State of Open Con 2024

9th February 2024 | Jonathan Field

I spent a fascinating two days at the State of Open Con 2024 at The Brewery in central London this week. It is run by not-for-profit OpenUK and, regardless of whether you are an open source software person or not, you should be following what they are doing. OpenUK’s mission is to empower and promote the UK’s Open Technology community. They are knocking on our Government’s door.  

Why is this important? Well, it made me realise that, in our role working with open source in libraries, this represents but a tiny part of the overall open source community in the UK. Open source contributed an estimated £13.59bn to the UK economy in 2022. The tech sector as a whole contributed £50.71bn to the UK economy according to government figures. This means 27% tech growth came from open source in the UK. These are big numbers. The open source industry is huge!

If you think this is all irrelevant to you in your life and work, then you are wrong. Even if you feel that only proprietary software is reliable enough for you, then the likelihood is that it contains key components which are open source. The language it is written in, the web framework it uses, the apache web server it runs behind. This is all very likely open source. Proprietary library systems are built on this stuff also.  

I think this is explainable to a degree when we started in 2007. The big Venture Capitalist (VC) backed open source companies weren’t really there and many of the start-ups were like us, wanting to disrupt and change the landscape. However, now this technology is running huge swathes of Government infrastructure. That’s why point 2 of the manifesto particularly leapt out at me. “Enhance utilisation of open source in the public sector”. Public sector libraries are obviously a sector we work in all the time but, even in 2024, there is still resistance to open source library systems. We still hear phrases like “we don’t feel we’re quite ready for an open source system yet” and “we don’t feel we have the skills to adopt open source”. I don’t know if it’s actually more about the phrase “Nobody gets fired for buying IBM”? The key messages about open source clearly don’t filter down to many people running libraries which is why it is so important that the Government assists in promoting this message. Listening to the large number of speakers (from the US in particular), it’s very clear that the UK is very risk averse (and this was mentioned numerous times). We see this also. Whereas libraries in the US have no hesitation about buying an open source system the UK feels many years behind. US libraries adopt this not necessarily because it is open or cheaper, but simply because it is a functional upgrade on their previous system!

We implemented our first Koha open source system in a public library back in 2011! That library is still happily running it today, gaining more and more functionality as it develops each year. I would say they were visionary then, they took a risk and it paid off for them. I think public sector libraries buying systems today are very much stretched in terms of both staffing and also finances which makes the perceived, “safe” option all the more attractive. It would be so good to see this narrative change and reflect the true state of the open source economy in the UK. 

The other interesting takeaway is that the UK is at the heart of the AI technology industry. AI has 65k generative projects on GitHub, 65% from the UK. The UK sits at the number one position in Europe in terms of GitHub accounts and number Five globally in terms of these developer accounts, as of October 2022. The current estimated number is somewhere around 3.2 million. This means open source is going to be at the very heart of this AI revolution, not some minority player. 

It’s worth saying that there were several thousand people at this conference with representatives from both proprietary and open source organisations, you would recognise many of the names. If you want to catch up with any of the presentations from the conference they will be available here any day.

Now “Come on UK!” (and “come on UK libraries”!), let’s keep the UK number 1 in Europe and back this huge open source economy we have.

The Brewery, Criswell Street, London
The Brewery, Chiswell Street, London


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