Free software in Echirolles (France)
Publié le 1er mai
This is the translation of a series of 6 articles dedicated to the digital transformation in the city of Échirolles, and published in early 2023. Original article : https://grenoble.ninja/echirolles-liberee-i-structuration
The digital transformation of Echirolles is underway, and it may not be out of place for us to share our approach. Located in France, this town of 37,000 inhabitants borders Grenoble.
The story begins with a municipal team that realizes that there are strong political issues around digital technology, and that it is appropriate to seize them to make them consistent with municipal action.
In 2014, it signed the April Free Software Pact, and the first solutions were implemented : they notably concerned messaging, which moved from Microsoft to BlueMind, and then telephony, from Alcatel to Xivo.
After the 2020 municipal election, the choice is made to better structure the approach, to gain in efficiency and visibility, both internally and externally. A dedicated delegation is created and Aurélien Farge becomes the "City Councillor for Digital Development, IT and Free Software". His colleague Saïd Qezbour becomes the city councilor in charge of digital inclusion, and the work can begin.
Under the leadership of Amandine Demore, first deputy, Aurélien Farge and Saïd Qezbour, a transversal "digital working group" is created. It brings together elected officials for whom digital technology is an issue : human resources, finance, solidarity, education, culture... In January 2021, a digital technology roadmap is finalized. It identifies the major issues and themes that the municipal team wishes to address within the framework of the mandate : environmental impact, inclusion and free software, in particular.
A study on digital technology in the city was commissioned. A vast consultation was launched, micro-trotters were conducted, interviews were held with department heads, associations, economic partners, etc. The firm in charge of the study submitted its report in February 2021. In addition to the interesting figures, which provide a global vision of the problem on the scale of the municipality, the elected officials could verify that the route chosen is in line with the expectations of the territory.
At the same time, the position of "Digital Strategy and Culture Manager" was created. It will oversee the IT dept and the team in charge of digital inclusion. Reporting to the General Management, this new department is responsible for the articulation between political vision and operational implementation.
Nicolas Vivant inherited it with, as his first mission, the drafting of a master plan for the mandate : "Echirolles numérique libre". Based on the roadmap and the report on digital in the city, it is a strategic declination of the political will of the community.
Voted unanimously on November 8, 2021 by the city councilors, it serves as a guideline for the IT deparment’s action plan, and allows the department’s projects to be included in an overall coherence.
→ The Master Plan Vote (November 8, 2021, in french)
A review on the implementation of the master plan is presented by Aurélien Farge and Saïd Qezbour to the city council each year.
→ The 2022 review in video (french)
Digital technology is undergoing a revolution. Having a strategy, even if supported by strong political stakes, does not allow to escape it. The world is changing and we have to adapt, otherwise we will miss out on the many possibilities offered by the latest technologies... and drown in the mass of data we generate every day. The key words for change : collaborative, transparency, openness. But what does this mean, concretely ?
The unavoidable digital transformation
Since the 90’s, IT has been built around a model that we all know, and that is now disappearing. The client computer is generally based on :
- An operating system (usually Windows, sometimes Mac, rarely Linux)
- An office suite (often Microsoft, sometimes LibreOffice)
- A file server (with a tree structure and centralized rights management)
- An email system (with a client such as Outlook, or via a web interface) often coupled with a calendar
The evolution we see everywhere :
- An operating system that becomes a simple connection interface
- More and more mobile devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets)
- Applications that are most often accessible via a web browser
- Software that integrates the functions of office suite, messaging, calendar, collaborative editing and text, audio or video exchanges (often based on a "cloud")
The cultural change to be made is major. Users, with their often hard-won skills, will have to adapt and our responsibility is to ensure that this transition is not painful.
