UK National Open Centre: NOC, NOC. Who's There?

Few answers available about status once-touted think tank.

After taking the opportunity to tease Microsoft's UK division last week, I found myself wondering, whatever happened to the UK's National Open Centre?

It was a bit of a circuitous path to get to this question, and a little bit of a winding path to get to the answer.

What started all this was the release of a survey from the Spending Challenge, an austere budget program from Her Majesty's Treasury. The first-phase results of the survey was public-sector workers asked for ways to save money in the UK budget.

The survey results were a sampling of the nearly 60,000 ideas that were turned into the HM Treasury office... 31 suggestions that were, according to the post, "... not ideas that have been shortlisted for further work or implementation but they will all be considered individually alongside the other 60,000 ideas that have been put forward."

It was interesting to me that two of the 31 answers specifically mentioned dropping Microsoft software in favor of Linux and open source software. So, I took it upon myself to "warn" Microsoft UK that clearly the UK government was trying to shake down Microsoft for a better contract.

Along the way, I pointed out the example of the National Open Centre (NOC), which was launched by the city of Birmingham and the regional economic development organization known as Advantage West Midlands. Back in early 2007, the Birmingham City Council, which was still debating extending its own open source migration program, launched the NOC, a think tank with at least 26 members designed to promote open source.

Much ado was made about NOC, which held a Feb. 2007 launch event at the Houses of Parliament, where Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh caused a stir with his comments regarding open source's tenuous status in government.

"Open source has enemies, and its enemies are very, very close to government," Pugh said at the time.

Strong words indeed. And perhaps they were ill omens for the NOC, because very soon after that, the organization appears to have vanished.

So, what happened?

The answer, as usual, appears to be funding. At the time of launch, the NOC was still an unfunded effort. There was some funding provided for the launch event itself from Advantage West Midlands (AWM), but beyond that, nothing.

To track this down, I ran across an older organization, which was funded by AWM: OpenAdvantage. OpenAdvantage was a pretty successful venture running in the West Midlands region, up until April 2009, when their funding ran out. But there were some pretty heavy hitters at OA, including Intel's Elliot Smith, who now works on the MeeGo Project, and current Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon.

Even though OA had no formal relationship with NOC, I decided to reach out to both of these gentlemen and other OA team members, to see what they knew of the project. Bacon, I was reminded, had already left OA for his new gig at Canonical in September 2006, so he was out of the loop by the time NOC came around in 2007.

Smith came back with more information: "The NOC struggled to get funding and never amounted to very much, as far as I'm aware."

It was Smith's and Bacon's colleague Michael Evans that confirmed the funding problem.

"The NOC didn't receive the expected funding from AWM," Evans told me.

Apparently, NOC had applied for funding from Advantage West Midlands and was still waiting to hear from the development agency as they were launching. From both Smith's and Evans' comments, it's clear that funding never materialized.

There are, as always, unanswered questions. Given that the NOC was to be (despite its strong Birmingham/West Midlands connections) a nationally focused organization, why was not other funding forthcoming? For instance, the National Computing Centre was a NOC partner--why didn't any funding come from them? And where, for that matter, was the Birmingham City Council, which took great pains in the first months of 2007 to make sure their support of NOC was well known?

Today, the URL of the NOC has been appropriated by a German group that posts information on upcoming open source events. Requests for comments from Advantage West Midlands, and the Corporate Development Centre of the Birmingham City University--which owns the NOC brand and intellectual property--have gone unanswered.

It would have been nice it the UK tech press had picked this up a few years ago, while the trail was still fresh. If anything was learned by this aborted attempt at an open source think tank, the general public will never know.

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