ago
Universities can be strange places sometimes. Last week I heard that the Knowledge and Information Management Portfolio was opposed to people using proprietary software and would not allow teaching the use of Microsoft technologies to students. Before such wild ideas become common place, it is important to make it clear what our position is regarding FOSS, and stipulate clearly that this is just not true!
At a philosophical level, I personally support and prefer the FOSS regime and business model because it is more aligned to my belief that the rights and freedoms of humans should be protected in our increasingly digital world. It makes no logical sense to fight for our rights in the political and physical worlds, and then relinquish them in the digital world. Such a notion creates too much cognitive dissonance for me to accept it. However, practically, I recognize that there are times and circumstances, and states in the maturity of an organisation, where proprietary business models and technologies will dominate the landscape, where significant numbers of people do not experience the same levels of cognitive dissonance that I do when accepting one kind of freedom and denying another, and will be applying and using proprietary technologies. There will be times, when even I will have to apply proprietary technologies to solve an immediate need. For example, I keep a Windows virtual machine on my Linux laptop purely for the purpose of updating my TomTom navigator because there is no other way for me to do so.
Yes, it's true. I use Windows! At least for this one thing, for now. As soon as there is a freer alternative I will use it. I also keep a virtual machine on my desktop so that I can be personally assured that any technology that we develop within the various areas of the KIM portfolio will work on the platform that most people are using.
Windows XP running in a virtual machine on my dual-monitor setup. Linux to
the left, Windows to the right running as a 'programme' under Linux.
Within the KIM portfolio, we have a strategy that tells us to make use of FOSS principles, processes and technologies whenever it is sensible and reasonable to do so. In order to achieve that, we raise awareness of FOSS, create support for a FOSS-friendly environment, and build FOSS capability into our development and back end support team.
Perhaps the mistaken assumption arises out of the eLearning strategy. When the eLearning Support and Innovation (eLSI) unit teaches basic literacies, FOSS technologies should be taught alongside their dominant proprietary cousins. For example, if they are teaching word processing, they should include both FOSS and proprietary word processors. This makes academic sense, and it applies to the eLSI unit, not to academic programmes which are themselves subject to academic freedom, and its underpinning responsibilities.
Thus, we are creating a supportive and enabling environment for those who wish to explore FOSS technologies and approaches. This can be done without diminishing our support of proprietary technologies in any way. We certainly have no intention to create rules regarding what technologies can and cannot be used for academic purposes. It would be wrong for us to do so, and in any case - it would not work.
What happens when FOSS developers have bad intent?
994 days ago
An interesting question that I was asked recently, by someone who has little or no knowledge of Free and Open Source Software:
While it is possible for a FOSS project to be briefly poisoned by malicious code, I have been unable to find and case where this has happened in reality. In most cases, the community would catch this long before the software was released, and remove it, along with the commit rights of the poisonous developer. Bug reporting and fixing procedures for FOSS code are generally such that any malicious code would be removed fairly quickly. On the other hand, malicious code is a lot more common in proprietary software, where peer review is much lower.
If anyone has any data on this, please let me know!