Functionalities that have been part of our relationship with IT are being rethought, without the question of their adoption by users being raised. Example : the organization and retrieval of information. Today, most file servers and data storage systems are organized in a tree structure. For a very long time, this classification was the most efficient way to find information. But the mass of digital data has grown, the size (and number) of directories have become enormous, and search engines are often inefficient/slow (cf. the "search" function in Windows Explorer when searching a server).
Online, this question has been solved for a long time. In the early days of the Internet, two search engines dominated the market : Yahoo, then based on a tree-like classification of websites by major domains, and Altavista (from the now defunct company Digital), which operated on the same principle as Google with a single search field. As the amount of information to be managed exploded, it is this last principle that prevailed.
It was sometimes believed that EDM (Electronic Document Management) could be an answer. But the effort required to add, often manually, the metadata that would allow it to be effective was significant. What is called "big data" has changed everything. Today, the vast majority of metadata can be generated automatically through content analysis of documents, and powerful search engines are available. In this field, open source software is king (think of Elastic Search) and solutions, associated with a cloud, allow to quickly find information, independently of the way it is generated, classified or commented. This is a major change to be conceptualized in the context of digital transformation, and the issues of training and information for users cannot be ignored.
Organizing for change
If the roadmap of the elected officials of Echirollois does not tell us what must be done, it emphasizes a number of themes that will have to be taken into account : limitation of the environmental impact, reduction of all digital fractures, responsible data management, autonomy and free software. It is up to us to adapt, taking care, as always, of the coherence, security and stability of the information system... and not neglecting either the training effort or the necessary communication around these changes.
In my municipality, this is the role of the digital strategy and culture department (often referred to elsewhere as the "digital transformation" or "transition department"), working closely with the IT department, which has the operational skills.
Combining autonomy and deployment of open source software has a cost : that of technical expertise. Without strong technical skills, the number of services necessarily explodes and contradicts the objective of a controlled information system, both in terms of responsibilities and finances. Hosting, installation, configuration, security, maintenance and training must be handled in-house as much as possible. The CIO himself must be able to make choices based on criteria that are not only functional but also technical. The reorganization of the department is therefore inevitable and the involvement of the human resources department is key. If you want to implement an open source policy without the necessary skills and competencies, you are doomed to failure.
In Echirolles, the close relationship between the DSCN and the DSI has made it possible to translate the digital strategy into operational methodologies that, when put together, ensure that we do not lose sight of the strategic objective. For each request for new software made by a department, for example, we proceed as follows :
- Is there in-house software to meet the need ? If yes, let’s train the users and use it.
- If not, is there an open source software that can meet the need ? Let’s install it.
- If not, is there any proprietary software ? Let’s buy it.
- If not, as a last resort, let’s create it.
We can immediately see what this implies in terms of recruitment and organization : we need a team capable of managing this procedure from start to finish and therefore, of course, we need development skills. So we created an "application unit" to handle this work, and recruited a developer. And since the question of contribution also arises, we decided that 20% of the working time of this position would be devoted to online contributions to the code of free software used by the city.
Every time a technical solution is implemented, the question of interoperability arises. Based on the principle that the cloud will become central to the future architecture of the information system, we looked at open source software that would allow us to fulfill this function and we chose, very early on and like many, Nextcloud, associated with Collabora for collaborative editing of documents. Since then, we have made sure that any new software installed in the community will be correctly interoperable with this software when, in a few years, the transition is completed.
The organization is structured, the stakes are set, now it’s time for operational implementation.
The Age of Maturity
Computer scientists have always used free software for the operation of their information systems. Not by militancy, in most cases, but simply because they are the most stable, the most secure and often the best. The vast majority of web servers, for example, run on Apache or, more and more, NGINX, and run on free operating systems (GNU/Linux, often).
The novelty concerns the personal computer, communication and business applications. In these three areas, open source software has reached a level of maturity never seen before. The lack of advertising and marketing does not help with the discovery of available solutions, but some software has made its way into organizations. How ? By word of mouth, exchanges on social networks, communication (and work) of various associations and state structures (Adullact, April, Framasoft, Etalab, etc.) or contagion between communities : a community is using a software, we hear about it (or we use it in my exchanges with it), we find out about it and we end up adopting it.
