“Open source is a manifestation of digital sustainability”
In the new Digital Sustainability Lab of the Institute Public Sector Transformation (IPST), a team of researchers develops mobile apps and web applications using open source software. A conversation with the new director of the institute, Dr Matthias Stürmer, about digital sustainability and open data.
You were the full-time head of the Digital Sustainability Research Unit at the University of Bern for eight years and have been the managing director of Parldigi for 12 years. The topic of digital sustainability obviously fascinates you. What are the most exciting points for you?
Dr Matthias Stürmer: Basically, digital sustainability is about the long-term and broadest possible accessibility of digital knowledge. Society should benefit as much as possible from data, software and digital content. That was part of my doctoral thesis, which I started 15 years ago in the area of open source communities at ETH Zurich. A central question was how companies can work together with voluntary communities. Why should companies invest in public goods like open source software? At that time, this was still a rarity, but today it is the norm for many small and large companies. Interestingly, of all companies, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple – the Big Five – release a lot of open source software. At the same time, however, they have gained power and market capitalisation through their nevertheless largely proprietary technology products and their network effects. They can exert great control over the digital space and thus set in motion a creeping privatisation of the digital space. Digital sustainability wants to counteract this in the sense that we want to have as much open, free knowledge as possible. Only in this way can society benefit from this digitalisation.
Then your two other big topics in the area of open data follow on directly from that.
Yes, that’s right. We always understand digital sustainability as an overarching concept, even on an abstract level. There are already many concrete examples and open source is like a manifestation of digital sustainability or also open data or linked open data. But what I also find very important is the link to sustainable development, i.e. to environmental and social sustainability issues. In fact, for a long time, people often forget the sustainability issue of electricity consumption or hardware or e-waste, etc., especially in digitalisation. At the same time, from a sustainability perspective, digitalisation was not taken seriously. For eight years, I have been advocating that we bring these areas together.
You have been actively involved in open source software and digital sustainability for over ten years. What development has Switzerland and the Canton of Bern gone through during this time? Has the topic been underestimated so far because it is not commercial?
Very good question. I see the glass as half full – I am very happy about everything that is already happening today. We recently had an open hearing at Parldigi with Dirk Lindemann. He is the director of the Federal Office of Information Technology and Telecommunications. It was about the new COVID certificate that we receive via mobile app when we are vaccinated or tested or recovered. In other words, a digital solution that will help us in our everyday lives. The genius is that the whole thing was developed with open source software, so based on open source components. It has almost become the norm that especially such critical elements of digitalisation are released more frequently as open source. This is a mindset that has penetrated to the highest levels of the federal administration. At the same time, we also launched the Open Source Study 2021 in May, in which we conduct a large survey every three years. We have seen that the topic of open source has grown almost everywhere. But there are also areas where the topic is still a sideshow, for example in enterprise planning software (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM).
You mentioned the COVID certificate. Last year, there were several hackathons shortly after the first lockdown began. There, solutions were developed to deal with the abundance of data because individual authorities could not handle it. Has the pandemic accelerated development in this area?
Absolutely. First of all, it revealed major deficiencies. The fax machines in the federal offices are certainly a huge deficit. Especially those who were not quite up to date were pretty shaken up. Digital communication was also disruptive for many, especially in schools and universities. At the same time, the big companies have once again gained a lot of power.
Let’s go back to your institute. How will the topic of open data be addressed in the future?
I will continue my previous work and add to it: I’m bringing in some experts from the University of Bern to realise technical prototyping implementations. I also have a lecture on open data, in which we continue to do data coaching to support students, but also the administration, with visualisations of open data. Will you also give this lecture at BFH? No, I will stay at the University of Bern for about 20 percent of the time. What I’m taking with me are the contacts and the software platform that we developed. In future there will be a Digital Sustainability Lab at the IPST. Here we are about 15 people from the University of Bern and we take care of the implementation of software applications or software applications.
Can you already reveal what you will be developing?
For example, we will continue to develop the energy data platform of the Canton of Bern, which I built with my team at the University of Bern, and take over its maintenance. In addition, we are currently developing a visualisation of the City of Bern’s sustainability monitoring for its real estate.
The institute is located in an area of tension between administration, politics and business, which is research, but also practice. How will you position the IPST?
Our institute is very well networked in the e-government, digital democracy and smart city community and has a long track record with excellent publications and practical projects. Therefore, we will definitely continue to pursue this topic. In addition, there are topics at the IPST such as open data, linked data and digitisation and sustainability, which tie in ideally with my activities at the Digital Sustainability Research Unit at the University of Bern. In addition, there are two new fields of activity, “public procurement” and “implementation of software developments”, which we will be setting up over the next few months. In future, we will support public bodies with IT tenders or sustainability criteria. In addition, we will develop modern web applications and mobile apps for public authorities, researchers, associations and other interested parties in the new Digital Sustainability Lab.
About the Digital Sustainability Lab
BFH Wirtschaft now has a Digital Sustainability Lab. A 15-member team led by Jasmin Nussbaumer and Dominic Schweizer is experimenting with new information and communication technologies and researching their use in practice. The team develops software, mobile apps and web applications, and also operates its own services and platforms on a long-term basis. The findings from research flow directly into teaching: The development team teaches students, researchers and companies programming skills and digital skills in general. The team led by Nussbaumer and Schweizer uses open source technologies and open data, building bridges between research and administration as well as business. The services of the Digital Sustainability Lab also include technology-related consulting, support and development of IT strategies, realisation of IT procurements, data visualisations and learning stick and BYOD examination environments.
The interview was published in the customer magazine “Präsenz” of BFH Wirtschaft. Read the whole interview here.