Thursday, June 24, 2010

NYAC/ARTNY: open source

Westbound on the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Mid-Hudson Bridge, late evening, 4 June 2010.

[I wrote this post a while ago, but I spent some time away from home and, for the most part, the Internet. Now that I'm back in cyberspace, the pace of posting is going to pick up a bit.]

While at the recent joint meeting of the New York Archives Conference and Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York, I took part in Session 12, Using Open Source Software. I had a good time putting together and delivering my presentation, and both of my co-presenters were stellar. Although the three of us met only a few minutes before our session began, our presentations meshed well, in large part because all of us approached open source in the same pragmatic fashion; i.e., we largely avoided the open-source-versus-proprietary-software debate and encouraged people to use open source software when doing so met their business needs.

I discussed the Open Source Initiative’s definition of open source software, open source as a model of software development in which programmers work independently and collaboratively to write code and review each other’s work, and open source as a philosophical belief that sharing information and knowledge is good in and of itself and a spur to the development of more information and knowledge. I also detailed the practical advantages (e.g., no cost of acquisition) and disadvantages (e.g., support and technical documentation that may range from excellent to abysmal) and highlighted some open source applications of particular value to archivists working in smaller repositories:
I was really pleased that I got the chance to hear Seth Kauffmann, who spearheaded the development of CollectiveAccess, discuss its development, functionality, and support options. CollectiveAccess is a cataloging and Web presentation system that supports every descriptive standard (and local variant thereof) and that can be used to gather and manage information about people and places as well as digital surrogates of cultural heritage materials. After highlighting PhilaPlace and some other really cool projects powered by CollectiveAccess, he offered some sound words of advice to anyone involved in an archival software development project:
  • Planning is good. This point may seem painfully obvious, but it’s all too often overlooked. (I would hasten to add that “we’ll leave all the technical stuff up to the programmer/vendor because its his/her/its job” is not a plan)
  • Don’t assume that all of your problems can be solved with software or technology.
  • Involve real users in the development process. Seth stressed that one of CollectiveAccess’s strengths is its “community of self-interest development model” -- archivists who have grants to “do something real” drove its creation and guide its evolution.
  • Be realistic about the quality and extent of your existing metadata and digitized resources.
  • Involve archivists at the start of the development process and keep them involved throughout the project (no argument here)
Rick Cobello, the Schenectady County Information Technology Director, then detailed how the county is deploying open source software at the enterprise level. Fiscal pressures are forcing governments to choose between cutting operating costs and laying off staff, and open source software will enable the county to reduce costs and provide better services.

At present, roughly half of Schenectady County’s IT budget is devoted to fixing and decontaminating desktop computers. The county is now centralizing almost all of its storage and applications, and most county employees will have only a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and Pano Logic client that will enable them to access the county’s central servers. The county will no longer have to install antivirus protection and update software on desktops, and desktop support staff will be able to focus on other projects. Estimated cost savings: at least 30 percent.

The county attorney’s office is now using, and Rick plans to move other county offices to after the county’s licensing agreements with Microsoft expire. Although the county is currently using a mixture of open source and proprietary software and will continue to use specialized proprietary software (e.g., geographic information system applications) well into the future, Rick’s ultimate goal is to stop paying licensing fees for any of the software needed to support routine office operations.

Rick emphasized that the county has support contracts for almost all of the open source software that it uses: he believes in supporting organizations that create open source software, and paying for support is less expensive than paying licensing fees. I find this approach is both altruistic and smart: in addition to sustaining worthwhile projects, he's helping to ensure that the software he's using will be updated and enhanced.

Public-sector budgets always lag behind the economy. The coming years are going to be extremely tight, and I think that a lot of government IT directors are going to make many of the same decisions that Rick has made -- and look for other ways in which open source, among other things, can save money. It’s going to be really interesting to see just how things pan out.

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