Often, several open source solutions exist for the same use. The example of e-mail is telling. Microsoft (with Outlook/Exchange) and Google (Gmail) are dominant on the market. However, there are at least 6 "open source" alternatives : Zimbra, BlueMind, OpenXchange, SOGo, Kolab and eGroupWare which have more or less the same functionalities ? How to choose ?
Making a choice
In Echirolles, after the functional aspects are validated, we rely on 4 pillars :
- the roadmap and the resulting master plan
- technical analysis
- inter-communal cooperation (who is already using, and how is it going ?)
- cost (how much does it cost, for what level of service ?)
→ The master plan mentions solutions that are managed and maintained in-house and highlights the concepts of digital sovereignty and autonomy from vendors. This is a first basis for judgment : which of these solutions best correspond to the issues identified by our concillors ?
→ Technical analysis allows us to verify the intrinsic qualities of the solution, its correct interoperability with existing tools, our ability to manage it autonomously, its consistency with our concern for environmental impact.
→ Intercommunal cooperation allows us to have an idea of the problems encountered, the reactivity of possible service providers and, overall, the level of satisfaction of colleagues.
→ The cost is evaluated on estimate (the code of the public order obliging us, rightly, to the consultation of several actors and to the justification of our choices) and by the verification of the existing references.
Exchanges between departments, and internally within the digital strategy department, also guide our decisions.
Go go go !
Based on these criteria, Echirolles chose SOGo, a functional, proven solution (by Gandi, for instance, in France), solid and which seems to correspond best to our orientations. Other municipalities have made other choices, giving priority to other criteria (the number and quality of service providers who can provide assistance with the solution, for example).
The choice of a Cloud and collaborative publishing solution (alternative to Microsoft Teams or Google Workspace) was made according to the same criteria. For the Cloud/file management part, the inter-communal cooperation led us to eliminate Alfresco Share, which was not well adapted to our uses. For the collaborative edition, we preferred Collabora to OnlyOffice, on the advice of various associations and partners and because the project seemed to correspond better to our values.
Finally, the switch to an open source operating system for client computers has begun in Echirolles. The city has chosen Zorin OS, for many reasons that have been explained in more complete articles (in french) :
→ The winning strategy of a Linux desktop migration (LeMagIT)
→ The Linux Workstation (ATOS study conducted by Arawa for the Ministry of Finance)
For the rest, we use too much free software to list them all (database management systems, for example). Some of them have been in place for a very long time (Firefox, Thunderbird, 7zip...), others have been installed recently (Peertube, Nextcloud, Joplin, Psono...), others are being deployed (Proxmox, Maarch courrier, Keycloak...). Some of them, unknown or because they have been the subject of a particular implementation, have been the subject of dedicated articles on this blog (in french) : Mastodon, OBS Studio, Porteus Kiosk, BigBlueButton, etc.
