The fact that open source was once considered a subversive, fringe movement seems inconceivable today. Having powered innovation for decades while staying largely outside the spotlight, open source is now in approximately 92% of software across all sectors and around the world.
Now, formal institutions and official bodies consider open source to be an essential tool for innovation and are creating policy to drive its broader use. The accompanying policy development marks a welcome and vital shift.
In her keynote address at the recent OSPO++ ‘Open Source Innovation in Universities event’, Sachiko Muto, chair of OpenForum Europe and senior researcher at RI.SE, explored the evolution of the EU’s recent policy on open source, its future direction and the implications for universities.
From David to Goliath
Muto recounted earlier attitudes toward open source and how even its advocates were outpaced by its potential. “Looking back on it now, I think the conversation was really limited,” she said. “The conversation was mostly around open standards and the choice between proprietary and open source.”
While discussions centered on the idea of open source being an important choice for future growth; open source projects and software were proving the hypothesis faster than policy makers, enterprise and even researchers were aware.
Muto noted a colleague who worked for what was Sony Ericsson. Although the company was not a vocal proponent of open source software (OSS); by the early 2010s, around 95% of the software they used was open source. This was just one example. Muto also recalled an observation that there are two kinds of organizations - those who know they rely on open source and have an active strategy to support it, and those who don’t yet realize they rely on OSS.
“Something happened in the ‘real world,’ where open source just took over,” said Muto. “So we had to change the narrative from a sort of David and Goliath story to something that was completely different.”
A call to action
The 2017 Tallinn Declaration on eGovernment called on “Member States and the Commission, both collectively and individually, to continue to invest in accelerating the modernisation of the public sector.”
A critical aspect of this declaration is that it came from Ministers rather than the European Commission itself. The declaration represented a call to action from EU member states not only to the EU but also to its institutions. The declaration was signed by all EU Member States and European Free Trade AssocIation (EFTA) nations, building on the 2009 Malmö Declaration and this time, specifically committing to wider use of open source.
The Development of EU open source policy
Muto noted that the EU tends to begin policy development with research before issuing recommendations; providing funding; and finally devising mandatory requirements and policy frameworks.
In 2019, the Commission engaged OpenForum Europe and Fraunhofer ISI to examine and quantify the impact of open source software and hardware on the European economy. The study was undertaken in part to assess the potential of future directives to encourage open source development across Europe. Published in September 2021, the findings estimated that open source software contributes as much as €95 billion to the European Union’s GDP and recommended expanded investment to fuel significant additional growth.
The Open Source Observatory in the European Commission reported: “The data predicts that if open source contributions increased by 10% in the EU, they would generate approximately an additional €100 billion to the bloc’s GDP.” To reap these benefits, the researchers pointed to a need for a profound culture switch and significant investments in open technologies.
While the findings made headlines, the data merely backed up what industry and research already knew - that open source was a key driver of innovation across sectors and applications. The report notably showed significant contributions from developers working in SMEs and startups, demonstrating that industry was in turn using open source to drive revenue growth across the continent. Muto highlighted this “virtuous cycle” of the wider availability of open code leading more companies and developers to contribute open code, ensuring mutual continued growth.
From research to recommendations
This validation of open source informed new developments. In 2020, the EC established its Open Source Program Office (OSPO) and also launched its 2020-2023 open source strategy. The strategy was developed under the theme, “Think Open”, and relies on the sharing and reuse of software solutions across Europe.
Although this was the third open source strategy produced by the EU, it was its most ambitious to date. The strategy focused much more on the collaborative and innovative power of OSS and its role in promoting competitiveness; encouraging the growth of SMEs; and transition to a more inclusive digital environment.
Funding innovation and open science
Muto noted that “The EU is sometimes described as an oil tanker that isn’t very agile … It doesn’t move very quickly but once it does, there is incredible momentum.”
With a budget of €95.5 billion to fund research through 2027, the EU’s Horizon Europe, is of particular relevance to researchers. Calls for tender specifically refer to open source and align with the policy trends toward the sharing and reuse of OSS, interoperability, contributing to open source projects and the FAIR principles for digital development.
In line with the FAIR principles, any beneficiaries of HORIZON funding are obliged to make their publications available in open access and their data as open as possible.
In parallel to this, the European Open Science Cloud adopted recommendations that software could be included at the same level of research outputs as data and publications.
Muto explained that while it is not mandatory to release source code from HORIZON projects, the trend is in this direction. Demonstrating an awareness and understanding of this shift towards sharing code will strengthen funding proposals.
Legislation and Mandatory Requirements
In November 2022, a new proposal was drafted at the behest of EU nations and based on 27 recommendations made by an expert group from member countries. This proposal is based on the existing European Interoperability Framework which highlights the importance of open standards and open source for improving interoperability for e-government standards and solutions. The framework also promotes share and reuse.
Feedback from member states was that the guidelines were not enough and that mandatory aspects were needed in order to maximize impact.
The legislation for ‘The Interoperable Europe Act’ is now before the European Parliament and is expected to pass. Rather than legislating after the fact, these steps are positioning the EU to be a leader in shaping the future of open source and technology development.
Muto highlighted one Chapter 1, Article 4 of the proposed legislation:
“A public sector body or an institution, body or agency of the Union shall make available to any other such entity that requests it, interoperability solutions that support the public services that it delivers or manages electronically. The shared content shall include the technical documentation and, where applicable, the documented source code.”
As key legislative bodies and public institutions implement OS policies; universities and researchers are benefitting both from the guidance they provide and the widespread support for open source they foster. Citing multiple calls for tender that are seeking OS solutions, Muto noted the increasing opportunities for researchers and also the importance of recognising the movement in policy towards open sharing of source code.
With interoperability emerging as a cornerstone of open source development and e-government action, it continues to shape strategy today. The creation of an OSPO for the Dutch Ministry of Interior and Kingdom Relations and the recent launches of national public OSPOs in France, Germany and the Czech Republic demonstrate national alignment with the EU commitment to open source. Public OSPOs will play a crucial role as strategic stakeholders with the capacity to unlock value and strengthen collaboration at a national level.
View the full OSPO++ event keynote with Sachiko Muto here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0)