When Local Governments Choose Open Source Technology

When Local Governments Choose Open Source Technology

Mark Cassell (Kent State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-282-4.ch028


This chapter examines empirically, the intended and unintended consequences that occur when a local government chooses to migrate away from a proprietary software technology such as Windows, and adopt a free/open source (FOSS) technology alternative. Motivation driving the process is also considered. Drawing on a comparative case study of 4 European cities, the research finds evidence that migration to FOSS is driven by a strong desire to maintain control over a municipality’s IT infrastructure and that organizational change can be an important unintended consequence of the policy.
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A growing number of local governments as diverse as Austin, Texas and Paris, France have opted to migrate at least some of their cities’ computer operating systems and software applications from proprietary software to so-called Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) alternatives. FOSS is a generic term for software that is non-proprietary, can be reviewed by large numbers of users, and can be revised and shared free of charge. Most of the attention devoted to FOSS centers on the policies of private companies (Fink 2002, Kerstetter et al., 2003), national governments (Weber 2004; Karaganis and Latham 2005; Comino, S. and F.M. Manenti, 2005), and supra-national governments such as the European Union (Ghosh 2005; Cukier 2005; Gonzalez-Barahona 2006). This chapter focuses on local governments and tries to answer empirically two relatively simple questions: first, why does a local government turn to FOSS?; and second, what, if any, are some of the intended and unintended consequences that occur when a local government shifts from proprietary software to FOSS? The research draws on data collected from a comparative case study of four European cities, each of which adopted a policy to migrate away from Microsoft Windows and toward a FOSS-based operating system, and replace proprietary software applications with open source equivalents.

The chapter is exploratory rather than explanatory. In comparing four cases, the objective is to develop theories about the adoption of FOSS by local governments; theories which future research may be able to test through large-scale N studies of local governments. The cities include Vienna, Munich, Schwäbisch Hall, and Treuchtlingen. They range in size, type of organizational structure and complexity (See Table 1). With the exception of Vienna, all are located in the south-west region of Germany. Each city had previously used a version of Microsoft Windows. Each city adopted a policy which committed the municipal government to migrate to the Linux operating system along with FOSS applications. And, although all are committed to migrating to FOSS, they differ in their approach and strategy, and in terms of where they are in the implementation stage.

Table 1.
Cities in the study
BackgroundApproachYear AdoptedStatus
TreutchlingenPop. 13,000 located in south-west Germany.Mandated switch; operating system and applications2001Complete
Schwäbisch HallPop. 36,000 located in south-west GermanyMandated switch; operating system and applications2001Complete
ViennaPop. 1.6 million; 16,000 PCs and 800 laptops; located in AustriaVoluntary and incremental approach; Focus on platform independence2001Several thousand use FOSS applications; 500 PCs completely switched
MunichPop. 1.3 million; 14,000 PCs; located in southern GermanyMandated switch; operating system and applications20013 of 17 departments complete

Key Terms in this Chapter

Source Code: The commands written in a computer language which enable software to operate.

Terminal-Server: A program that provides terminals (PCs, printers, and other devices) with a common connection point to a local or wide-area network.

Server: A computer program that provides services to other computer programs. A server typically fulfills requests from other computer programs like printing a document or downloading a webpage.

Proprietary Software: Computer software with restriction on use of private modification, or with restrictions on copying or publishing of modified or unmodified versions.

Free and Open Source Software (FOSS): Software which is licensed to grant the right of users to study, change, and improve its design through the availability of its source code.

Linux: The most popular FOSS operating system. Its source code can be freely modifie, used and distributed by anyone.

Operating System: Software that manages a computer’s resources and applications. It provides users with an interface to access programs and other resources. Windows Vista is an example of a proprietary operating system. GNU/Linux is a popular FOSS operating system.

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