Non-exhaustive list of free software used in Échirolles
Client Computers :
- 7Zip : https://www.7-zip.org (file compression/decompression)
- FileZilla : https://filezilla-project.org (FTP client)
- Firefox : https://www.mozilla.org/fr/firefox (web browser)
- FOG Project : https://fogproject.org (OS image management)
- Joplin : https://joplinapp.org (synchronized notes)
- LibreOffice : https://fr.libreoffice.org (office suite)
- Remmina : https://remmina.org (remote connection)
- Shotcut : https://shotcut.org (video editing)
- Signal : https://signal.org (chat)
- Thunderbird : https://www.thunderbird.net (email client)
- VLC : https://www.videolan.org (video player)
- Zorin OS : https://zorin.com/os/ (client-side operating system)
Community applications :
- Collabora : https://www.collaboraoffice.com (collaborative publishing)
- Keycloak : https://www.keycloak.org (identity management/SSO)
- Maarch courrier : https://maarch.com/maarch-courrier/ (electronic mail management)
- NextCloud : https://nextcloud.com (cloud)
- Odoo : https://www.odoo.com (ERP, used for recruitment management)
- KeePassXC : https://keepassxc.org (password management)
- SOGo : https://www.sogo.nu (e-mail, calendar, address books)
- Sympa (via Framasoft) : https://framalistes.org (e-mail discussion list)
- Wordpress : https://fr.wordpress.org (intranet, associative websites)
IT Applications :
- BackupPC : https://backuppc.github.io/backuppc/ (backup)
- Apache : https://httpd.apache.org (web servers)
- Checkmk : https://checkmk.com (server monitoring)
- Debian : https://www.debian.org (server operating system)
- Docker : https://www.docker.com (server containers)
- GLPI : https://glpi-project.org (asset management)
- LibreNMS : https://www.librenms.org (network monitoring)
- NGINX : https://www.nginx.com (web server, proxy)
- pfSense : https://www.pfsense.org (firewall)
- Proxmox : https://www.proxmox.com (server virtualization)
- Psono : https://psono.com (password management)
- QGIS : https://www.qgis.org (geomatics)
- Ubuntu : https://www.ubuntu-fr.org (server operating system)
- Wiki.js : https://wiki.js.org (documentation of procedures)
- XiVO : https://wisper.io/xivo/ (telephony/voice over IP)
- Zammad : https://zammad.org (ticket management / generic e-mail boxes)
- Audacity : https://www.audacityteam.org (audio editing)
- Drupal : https://www.drupal.fr (city website)
- Mastodon : https://joinmastodon.org (social network)
- Matomo : https://fr.matomo.org (web site audience measurement)
- OBS Studio : https://obsproject.com (video streaming)
- Peertube : https://joinpeertube.org (video hosting)
- Porteus Kiosk : https://porteus-kiosk.org (self-service PC, presentation screens)
- Asalae : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/asalae/ (electronic archiving)
- Idélibre : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/idelibre/ (management of municipal authorities)
- iParapheur : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/iparapheur/ (electronic signature)
- Pastell : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/pastell/ (application gateway)
- Slow : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/slow/ (remote transmission of documents)
- WebDelib : https://www.libriciel.fr/logiciels/webdelib/ (preparation of municipal meetings)
Note the excellent initiative of Adullact for local authorities and service providers, which allows to identify the actors for each referenced software : Comptoir du Libre. Echirolles keeps there the information concerning the choice of software of the commune.
This article would not be complete without saying a word about the equipment of nursery and elementary schools, whose computer equipment is the responsibility of the municipalities. If the clientcomputers have the same software as those we deploy in the municipal services, the switch to Linux will have to wait a little longer, for reasons I detailed in a dedicated article (in french).
The digital divide : one symptom among many
With 36% of social housing and 3 "city policy" districts, Échirolles is, without a doubt, a popular city. Several studies on the difficulties linked to digital technology have been carried out on our territory : one by our CCAS (2018), the other by an independent firm (2020-2021). If they have not shown a specific situation in our town, they have allowed us to measure the extent of the problems that it is essential to work on.
Which populations struggle with digital technology ?
- The elderly ;
- people in a precarious social or financial situation
- people who do not master the French language well ;
- young people who have the tools but do not master the uses ;
- people with disabilities or who suffer from pathologies.
Our CCAS takes all of these issues seriously. Our maisons des habitants (formerly known as "social centers") play a major role in addressing them, all over the city. Teams exist, with whom it is not possible not to work. However, in an effort to be consistent with the "Echirolles numérique libre" master plan, our elected officials and our general management have chosen to attach digital inclusion to the DSCM (Digital Strategy and Culture Manager).
Conclusion : the digital divide is not a problem as such. It is a symptom of social issues that must remain a priority in helping our residents. Treating the digital divide without taking into account the underlying issues would be a band-aid on a wooden leg. Cross-functional work is essential.
