A new biennial prize offered through Auckland University's computer science department could raise the profile of open-source development in a country still wedded to Microsoft technologies.

The $10,000 prize, in memory of open-source enthusiast Clinton Bedogni, will go to the individual who has made the greatest contribution to the field of open systems in the past two years.

Dr Koray Atalag, the inaugural holder of a fellowship also endowed by the Bedogni family, says while it's likely the winner will be working in free or open-source software, the term "open systems" was used to take in people who may be working on components of open standards.

"The spirit of this thing is open source, but it leaves the door open for people in the non-open source world," Atalag says.

His own journey towards open source is what brought him to New Zealand. He did a PhD in information systems and developed a clinical information system for pathology labs, Pathos-web, which is widely used in his native Turkey and has been picked up elsewhere.

He started Pathos-web in 1996 writing in Visual Basic and running on Microsoft servers - a market reality if hospital administrators were to adopt it.

"The programming language is Microsoft but the project is not," he says. For a while Atalag had a company to develop Pathos-web, but posted the source code on SourceForge in 2005, where it was quickly ranked in the top five medical science applications.

While it's not a huge project by number of developers, Atalag says open-sourcing it was a relief.

"Making commercial software you are putting the lives of real people at risk, because you are putting time bombs in software. If people don't keep up with their maintenance contracts, the software would stop working. Making it open-source won't make me rich, but it makes me more confident and happy."

So who might be in the running for the prize?

Open-source advocate Nat Torkington says as well as New Zealanders making contributions to high-profile projects, such as Ben Goodger of Mozilla and Chrome browser fame, a number of New Zealand open-source projects are running hot.

"Weka, which is an artificial intelligence or machine learning system developed out of Waikato University, is what everybody learns AI algorithms on," Torkington says.

Then there is R, a language for crunching numbers developed by Ross Ihaka, an associate professor in Auckland University's statistics department. "R has transformed mathematics. It's used throughout the Fortune 500 as well as in academia."

There's Koha, an open-source system for public libraries. "That's a classic open-source project," Torkington says. "The Manawatu library put up some initial funding, and then other libraries have come on board to pay for development of features they want, and all users get the benefits."

On the content management front, SilverStripe from Wellington is now widely used for building and editing websites.

While we're talking open, mention must be made of the Open Government Un-Conference in Wellington next Monday. The term "un-conference" is associated with open-source initiatives, but there has been considerable debate about Microsoft's role in initiating this conference, which is part of a global strategy.

Mark Rees, Microsoft New Zealand's technology manager, says the conference is about policy, not technology. "We think open data is an important opportunity for the Government, and we want to be part of the debate."

Mark Harris, an advocate of making government data more open, says while the event has the smell of Astroturf about it - disguising a lobbying or marketing campaign as grassroots behaviour - he aims to push some of the issues that have engaged the open-source community.

"I'll go along and set fire to their Astroturf," Harris says.

On the web: www.cs. auckland.ac.nz/our-department/clinton-bedogni/
www.opengov2010.org.nz/

Contact Adam Gifford at Adamgifford5@gmail.com