Iceland: Haven of Openness?

One of the recurrent themes on this blog is the painfully slow progress in terms of getting open source deployed by the UK government. That's despite the fact that there have been multiple statements that it really wants to use more of the...


One of the recurrent themes on this blog is the painfully slow progress in terms of getting open source deployed by the UK government. That's despite the fact that there have been multiple statements that it really wants to use more of the stuff, and definitely will – probably, at some point in the future, if the wind is the right direction....

Amusingly, it's still saying this. Here's a Written Answer from just yesterday:

John Pugh (Southport, Liberal Democrat)

To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office what recent assessment he has made of Government policy on open source software and open standards; and if he will make a statement.

Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office; Horsham, Conservative)

We have always made clear that, where appropriate, Government will procure open source solutions.

Open source products are used in the delivery, of huge database programmes—such as the Indian Identity card scheme—at a greater scale and for much less cost than we have experienced in the past., the new platform for publishing in UK Government employs the same open source technologies.

It's being delivered for a fraction of the cost of previous Government web schemes.

It's pretty telling that after all these years of promises, the only example Maude can cite is a single web site, albeit an important one.

Of course, the UK government is not alone in making vague promises about doing better. The Icelandic government did the same back in 2008:

The government of Iceland has agreed on a policy regarding free and open-source software. The policy states, among other things, that when purchasing new software, free and open-source software and proprietary software are to be considered on an equal footing, with the object of always selecting the most favourable purchase.

Sounds familiar, no? But here's the difference: the Icelanders are actually going beyond the fine words with some genuine buttered parsnips:

All public administrations in Iceland are increasing their use of free and open source software. The country's government recently launched a one year migration project for all of its public institutions. "The goal of the project is not to migrate public institutions to free and open source software in one single year but to lay a solid foundation for such a migration which institutions can base their migration plans on", reports Tryggvi Björgvinsson, the project leader.

(I should disclose an interest here: Björgvinsson is one of the organisers of the Reykjavik Digital Freedoms Conference where I will be speaking.)

Some major Icelandic organisations are involved:

Examples include the three biggest public institutions in Iceland, all of the ministries, the city of Reykjavik and the National Hospital.

The UK government could learn from the specifics of the Icelandic approach:

Also, a groups of specialist has been formed that will monitor the project, aiming to prevent future failures. The project is also compiling a list of ongoing projects surrounding the use of free and open source software by public institutions to allow collaboration on these projects.

Both of those seem sensible moves. The other important action is to promote the use of open source in schools – another area where the UK has been a complete disaster:

"We are also making sure that in our public schools, the national curricula does not restrict the use of free and open source software."


"Public institutions have slowly been migrating to free software over the last four years. This school year, 2011-2012, two new secondary schools moved their systems entirely to free and open source software, bringing the count to five out of 32 schools."

A majority of the secondary schools are already running Moodle, an open source course management system. Other public bodies such as the newly founded Media commission also run entirely on free and open source software.

The "newly founded Media commission" presumably refers to the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI):

On June 16th 2010 the Icelandic Parliament passed a proposal for a parliamentary resolution tasking the government to introduce a new legislative regime to protect and strengthen modern freedom of expression. The proposal was passed by votes from parliament members of all parties.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, the chief sponsor in parliament of the IMMI proposal said: "Iceland will become the inverse of a tax haven; by offering journalists and publishers some of the most powerful protections for free speech and investigative journalism in the world. Tax havens aim is to make everything opaque. Our aim is to make everything transparent.".

The IMMI is about opening up information globally, while the open source initiative is more focussed on local, practical issues. Put together, they establish Iceland as a real leader in openness – one that the UK government would do well to emulate in both regards.

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