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Open Source / Tech Culture

Why Open Source Makes the UK Open for Business Post-Brexit

Open source will help The U.K. create economic value post-Brexit.
Jan 8th, 2020 3:00am by
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Amanda Brock
Amanda provides consultancy to organizations around open source and collaboration and supports legal teams through mentoring. She is the Chair of the Open Source (OS) and Intellectual Property (IP) Advisory Group of the United Nations Technology Innovation Labs and the European Representative of the world’s biggest defensive patent pool, the Open Invention Network. She is also CEO of OpenUK; joint-organizer of the UK Open Source Awards,, having been a judge of the awards in 2014 and 2015; a member of the OASIS Open Projects' Advisory Council (open source and open standards). She was General Counsel of Canonical, one of the world’s biggest open source companies and commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, setting up the global legal team and running this for five years and has worked in a variety of sectors, ranging from Fashion to Fintech, across EMEA, US, AsiaPac and Emerging Markets, based out of the UK and Amsterdam.

Politics and government can feel far removed from our day-to-day activities. But in recent times there has been a shift, particularly with the perceived need for governments to regulate the digital economy, whether that relates to our outputs and the right to create them or taxing the big technology companies to keep us safe. Government matters today.

The UK woke up on December 13 to a Conservative Party landslide in the general election (with the exception of Scotland, which is almost entirely Scottish Nationalist, potentially splitting the country). And Boris Johnson made it clear throughout his campaign and in his Prime Ministerial acceptance speech that it is time to “Get Brexit done.”

“Brexit,” the popular term coined to represent Britain’s exit from membership of the European Union (EU), has caused political and social turmoil in the UK for the past three years since the referendum decision to leave the EU on June 23, 2016. Now, with a Conservative victory and a significant majority in Parliament, Johnson has been given a clear mandate as Prime Minister to go ahead with his Brexit plans. In many ways, it was not so much a vote of confidence but a pro-Brexit vote by the UK people.

Whatever any of our individual beliefs about the UK in Europe, any suggestion of a second referendum or a change in the decision to exit the EU has been quashed. Despite the EU exit date changing three times and prompting two general elections, the UK will leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. It marks the end of 46 years of membership of the EU and has prompted a period of turmoil that has left many people and businesses in the UK exhausted and uncertain of their future. For better or worse, the UK will now move to the next stage of history.

The open source community, whose philosophy is based on working collaboratively toward common goals with the accent on quality and transparency, may have a few things to teach Boris Johnson’s new Conservative government. Those involved in OpenUK (whatever their varied personal political beliefs) certainly think so.

We will be looking to work with Johnson’s government over the coming months and years to ensure appropriate legislation accommodating the commons and will seek to engage UKGov to ensure that public money is spent on public code.

But can we turn this around and make the now inevitable Brexit present an opportunity for the UK in 2020 and beyond?

Goodbye European Regulations, Welcome UK Leading Open

Looking at US-based GitHub’s contribution stats, the UK is one of the top contributors of open source code. Whether the data is cut by a number of pushes or normalized to pushes/population, pushes per capita or unique ids/population, the UK is in the top 10.

In addition to the UK generated global corporate contributions and contributions from UK entities, the UK has many individuals working remotely in global businesses or contributing as community members to local and global open source projects or who actively contribute into open source communities in other ways. This is likely to continue without any expectation of interruption.

The European Commission’s DG Connect has recently launched Open Source Beyond 2020, to help increase the Commission’s understanding of open source software, hardware and data and to set its direction on these topics in Europe, #OSSbeyond2020. This engagement is a great opportunity for Member State communities to influence real engagement with the European public sector’s procurement processes, to influence legislation to promote “open,” and to ensure that risk is appropriately managed.

OpenUK has been working to bring together leaders in legal and policy from the open communities to form a Legal and Policy Committee whose task is to meet these goals. An exit from the EU must not mean that the UK becomes an island in its approach to digital technologies and open source. It must continue to work hard to benefit the UK from the outputs of #OSSbeyond2020, accepting a digital single market if not a European one.

But although OpenUK continues to work with the Commission on this project, what are the implications for the rest of UK market? It will no longer be subject to new European legislation, including the positive outputs of this process. The new UK Government should use this opportunity to promote “open” in the UK and actively meet its commitments as part of the 2016 Tallinn Declaration:

  1. Digital-by-default, inclusiveness and accessibility
  2. Once only “for key public services”
  3. Trustworthiness and security
  4. Openness and transparency
  5. Interoperability by default
  6. Horizontal enabling policy steps

Open “ing” Opportunities in the UK Post-Brexit

Here are some of the aspects for the UK in creating post-Brexit opportunities:

Encouraging Open Data and Open Source

In a digital world, goods and services are not the only currency. Data is the new gold and needs to flow smoothly across all borders, whether to boost revenue streams or share vital information related to safety and security. Open source knows no geographical restrictions and our ability to collaborate and contribute from the UK into European and global projects need not be impacted by Brexit.

