Open Source Replaces Microsoft in Umbria

If you thought Microsoft’s Office ruled the productivity roost the world over, you’d be wrong. Here’s one uplifting story on how open source kicked Word and PowerPoint out of one Italian region.

Microsoft Office may have a global monopoly, but one Italian region rejected it flat out. But, why ?

In the stunningly beautiful Italian region of Umbria, you’ll feel more at home running open source software, rather than the clunky and expensive Microsoft Office suite.

That’s because despite having the greatest market share in the world, Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (among others) just didn’t quite fit the bill for what the region’s local government bodies needed.

Its “LibreUmbria” project set the wheels in motion on getting the popular underdog LibreOffice across every public sector PC in the region.

It’s thought to be the biggest transition away from proprietary software ever undertaken. But why, when Office works for so many around the world ?

According to the Perugia province’s head of IT Alfiero Ortali, most of his users were exploiting just 15 percent of the entire Office suite, leaving the region paying for the unused 85 percent.

“It’s just like if you owned a Ferrari and only used it to drive at 30 km per hour through the middle of town,” he said.

Open source may get a bad rap from time to time, despite powering most of the back-end Internet, the world’s social networks, supercomputers, and online security. But if there’s one story of the year to make you feel good about the underdog, it’s this one.

This small area in the middle of the Boot, known for its centuries-old monasteries and for being the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, is in fact quickly becoming a mecca of free software.

Thanks to a project called LibreUmbria, the biggest local government bodies are migrating to LibreOffice in what’s thought to be the most carefully-designed transition away from proprietary software ever undertaken. Though not as big as other international migration initiatives, the Umbrian project has been praised for its attention it pays to every aspect of the transition, not just the technical ones.

The cost of the migration is calculated to be around €56,000 per thousand workstations while the price of the same number of Microsoft Office licences would amount to €284,490. “That’s what we would have to have paid had we decided to upgrade our licences which, for budget reasons, were stuck on the 2010 version of Office: so it’s roughly a saving of €228,000,” said Sonia Montegiove, who works in the IT department of the province of Perugia and is one of the coordinators of the project.

The reach of the project also sets it apart from similar switches. It encompasses the migration of different organisations such as the provinces of Perugia and Terni, the region of Umbria and several regional health districts. In total, more than 7,000 PCs are expected to shift to LibreOffice, 2,000 of them by 2014. The target seems well within reach since around 1,000 PCs of the province of Perugia and 500 belonging to USL Umbria 1, the public health organisation involved in the project, have already installed the open source suite.

The participation of many local government bodies makes the initiative more complex but at the same time more effective, since the public sector is a diverse system and needs coordination when it comes to formats and standards.

“We routinely have exchanges of documents with other public bodies, so you can’t go to a different suite all by yourself, particularly for the most complex files, such as the financial ones. The large participation in LibreUmbria helps in this regard,” said Barbara Gamboni, who leads the IT department of USL Umbria 1, a local public health organisation that reports to the region of Umbria.

So far employees are reportedly happy with the change, a fact that, according to the people managing the project, is due to the emphasis the initiative puts on listening and training.

In the last few years, free software seems to have gained momentum in the Italian public sector as the economic situation in the country got worse. The austerity measures imposed by the central government are hitting local organisations hard, forcing them to find every possible way to tighten their belt, with IT doing its part. Ambitious migrations like LibreUmbria’s or the one underway in the northern Province of South Tyrol could then be seen as a way to respond to this new financial context. But here, in the middle of Italy, it’s more than just that.

Umbria’s passion for open source has solid roots going back to the pre-financial crisis era as in 2006 it became the first Italian region to pass local legislation explicitly favouring non-proprietary software. “The region,” the legislation says, “promotes the spread and the development of open source software, particularly in Umbria’s public sector, because it has a positive effect on scientific and technological research and it reduces the cost of licences.” Among the legacies of that legislation is a competence centre on open source that is now playing a big role in supporting the Umbria migration.

Such a long-standing interest in free software has also given birth to a passionate community of ‘believers’ within the public sector which thinks that non-proprietary software is not only economically efficient but also ethically right. As evangelists, they’re ready to offer some free time in order to share the idea and are happy to think long-term. As a way of spreading the open source philosophy in the area, for instance, LibreUmbria’s people will soon begin training sessions on free software and IT security for teachers and parents in one of Perugia’s school districts.

The hope is that, besides helping preparedness for a possible transition to LibreOffice in their organisations, participants will pass their knowledge onto pupils and children — the younger, the better: “We will start with primary schools because, you know, we think the use of free software is an habit that should grow into the kids very early,” said Montegiove.

Source Credits: Zack Whittaker for Between the Lines. He writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City. Also Raffaele Mastrolonardo for Italy’s got tech. He is a journalist and co-founder of effecinque news agency. He has been writing about technology for the past 11 years or so for some of the most important Italian news media.

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