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Tech, GP

February 11, 2012

The Granite State got it right on software purchases

Believe it or not, I have found a bright spot in the political landscape, amid all the vitriolic partisan fighting.

Legislative politicians in New Hampshire have actually recently passed what looks to me like a good law, regarding the state's technology.

I don't know the detailed politics behind it, but it took about a year to get through, and both houses of their state legislature have passed it. It's about time a government somewhere woke up.

State agencies there are now required by law to consider open source software when acquiring software, and promote the use of open data formats. This is huge.

If you don't know what open source software is, I'll give you a quick description. It's computer software that is, many times, completely free. That means both free as in free beer, and free as in freedom.

It's not always free, money-wise, but a lot of the time it is. It is more often free in the sense that it is unencumbered by licensing restricting its use.

As a result, selecting open source software as opposed to proprietary software (such as Microsoft Office, for example) can provide a much less expensive software solution.

New Hampshire's law doesn't require the purchase of open source software exclusively, but it does require the consideration of it on a cost-for-value basis, and if proprietary software is chosen instead, the rationalization behind the decision has to be provided to the state's chief information officer.

This provision, requiring the responsible person's name to be attached to it, should go a long way to ensure that the decisions will be well-made. No civil servant wants his name attached to a decision that may someday be under scrutiny and found to be wrong. That's simply covering your you-know-what.

The other part of the law, requiring the use of open data formats, is just as important. It's insurance that the people of the state won't be held hostage to a particular software company because the data is stored in a format that only certain programs can use. For years, proprietary data formats have been the way computer program companies have kept customers locked into using a particular (and probably more costly) program.

So this law really has two good parts to it. I'm suitably impressed.

How did this come about? Well, you may have guessed it. A geek, Seth Cohn, got elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives. Someone who knows what he's talking about actually wrote the bill, which was written to favor the taxpayers of New Hampshire, instead of being written to improve the bottom line of related businesses.

This is the kind of representation that I wish there was more of.

The law has the potential to save New Hampshire an awfully lot of money _ money that has to come from the taxpayers.

Although I probably spend 95 percent of my professional time working with Windows and other proprietary software, I've always been a proponent of free software.

I have never felt good about how governments and school districts spend a boatload of money on proprietary software. If private businesses wants to buy proprietary programs, that's one thing. How they spend their dollars is up to them.

When a public body, supported by taxes, decides to spend money on such programs, that's another thing. Taxing entities have a responsibility to their constituents to spend the money as wisely as possible.

Spending $300 to $400 to equip a single computer with an office suite program, when a nearly functional equivalent can be had for free, is not my idea of spending tax dollars the best way possible.

So, I tip my hat to the government of the Granite State. I can only hope that other governments will follow their example.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at techgp@thedailystar.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/techgp.

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