As Germany moves away from closed source software to a strategy using TYPO3 for all government websites, I joined Jana Höffner and Nikolai Jaklitsch at this year’s T3CON in Düsseldorf to discuss software in government and how Open Source is the only way to guarantee digital sovereignity, foster local talent and create a digital economy.
I’ve been a software developer for 23 years but I’m new to TYPO3. I started working with Microsoft tools and shifted first to PHP and MySQL and later to Drupal, WordPress, and in particular to Symfony. Prater Raines have been building with TYPO3 on one large project, a multisite install of 300 websites in 2 languages for the UK Liberal Democrat party, for 18 months and have been impressed by how solid the platform is and how well it performs.
Throughout that time we’ve used a mix of closed and open source platforms for data storage. We’ve had a few clients who’ve wanted to keep their data in closed source CRMs because they are already comfortable working with them. But often we’ve had to extract that data into something open source to be able to work with it.
Our customers are not typically government agencies. Historically we’ve been more likely to work with political and campaigning groups. But we’re often dealing with the same sorts of sensitive personal data, about philosophical beliefs, voting intention, and depending on the campaign sometimes health data, sexual orientation, or ethnic origin. So we too need to have very precise control over what we host and where we store it.
Government should have the power to control networks and data, set laws over what can be stored, where and how.
Open Source gives our customers control and independence. They don’t need external vendors to modify critical software. Sure, we like them to work with us because we’re experts. But we give them the power to change things themselves.
It gives them transparency as they can inspect and audit the code. They can host their data locally so it isn’t subject to foreign laws. We colocate at two UK data centres and have dedicated machines elsewhere in the UK so we can make sure everything is stored within the country including backups. The hosting setup for TYPO3 is really standard, you just need a webserver, database server, and PHP and you’re golden, so you can colocate as we do, host in the cloud, even host in a cupboard in your office if you want to.
Open Source software will always work — you’re not tied to a licence and the vendor staying solvent. If it’s actively supported that’s great, but we have a legacy platform that we retired this year based on Symfony 1. The open source community forked the project when official support ended and kept the framework working for years after its official end of life. A proprietary system, by comparison, might just close for any number of reasons and run away with your data.
If our company folds, is bought out, or you just want to move supplier you can. We typically provide our source code to clients on an MIT or GPL basis which means you can take the code with you and somebody else can take it on.
We once inherited a number of projects from another agency. They had been bought out by one of their clients and needed to divest themselves of their other customers to concentrate on their new owner. Because they had built everything on Open Source tech they were able to provide us everything we needed to take over with a quick handover and the whole thing was seamless for the customers.
With Open Source you invest your entire budget in bespoke features and functionality, not licence fees. We can code additions for our clients that tightly integrate with the core platform, because we can see and understand the source code.
I’ll leave you with, for my money, the most important reason for choosing Open Source. Over the years every community I’ve been involved with has been amazing. I think because other developers are also working with Open Source, there’s a sense of openness and sharing online and at developer events. It’s not so much a case of being in competition for the same contracts, it’s more wanting to share experience and code and grow the market. I felt this at PHP London and PHP UK, groups which really enthused me in my early days as a developer and where I was later able to give back by organising the events. I felt it at T3CON last week and the local TYPO3 user group meeting I attended while I was there. Everyone I met along the way has been inclusive, welcoming, and excited about what they get to do for a living.
This might seem a bit sentimental but it’s particularly important for government projects. I firmly believe government, funded by the public, has a responsibility to improve the local economy with its spending and if choosing Open Source makes your developers happy and builds a community of local talent too, you are doing your job right.