Under the Hood: Open Source @ gov.za

August 25, 2008 § 2 Comments

As he wrapped up, Aslam Raffee reflected: “We’ve done very well in terms of setting policy, but very poorly at implementation. We’ve got to fix that.” Aslam is one of three people leading to roll out of South Africa’s government-wide commitment to open source. And he’s willing to admit: making it work ain’t easy.


At Open Everything Cape Town, Aslam spent an hour talking with Matt Buckland and Steve Song about how the open source policy roll out is going. The policy basically states that all systems used to run the Government of South Africa must be based on open standards and should use open source software wherever possible. As you can hear the podcast below, he was at once honest about the challenges of making this idea real and optimistic about the future …


Aslam Raffee – mouseover for audio

On the upside, the Government of South Africa seems to be ‘making the market’ by insisting that all departments have open document format (ODF) capability by the end of the year. Microsoft — which had previously given a ‘no way’ — is now on a fast track to integrating to ODF into Word. It seems there are alot of Word users in South Africa who still want to be able to do business with government. Also, there has been good traction on things like open standards and avoiding lock-in with big tenders in areas like government document management. The result is that these systems are most likely to be open source.

On the downside, there is simply a huge amount of ignorance and entropy. Asked if he could give an example of where they’re struggling to get people to ‘be open’, Aslam cited the Independent Election Comission’s brand new web site. When you go to the site in Firefox (I just did), you get this message:

Welcome to the IEC web site! Our server detected that you are using a Browser or Operating System (e.g. Netscape, Mozilla Firefox, etc) which is currently incompatible with our site.This web site is designed for Microsoft Internet Explorer versions 4 and above on Microsoft Windows. The IEC is currently in the process of enhancing the web site so that it will also cater for other browsers. We apologize for the inconvenience caused. Please click on the image below to download the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Even more notably, the ‘currently in the process of enhancing’ language didn’t even exist until a bunch of people blogged about this on Friday. It’s tough to be proud of your government’s commitment to open standards — and equal access to all citizens — with stuff like this.

The other big barrier to implementation is skills.The number of skilled open source developers and support people needed to roll out the government’s plan just don’t exist. Fixing this is partly a waiting game, as it depends on what the education system does … and what’s taught in classrooms is exempt from the open source policy as it isn’t about ‘government administration systems’.

Thanks to Aslam, Matt, Steve and everyone at Open Everything for making this conversation real. I learned a great deal.

The podcast above just includes Aslam’s main talk and the interview by Steve and Matt. You can hear a longer version including another 20 mins of audience questions here (bad audio in some parts).

§ 2 Responses to Under the Hood: Open Source @ gov.za

  • I installed a Firefox useragent switcher to fake Internet Explorer, and off we go and browse without any issue. I realised why they might want to exclude Firefox users, the site is just terribly ugly. Of course it also means that they can hide all the .xls and .doc files here http://www.elections.org.za/library1.asp?KSId=17&iKid=3 which should be in OpenDocument format or at least PDF.

  • Mark Surman says:

    Actually, not a bad idea to tell them to advertise a user agent switcher on the IEC site … although the fact that more people will see how ugly it is might embarrass whoever the website vendor. Wouldn’t want that. 🙂

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