Open Source Codes and the Challenge of the SDGs: An UNTIL Interview with Amanda Brock
The question of how least developed countries can access expensive computer software has long vexed the UN. At the same time, even private sector companies sympathetic to the Sustainable Development Goals have been reluctant to share the secrets of their closed-source software. To find a solution to this problem recently UNTIL established an Advisory Group composed of outside experts and chaired by Amanda Brock.
Brock has deep experience in this area and has long played a behind-the-scenes role on global stages leading the charge for more transparency in software. Along with her role with UNTIL she is the European Representative of the world’s biggest defensive patent pool, the Open Invention Network, and CEO of the Trustable open source project. A lawyer by training and profession, she is a Fellow of the OpenForum Academy, a member of OASIS Standards Open Advisory Board, a founding editor of the Journal of Open Law, Technology and Society.
UNTIL: Why should Member States take collaboration and trust in software more seriously? How does it contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals?
BROCK: The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals focus on global challenges related to poverty, inequality, prosperity, and others. Digital technologies, which are increasingly driven by open source software and the collaborative innovation process it engenders, can help to provide awareness and education to the world’s population, which can help to address these issues. For example, mobile technologies can be used in remote areas to access government services, banking, training, and other services that might not otherwise be available. These digital technologies are best delivered with software technologies that are trustable.
UNTIL: What is the goal of the UNTIL Open Source and Intellectual Property Advisory Group (OS & IP AG)?
BROCK: The goal of the Advisory Group is to create intellectual property and open source guidelines and frameworks to support repeatable and sustainable development of digital solutions for United Nations Technology Innovation Labs (UNTIL) Programme emerging technology co-creation initiatives. Once created, technology and non-technology organisations will be able to share and benefit from the outputs of the collaborations to allow their digital solutions to add value in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).
UNTIL: How will you achieve this goal?
BROCK: We have some of the most recognised and experienced figures from the world of open source software, open standards and open hardware, representing legal, community and corporate interests in the commons, as well as economists and policy advisers, all collaborating to shape the panel's output. It’s one of the best groups of advisers I have seen or worked with and they are all really committed to supporting the UN’s digital development through the Innovation Labs.
The agenda of our first physical meeting in Helsinki this summer, included clarifying organisational and commercial models specifically linked to open source's impact on organisations and Member States, by establishing processes to enable developers and users of code and data to share and adopt open code and organisational practices, processes, and tool-sets in a structured and manageable way.
This will enable the benefits of high-quality open source digital solutions to be scaled across Member States, resulting in cost-savings and circumventing issues of vendor lock-in. New open source organizational models will likely arise from the continuous collaborations created across Member States as they learn to share and collaborate in the development of foundational open source software.
UNTIL: How does this vision conform with the Principles of Digital Development and complement the efforts of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) treaties on IP related subjects?
BROCK: UNTIL labs’ digital solutions will generally look first at the open source option to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals by following the Digital Development Principles, in particular Principle 6 through the use of open source, open standards, open data and open innovation. We hope that unlike many other organisations which set up this policy or requirement without the infrastructure to support its delivery or the expertise to understand what that means, the UNTIL Advisory Group can support the labs in actually delivering this.
UNTIL: How successful have the Principles of Digital Development been in changing the discussion around IP and software?
BROCK: Whilst the Principles have brought open source onto the agenda, the discussions around IP and software in line with these are very early stage and I believe we need to see more engagement with and utilisation of the skills from the open source communities across the board, if the Principles are to be successful.
UNTIL: Why should companies share their proprietary software with the UN?
BROCK: I would like to see companies understanding better the benefits of long-term collaboration. In open source, collaboration makes for better code, saves money and removes lock-in. We like to say that one plus one does not equal two in open source and in fact the investment of money and labour in open source creates better value. In tech for good, such as the labs, this principle will be critical to getting the best value from the investment.
Not all software is suitable for open sourcing, but this decision should be made, working back from the principle that all software will be open sourced and where the processes and infrastructure to achieve this is in place.
UNTIL: How does this panel compliment the work of the UN's High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation or other UN initiatives like FOSS?
BROCK: The UNTIL Advisory Group appears to be the first of its kind in advising a UN programme at a substantive level. The group can give really deep and broad expertise to compliment other panels of advisers and also the internal skills available within the UN.
As the UNTIL labs scale globally beyond Egypt, India, Finland and Malaysia, so too will the use of the OS & IP Advisory Group’s guidelines and processes. Thanks to their work following open source methodologies and outputs being shared on an open, creative commons license, other organisations will be able to adopt and re-use. We hope that our Group’s outputs will have a positive influence and impact on areas of the UN’s work and will welcome any opportunities to work with the High-Level Panel and other initiatives within the UN.
