Rethink core software as infrastructure.

The proposal is to set up Open Source Work Hubs (OSWH) with a structure that allows public or private businesses that use Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) technologies in New Zealand to access pools of developers, security specialists and other IT professionals for specific maintenance, documentation, security analysis and upgrade tasks.

For example, some government agencies have invested heavily in open source hadoop technology for data management via a company called MapR. As a result those agencies have a small team of developers skilled in those technologies. Unfortunately MapR as a company has ceased to exist and the affected agencies do not see their role as being a sponsor for these open source projects even though they have a core team able to maintain and develop their existing environment under the open source licenses.

If the developers with the open source skills to support government agencies were employed by a cluster/hub arrangement then those agencies could continue to receive support for their business operations while contributing to the local economy rather than overseas corporations. These developers could then also act as mentors to people coming out of tertiary education who would also pass through the OSWH arrangement. This would give the industry a pool of new entrants who also have practical work skills and reduces the risk to other small public or private organisations.

In a similar vein, many websites use javascript frameworks such as Node.js with the underlying software library package manager NPM. While security considerations are always applicable, within the NPM framework malicious code can and does appear regularly. The OSWH could maintain, test and support NPM libraries used for digital web applications reducing the load on agencies to maintain their own code base or changes.

Agencies could identify and request specific changes to open source technologies from these pools to support their own initiatives. The OSWH would handle the interface to the open source community and maintain any repository requirements for forking/merging code upstream. Existing New Zealand open source companies could also take advantage of these pools to support the creation and setup of new services and/or ongoing maintenance of existing codebases.

The OSWH could be funded under a number of models including a direct Government initiative or as a funded non-profit or an apprentice/internship type model with the understanding that new entrants would be encouraged to see this as a starting point to gain experience to move into other areas.

The work for the OSWH would also be consistent as the primary focus would be to maintain and enhance existing capability leaving the innovation hubs or other entrepreneurial organisations to develop new services. I.E. the OSWH would have defined units of work or program increments to deal with without having to continually develop new ideas.

The agencies have a pipeline of work already that is being developed either internally or in conjunction with existing suppliers such as Catalyst and Silverstripe. The OSWH would provide the support infrastructure and services to provide secure and audited libraries and toolsets that the agency work is built on. The OSWH would also take some of the graduates coming out of the education system for up to two years max. This would give them a work history and experience that businesses are crying out for without small business or agencies carrying any mentoring or other risks.

Why the contribution is important

The NZ Government has traditionally taken an 'arms length' approach to digital technologies believing it to be a purely private enterprise endeavour and many of the examples given in the Digital Strategy paper demonstrate this. The Government role is seen as to facilitate or enable the structure and private enterprise will deliver the goods. There are many areas where this is successful however there are also areas where this approach fails dismally leaving the Government and ordinary citizens exposed to the avarice of 'the market'.

We need to rethink how some of the core services and technologies that drive many of our success stories are supported. We need to think of these core services in the same way we do affordable housing, roads, hospitals. Services that aren't being catered for by 'the market' for purely financial reasons but are still relied on by that same 'market' for critical function.

The agencies do not see themselves as responsible for maintaining the FOSS code they use so this provides a way of giving them the ability to have a support and maintenance structure for the base code and any enhancements that they may need. This also reduces the risk of the FOSS community at large not being as engaged as required.

This idea also maps to a number of the discussion points in the Digital Strategy paper as well as other points that have been raised by the Government and the technology industry many times over the last few years. E.G.

  1. Shortage of IT skills. What is really meant by this is that there are shortages of a specific skill at a particular point in time with public and private businesses being unable or unwilling to carry a training risk.
  2. Difficult for new entrants to the industry to get experience/skills. The size of the NZ economy means that smaller public or private businesses are unable or unwilling to carry a mentoring risk.
  3. Govt agencies appreciating FOSS but not seeing their role as FOSS support. While FOSS solutions exist within agencies there also needs to be significant external support as the agencies do not see themselves as FOSS developers or contributors.  
  4. Significant taxpayer funding being sent offshore rather than growing onshore capability. Proprietary solutions from overseas companies are seen as better 'value' and Government contracts favour that rather than supporting local suppliers however, every tax dollar spent in New Zealand returns around 25 to 30 cents to Government in GST and/or Income Tax but every tax dollar spent overseas is a dollar lost to the New Zealand economy.
  5. Security concerns. While open source technology and software is inherently more capable of being secure and any security issues that are discovered tend to be fixed relatively quickly there are still issues around the use of particular libraries.
  6. IT infrastructure software is the enabler of the digital economy and should be treated in a similar fashion to roads and the fibre communications network. There is certainly some advantage in having a competitive environment to deliver services to the New Zealand public however history has proven time and again that there are some critical services that cannot be delivered without Government support. New and improved roads contribute significantly to the economy and the nationwide fibre rollout languished for years until Government incentives were made available.

Alignment to Government and Industry principles and recommendations.

  1. Broader Outcomes, the Five Principles of Government Procurement and the Government Procurement Charter. These are all designed to allow New Zealand businesses to compete on a level playing field however there are some obstacles to that primarily being driven by the misapplication of the AoG contracts that currently favour a single US multinational and limit the number of NZ businesses that can obtain favourable license terms.
  2. Alignment with the NZTech Briefing for Incoming Minister (BIM) (2020). Point 9 - Boosting education and skills, Point 11 - Funding and Point 12 Better integration of IT across local and central Government can all be addressed by elements of this proposal.
  3. Alignment with NZRise principals and options discussion paper. Ensuring that New Zealand businesses are evaluated equitably when proposing solutions to Government requirements and that there is support for vocational training and employment of New Zealand citizens.
  4. Alignment with Catalyst IT BIM Digital Economy and Communications. Action 5 - ‘adopt the principles of digital development around open source and open standards’

Alignment to the Digital Strategy.

Mahi Tika: Trust - The OSWH would be able to provide a supported and trusted base set of FOSS libraries and code to any New Zealand initiative to develop the innovative services we seek.

Mahi Tahi: Inclusion - The OSWH and FOSS support significantly lowers the barrier to entry for any New Zealand citizen or group that wants to develop and support technologies at the local, national or international level.

Mahi Ake: Growth - By focussing on the core libraries and FOSS code that behind many technologies the OSWH would be supporting the growth of the more innovative technology sectors.

by carlklitscher on November 09, 2021 at 09:23PM

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