Mediation as the only solution ?
The studies carried out have also shown that the difficulties encountered by our population are not limited to uses. A true digital inclusion effort requires addressing 6 major areas :
1. Access to hardware (PC, smartphones, printing systems) ;
2. access to a quality internet connection
3. technical training ;
4. information, popular education on the major challenges of digital technology ;
5. assistance to the uses ;
6. hardware support.
The efforts of the State and local authorities on digital inclusion are mainly based on digital mediation (points 3, 4 and 5, therefore). As part of the "France Relance" plan, for example, the ANCT (National Agency for Territorial Cohesion) has been funding the recruitment of "France Services Digital Advisors" in associations or local authorities since 2021. France Services Houses" and "France Services Buses" are also set up in our regions.
For the other points (1, 2 and 6), only the private sector is involved. We know, for example, the work of associations such as Emmaus Connect for the provision of smartphones and prepaid SIM cards, but only the very poor are addressed.
The provision of public access points in the municipalities is a partial response to the problems of lack of equipment and Internet access. Access to the teleservices made available (and often made compulsory) by the state and the large structures competent in the social field, is possible from this type of place. But the intimate dimension of digital access is not taken into account : one does not contact one’s grandmother (or one’s partner) by videoconferencing from a public place. You don’t watch a series or a soccer match from a social center.
Without making the effort to provide vulnerable people with equipment and a quality Internet connection at home, there is no real inclusion : those who can afford it have access in comfortable conditions and in privacy, while the others have to go out, in all weathers, to benefit from limited digital access, at times they cannot choose and under the gaze of their fellow citizens.
Digital mediation alone cannot constitute an effective and complete digital inclusion system. A more ambitious work is necessary. We are trying to work on it (and it is not easy).
Access to Hardware
For the provision of equipment for those who need it most, the city has chosen to rely on a recent Echirolles-born association : PC solidaire (website under development at the time of writing). The process is underway : our IT departement will give its used equipment to this association, which will recondition it and give it free of charge to the beneficiaries, via the social centers.
The association had the excellent idea of looking at the city’s master plan and chose, freely, to be inspired by it. The default operating system should therefore be the same as the one being deployed : Zorin OS.
This is the most difficult point to work on by far. As the offer is exclusively private, we are trying to negotiate with ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to set up a very affordable solution for social housing beneficiaries. Discussions are underway, but today no truly satisfactory offer is in place. The only (not sufficiently) known proposal, aimed at people receiving social minima, is that of Orange, "Coup de pouce Internet ", at €15.99/month.
Training, information and assistance
Thanks to funding from the ANCT, the City and its CCAS were able to recruit 4 digital advisors in 2021. They intervene in the social centers, libraries and the associations’ hall. Specialized in digital mediation and trained in the framework of the State’s system, they carry out, since July 2021, individual accompaniments, workshops and training sessions. Unfortunately, the State has announced a decrease in funding and these jobs are threatened. We are therefore working to set up a new system, this time permanent, which will not depend on external funding.
Some of our digital advisorts, at work in a social center
Other initiatives have existed in Échirolles for years : "Les écrans, parlons-en !", for example. Designed by the city’s "education" department in close collaboration with the CCAS, this initiative is based on the principle that good digital hygiene also requires a reasonable distance from screens.
What else ?
The city has chosen not to limit its assistance to the inhabitants alone, but also to the many associations that animate the territory (→ https://asso-echirolles.fr). Our associative fabric is rich in its volunteers, dynamic and innovative in its actions. Its contribution to "living together" is major. The 2021 "Digital in Echirolles" study showed that access to digital resources varied greatly depending on the associations. We have therefore decided to provide them with assistance in two areas : the creation of websites and (in a second phase) the provision of digital tools for association management.