UNTIL: Can you summarize the goal of creating the trustable software project? Why is something so important so overlooked?
BROCK: Software development, adoption and the rise of open source in the enterprise and public sector may sometimes feel like it’s been slow, for those of us who have been involved day to day. But the reality is that this has been rapid and many companies are running to keep up. Traditional areas and functions like legal and risk have sometimes been slow to adapt and to understand both technology and its impact. This has, on occasion, meant a lack of adequate consideration of critical risk, whether in engineering or in legal and compliance.
The Trustable project is unique in seeking to bring all of risk in software engineering, legal and compliance together and in its focus on risk in software development and creating clarity on what are good practices and processes as opposed to the software itself when it comes to risk.
UNTIL: And your other role with Open Invention Network has been a long standing one. Can you tell us more?
BROCK: I led Canonical joining the Open Invention Network around a decade ago as one of the funders of OIN, then represented Canonical at the OIN board level before taking a role as a European Representative with OIN in early 2013 which involves me supporting OIN in outreach and licensing new members. I am proud to have worked with OIN and to be able to share with you that today OIN is the biggest defensive Intellectual Property organisation in history with over 3000 participants. There are no barriers to entry and all organisations can join at zero cost whether they hold patents or not. OIN works through a cross licence and its community members commit to share patents around an open source definition and not to sue its each other in it. It works very closely with the Linux Foundation (LF) and we see a slip stream of membership from organisations and within sectors as they engage with LF, such as automotive, mobile and more recently financial services.
UNTIL: Why is supporting Open Invention Network something that the Member States should consider?
BROCK: My fellow OS & IP Advisory Group Member, Mirko Boehm, is also the Director Linux System Definition, Open Invention Network and recently coined the term “continuous non- differentiating collaboration”. This is the kind of work done by organisations collectively where they work on key infrastructure or platforms but retain an ability to differentiate themselves at a level which is higher up the software stack. At the point in their digital development where organisations reach the level of sophistication where they wish to work on this kind of collaborative basis, they tend to realise and accept the need to move away from traditional or aggressive approaches to intellectual property, particularly patents.
They work to find ways of managing collaboration which inevitably requires them to share intellectual capital. This type of collaboration can also be utilised to stop those who would stifle innovation and prevent change through their entrenched approaches in business or to intellectual property. The defensive IP model used by OIN creates one-of the most effective collaborations in history. It is notable that it was large companies including Sony, NEC, Phillips and IBM who set up OIN and today its members include Google, Renault, Microsoft and Alibaba. Of-course small
companies benefit too, but all successful digital companies understand the benefit of this approach.
UNTIL: How would you define Open Source?
BROCK: The key for me is collaboration and, co-opetition (where organisations compete and collaborate at the same time). I see this as the future for all enterprise innovation, making best use of available resources whether money, people or skills, removing vendor lock-in and making innovation re-usable and scalable at the best value in all respects. The potential benefits of shared infrastructure software offered by open source are in particular critical for the Member States.
For some-time there has been a focus on licensing, but there is of course much more to Open Source than that. It’s of course also a question of community, collaboration and contribution. Governance including licensing is important and the mix of people involved in our advisory represent this broader approach to what open source is, which is so much more than our great code and its licences.
In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion around what Open Source is and I am in fact the editor of a book to be published by Oxford University Press in 2020, Open Source Law, Policy and Practice, where we will address this in some detail and also explore some of the things that are not open source – like inner source or public source- which are sometimes confused for them.
UNTIL: Can you quantify or estimate how much money member states waste by investing in closed source software duplicated elsewhere?
BROCK: We have a lack of good data around open source, Total Cost of Ownership and the benefits. That is however something that is being actively addressed. OpenUK, which I am a Director of, will be producing a report on this in the coming months and I hope that will help to demonstrate value with hard figures.
UNTIL: How might an Open Source business model for the UN operate?
BROCK: I don’t really see open source as something that has a business model, but rather that there are commercial models around open source software that create revenue generation and operating models for open source projects that allow them to be paid for or to be profitable. We are looking at how these models can be developed with UNTIL and developing an operational model to ensure that it’s not just a case of paying lip-service to Open source first or to the concept that the labs, UNTIL and Member States will use, adopt and contribute to Open Source. Instead we are working at a practical level leveraging the group’s expertise to facilitate UNTIL’s development in line with good practice, state of the art governance and community norms. This will keep the UNTIL labs ahead of the curve as open source becomes the norm in enterprise, across governments and in Member States and may well see it become the first programme to truly embrace and open approach, bringing toghether financing across Member Statees and sharing output.