Naturally, the regulation of code comes into the equation but, as was recently discussed at the DG Connect Workshop, it is not coding that needs to be regulated.  Rather than debating the freedom to code, it is the use cases of code that should be regulated.

Collaboration will allow the UK’s open business communities to be seen and heard both within the UK itself and on a global basis. This is an opportunity to influence and to be recognized geographically, at a time when the world has its eyes firmly on the UK.

Driving Digital Sovereignty

In a recent announcement, Sir Tim Berners Lee, with the support of 150 companies including Google and Facebook, announced a “global plan of action to make our online world safe and empowering for everyone.”

The EU and other intra-sovereign organizations may set coordinated governance across their members, but in the case of the EU, each member is its own sovereign. The purpose of the EU is not in itself to be a sovereign of sovereigns, but rather to bring sovereigns together. This matters when it comes to digital sovereignty.

The UK could turn this exit and its clear sovereignty to enhance its position as a global technology leader and to generate and not consume gross domestic product through its digital strategy. By collaborating with other digital sovereigns, the UK can build the infrastructure which, in turn, can ensure its digital sovereignty.

Meeting Goals with Open Source Software

Now that the UK Government is back up and running, “Purdah” (which has stalled engagement) is over and, post-election, OpenUK is able to actively engage in collaboration with the new UK Government through bodies such as the “All Party Intellectual Property Committee” and NHSX — a United Kingdom Government unit with responsibility for setting national policy and developing best practice for National Health Service technology, digital and data, including data sharing and transparency.

Requests have already been made to members of the UK Government to ensure that OpenUK is able to meet with and support their understanding of the benefits and needs of open source software, open hardware and open data, as well as open science and other commons. From Linus’s Law to interoperability the benefits of open source will have a positive total economic impact on the UK public sector.

As home to many small-medium-enterprises, such as Alfresco, Collabora, Codethink and Canonical, and an array of international companies known for open source, with a UK presence, there are also, many major UK businesses, from Arm to Vodafone, utilizing open source in their businesses. It is time for full engagement across the UK business sector and to collaborate within the UK to ensure that the UK does not miss this opportunity.  There is a window here for the UK to be recognized as a global center of excellence in Open technologies.

OpenUK Week and the OpenUK Awards, taking place week of June 8 as part of London Tech Week will celebrate our open software, hardware and data communities and achievements in a public showcase.

Attracting and Retaining Open Source Talent to the UK

The delayed exit has undoubtedly created an environment of uncertainty that has impacted businesses in terms of staffing, investment and pipeline. Unpredictability has slowed investment and made developers and technology employees, who might otherwise work in the UK, hesitant to take roles, diminishing the potential European talent pool available in the UK. Also, the UK’s aging workforce needs to be addressed with individuals being either re-trained or educated in the necessary skills for the technology sector.

In particular, as open source has thrived in the enterprise space, there has been an increasing need for and lack of appropriate skills.

Businesses in the UK complain of the difficulties in hiring suitably qualified developers. Indeed, we have seen a disheartening flow from the public sector to industry, of those who have developed digital and open skills, leaving us with too few people with the right skills in government and the public sector with an understanding of open and the commons.

Here lies an opportunity that must be seized today. The UK has a chance to both re-skill the existing workforce and to ensure that school children are being properly educated in coding and encouraged down the path of open with an appropriate school level qualification. There’s also the potential to raise the profile of open skills and to create adult training within the UK to ensure we have that talent.

Skills in open source languages, like python, will be critical to any future for technology in the UK. And there will be educational demand across support sectors like law, to ensure that new laws and policies are appropriate to the increased development and impact of the open world.

Notably, Boris Johnson’s Special Adviser, Dominic Cummings, put out an unprecedented blog post on Jan. 2 looking to recruit the following into Number 10.

  • Data scientists and software developers
  • Economists
  • Policy experts
  • Project managers
  • Communication experts
  • Junior researchers one of whom will also be my personal assistant
  • Weirdos and misfits with odd skills

The year has only just started and perhaps something positive is already happening.

Agree to Act and Work with OpenUK

Whatever our personal views, it is time for each of us move on from Brexit. In the open communities, there has never been a better time to collaborate with UK companies and individuals.

OpenUK welcomes participation from all open communities wherever they may be in the world. In fact, we’re putting collaboration into action at FOSDEM 2020.

If you’re attending, why not join us in Building K for “Tea and Biscuits with the Brits” on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020?  It is likely to be the UK’s first day outside of the European Union, so let’s make it a good time to demonstrate the open in open source.

Feature image via Pixabay.

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