The principle is simple : the city’s IT department takes care of hosting, creates a sub-domain dedicated to the association, installs a free CMS (content management system) and manages updates (CMS, themes, extensions...) and backups. 6 training workshops are organized to learn how to create content and keep the site alive. At the end of these workshops, the association administers its site independently. In case of problems, a forum allows to exchange with the trainer and the other associations that benefit from the initiative. The strong point : if the people in charge of the site are no longer able to manage it, a return to the workshop is always possible so that a new team can take over.
Inclusion vs free software
The effectiveness of the city’s digital inclusion system is based on two main pillars : the master plan, the technical and political compass of our choices, and cross-functional work, which guarantees a presence throughout the territory and the consideration of the problem in its entirety. Attached to the digital department, it allows a coherent action at the city level.
This link between social action and digital strategy is one of the strengths of Echirolles. It is one of the elements that allow the master plan to radiate throughout the city, and not only internally. But there is another way to act (and especially to interact) beyond the city’s perimeter.
The big miss in this story is the important work we have started on reducing the environmental impact of digital. This is an ongoing thread for our work, many things are being done, but others are doing a much better job of describing the issues, the tools and what needs to be done to move forward. Their work is our guide.
See further to aim right
A vision for the future is not a prediction, nor even a forecast. It is simply an axis, a direction. It is what allows, when two paths exist, to make a choice. It is obviously not a guarantee that this choice will be the right one, but if, at each crossroads, a direction exists that helps to make a decision, then we gain in coherence, in speed of decision and, finally, in efficiency.
In a world where open sourcce everywhere would be a reality, where free software would be dominant and where transparency and data sharing would be obvious, what could be the next step ? And what stones should be laid, starting today, that would tend towards this goal and could guide our action ?
Decentralization as a factor of resilience
Historically, the public Internet is a decentralized architecture. This is even one of the reasons for its creation : the interconnection of diverse networks for the purpose of cooperation. Even if the story of an Internet built as a network to resist a nuclear attack is an urban legend, recent events have verified that decentralization is indeed one of the keys to the resilience of information systems.
In France, most of the residential accesses rely on Orange, Free, Bouygues and SFR. Four infrastructures which, if attacked, would affect our communications for a long time. A study by RIPE has shown how the Ukrainian Internet resisted to the general blackout despite the numerous degradations of the infrastructure. The secret ? A distributed, decentralized structure, and local access providers throughout the country.
The best known (and one of the oldest) examples of a federated system is e-mail. There are countless providers of e-mail addresses, but because they have chosen to use standard, interoperable protocols, each user can exchange messages with all the others. If one of the technical providers disappears (this has happened several times), it does not jeopardize the entire system. On the other hand, the domination of a player, because it is based on the centralization of resources (think of Gmail), can weaken this construction.
But the resilience angle is not the only one that is interesting to interrogate.
Decentralization and mutualization
In the minds of most of our decision-makers, mutualization and centralization go hand in hand, one of the objectives of a pooling effort being to achieve economies of scale. For a number of core applications, this promise is fulfilled. However, there are a few drawbacks associated with this type of project :
- distance from the decision-making entities
- loss of autonomy in technical or political choices
- fewer knowledge of the users’ environment
- less reactivity in the implementation of projects
How can we combine cooperation (for greater efficiency in cross-functional projects) and autonomy (to maintain a certain freedom of choice and action) ?
By cooperating, independent structures can create networks for large-scale projects, while maintaining their autonomy of management, evolution and action. Technical solutions exist, and they are widely implemented in free solutions. ActivityPub was officially published as a W3C recommendation on January 23, 2018.
This standard, which allows various solutions to interface, is present in several of the software used by the city of Echirolles : Nextcloud (collaborative platform), Peertube (video hosting), Mastodon (social media) and Wordpress (website creation). These four tools are increasingly used by local governments, ministries and city partners, but the federation features are rarely implemented, either internally or externally. However, there are many possible applications : sharing directories/files between local authorities (Nextcloud), improving the visibility of the communication of associated structures (Peertube), creating sites for inter-municipal projects (Wordpress), highlighting the actions of a territory (Mastodon), etc.
