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COVID19 contact tracing apps: a call for open source

A comment by Julian Kunkel, Simon Worthington, Jeremy Bennett, Andy Bennett

Governments worldwide are developing smartphone apps that track the location and movement profile of citizens in order to quickly identify contact persons of COVID-19 infections. According to The Financial Times, if even 40% of smartphone users install such an application, the infection levels would be significantly reduced in the UK. Therefore, the widespread usage of such an application is an important instrument in the current crisis.

How could such a smartphone app work? In a nutshell, a device can scan other nearby devices and exchange device IDs, for example, using Bluetooth. This information then needs to be stored with a timestamp. If the owner of a device contracts the virus, s/he could indicate this fact in the app allowing to associate the own device ID with the information that s/he may have infected others. This data then needs to be recorded on a server to allow the app of other users to query the register and then compare any contact information with the register of COVID-19 victims.

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Case study: The Importance of Open Source for Research in High-Performance Computing

This post is part of the OSSG series “the role of open source in the UK”, where we collect and publish statements from companies and individuals in the UK regarding their experience with Open Source Software. We welcome any submission to this series. If you are interested, please send an email to Dr Julian Kunkel.

by Dr Julian Kunkel, Lecturer, Department of Computer Science, University of Reading

Open source is vital in providing teaching, in conducting research in computer science, and in enabling reproducible large-scale experiments in computational science that support the society. In this post, Julian describes his experience with Open Source in his career.

The Relevance of Open Source: A Personal Statement

Open-source software is for me the key enabler for productive work and for providing training and research environments for various reasons. Firstly, in my own work environment, I rely upon Ubuntu as the operating system to give me the freedom to conduct research and programming experiments easily on my laptop that can later be scaled up to data-center wide experiments. 

Having full control over the system and easy means to repair a broken system, I haven’t lost any data in my 20-year usage of Linux albeit my work often requires to perform rigorous stress-testing of hardware components. I have high confidence and trust in the software stack due to the openness of the software stack. There are no hidden data transmission of private data and proper security schemes in place that protect my data and research. Another benefit I acknowledge is that key APIs are robust and software I rely on that has started to be developed 20 years ago can still be used.

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We need to change the way we advocate for Open

For the last year or so, Open Source educational and advocacy work by our think tank, OpenForum Europe, has been framed by a key question: “Why did Open Source Software development end up as an unintended casualty in the original proposal of the EU’s Copyright Directive?”

In a time when the digital transformation is at the heart of many policy discussions in Brussels, and when Open Source-dependent technology such as IoT, Cloud, blockchain and supercomputers are hot topics, no one involved in drafting the legislation thought of software development. In short, the platforms and repositories used by developers to drive the digital transformation through the collaborative development of code were forgotten.

Consequently, as the platforms fell into the scope of the Copyright Directive’s filtering obligations, they ran the risk of being regulated out of practical existence in the EU, or at least their users would experience a very negative cooling effect on innovation.

Astor speaking at our talks on Open Source in Government.

In response to this regulatory risk, OpenForum Europe and the Free Software Foundation Europe started the SaveCodeshare.eu campaign. In the end we were successful in excluding software platforms from the final law. That said (and there is a lot to say about the process of getting there and the many other consequences of the Copyright Directive as a whole) our main takeaway was the grim realisation that Open Source software was overlooked, despite software being largely regulated by copyright law.

On the one hand, this says something about knowledge gaps that exist among policy makers. But on the other hand, it also says something about the state of Open Source advocacy in Europe. Advocacy has not followed the times and is way behind reflecting the reality of the role and position of Open Source in everything digital.

Open Source advocacy is still reactive. Communities of activists and advocates should (perhaps must) build the capacity to be proactive.

The need for a maturing of Open Source representation in politics goes beyond simply not being overlooked when drafting digitally relevant legislation. In our view, with Open Source having gone mainstream, there are new risks and opportunities arising. That means that the political conversation around Open Source has to go beyond what it has focused on in the past, to how to become acknowledged as being of strategic importance for Europe’s digital future.

To be part of that conversation, the Open Source ecosystem needs to build the capacity to become trusted partners of governments and public authorities, in order to capture the big opportunities.

We believe that to make that happen, to not just fend off regulatory risk, but also capture the opportunities that are out there, all stakeholders in the ecosystem need to step up. From the developers, Open Source vendors to the large IT and industrial companies that develop and/or depend on Open Source’s innovative benefits, there needs to be more effort, energy and resources spent on political representation and educational efforts.

We have to at least take on the collective responsibility to make sure that Open Source Software never becomes an unintended casualty again. For those stakeholders that look further than defensive efforts, we need to be part of the conversations around the digitization of all sectors of our society. It is also our responsibility to do our part in ensuring that the much talked about Digital Sovereignty describes a digital reality that is neither locked-in to a small group of monopolistic vendors or for that matter, a chauvinist approach of a Europe closed for global collaboration.

Europe’s digital future should be based on Open.