The federation as a horizon
Within Alpes Numérique Libre, the collective of CIOs of the Grenoble region around free software, the subject is being born, without concretization for the moment. The establishment of a federation of actors within the same geographical area could be a first step, an interesting experience from the point of view of public action from which we could perhaps learn more widely.
EPCIs (public establishments for inter-municipal cooperation), such as SITPI or Grenoble Alpes Métropole in our region, could play a driving role in this type of initiative : ideally positioned at the center of communal networks, they have a perfectly adapted architecture.
The Mastodon instance colter.social, created, hosted and maintained by SITPI, is an interesting precursor of what could be these federative functions. It is available to all local authorities and is moderated by staff from authorities that are not necessarily members of the union but have chosen to cooperate. Tools such as Zammad or Signal (for larger bodies, why not a Matrix server ?) allow this work to be organized efficiently.
Several other innovative sharing systems could be imagined, combining the provision of resources for small communities (a shared Peertube server, for example) and a federation with larger structures, each maintaining its own solution.
We are not there yet, and many communities rely on hosted solutions (in SaaS mode), often with large American players (Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.), because they do not have the skills or financial resources to operate differently.
Not always very well structured, focused on their digital transformation, chosen or undergone, this type of project can seem far from their daily concerns. But it seemed interesting to me to do this prospective work, as a horizon towards which we could, individually and collectively, choose to tend.
The city’s political roadmap, worked on in a transversal group by the elected officials, devotes a chapter to digital sobriety entitled : "Putting digital tools at the service of the ecological transition and the evolution of practices".
The necessary contribution of digital technology to the effort to optimize energy use in the municipality is recalled, but the reflection goes beyond that : "without being negligible, optimization will not be enough to meet the ecological challenge and is not the only contribution of digital technology in the fight against global warming. It is also possible to "consider it from another angle, that of a force for transforming practices".
Among the avenues mentioned, "a reflection on the inclusion of reparability and reusability criteria in one’s choice of digital equipment". All recent studies indicate that the production of hardware accounts for 70 to 80% of the environmental footprint. It is therefore logical that the Digital Strategy and Culture Department (DSCM) has chosen to prioritize initiatives dealing with this issue.
In this area, which is not always easy to grasp, effective action requires profound changes, a "transformation of practices" in the IT department. Numerous procedures have been revised, impacting the "support" dimension as well as purchasing and budgeting.
Equipment acquisition and refurbishment
In France, the AGEC law (anti-waste for a circular economy) requires that at least 20% of the total amount (excluding tax) of purchases be devoted to reconditioned equipment. The following are concerned :
- computer and office machines, equipment and supplies, except furniture and software ;
- computer terminals ;
- laptop computers ;
- desktop computers ;
- computer accessories ;
- photocopiers and offset printing equipment ;
- photocopier parts and accessories ;
- toner cartridges ;
- ink cartridges ;
- office supplies.
It is not easy to put this into practice on a day-to-day basis (the implementation of supply circuits that take this new situation into account has not yet been completed), and it is regrettable that the following are excluded from the scheme : "internal redeployment of equipment, for example IT equipment, which consists of redistributing equipment already acquired and used from one department to another (...) because it does not constitute a public purchase".
However, the city tries to comply with this requirement, while working to recondition workstations internally (adding SSDs and RAM to old PCs, which are then redistributed), which avoids unnecessary purchases.
When the equipment is no longer usable, it is given to an association that reconditions it and distributes it free of charge to the most needy residents, in conjunction with the social centers. Only irretrievable equipment is deposited in a metropolitan waste disposal center, which takes care of its recycling.
It is not often mentioned, but one of the most striking examples of waste linked to aesthetic obsolescence (i.e. to fashion effects) is the disappearance, in a few years, of cathode ray screens. Millions of screens in working condition have been thrown away by all the actors, in a huge general waste. And this did not sign the end of the race to the front of the acquisitions.
How did we go from using a single 15" (or 17") 4:3 screen to an increasing demand for two 22" screens in 16:9 format ? Has usage evolved to the point where this level of equipment is essential ? We decided to think about and determine, once and for all, what should be the "standard" equipment (except for justifiable exceptions) of a client workstation at the town hall of Echiroles. Concretely, the rule is the following :
A client station is a PC and a screen. A choice must be made between a laptop (with, for comfort, an external display) and desktop. No double equipment.
The use of equipment from outside the city must be possible. This question arises in particular for our elected officials. It is not uncommon for people to have responsibilities in different structures, all of which offer to equip them (generally with tablets or laptops). It is therefore easy to end up with 2 or 3 devices per person, which, in addition to being an aberration from an environmental point of view, is not very practical on a daily basis (transport, charging, data spread over several devices, etc.).
BYOD ("Bring Your Own Device") must be able to participate in the effort to reduce consumption. Once again, this requires an adaptation of the service, with strong technical skills to ensure the maintenance of very diverse and not completely mastered equipment. The homogeneity of the IT equipment can no longer be asserted as an absolute principle.
IT departments had lost the habit of fixing. We’re back at it. A damaged laptop or smartphone screen ? Now we only replace the part that’s needed. This requires time and in-house expertise, otherwise the community’s budget is at risk.
Buying smartphones with a high repairability index (such as Fairphone) allows us to make the same effort on cell phones.
Until this mandate, the procedure provided for the smoothing of computer equipment purchases over 5 years, and the systematic replacement of client workstations at that time. The internal reconditioning has allowed us to depreciate our 1,500 machines over 6 years (7 years for fixed stations and 5 years for laptops), which represents, in addition to the environmental contribution, a saving of €35,000 per year for the community.
Windows 11, the new operating system imposed by Microsoft, is incompatible with the oldest PCs, an example of software obsolescence forcing many structures to part with machines in working order and which one can wonder how it can be tolerated in a context of climate emergency.
At the same time, several french recent reports (DINUM, OW2), confirm the contribution of free software to a greater durability of hardware. The switch to Linux for the client computers in Echirolles, which has been underway for several months, should allow further progress on this point... and incidentally generate additional savings.
Another important change for the department is that the hardware is no longer replaced at regular intervals, but only when necessary. This leaves the door open to potentially longer than estimated periods of use under the right conditions.
Sobriety, standards and free software
Can the choice of a messaging system contribute to digital sobriety ? Indirectly, yes. And it is perhaps interesting to give a concrete illustration. The implementation of quotas on e-mail boxes, for example, which exists almost everywhere, is an insurance against the infinite increase in disk space consumption in a finite world (the server). But, from the user’s point of view, the allocated space is never enough. What solution can be proposed to increase the retention time of messages without having an undue impact on the environmental bill ?
For years, the disk space of client workstations has been greater than the real need. Problems with full hard drives, which were common twenty years ago, have become rare. All infrastructures therefore have available and underused disk space. Rather than increasing the resources dedicated to the mail server, or setting up new equipment to do archiving, why not rely on these resources available to users ?
For this, the choice of messaging is important : by relying on standard and interoperable protocols and features (IMAP, SMTP, LDAP, CalDav, CardDav, etc.), the use of Thunderbird becomes simple and practical. Used in conjunction with the archiving function integrated in the software, the "local folders" allow an almost infinite storage, on the client computer, of the electronic messages received (I thus keep all my messages since 1999). Result : the mail server, accessible from the web interface, is only used for recent activity. To give an idea, depending on the intensity of use, one can envisage 1 to 2 years of storage on the server (for a quota of 2 GB per user), the remainder being kept in local folders.
Of course, a solution of this type requires the IT department to maintain a fleet that includes an email client rather than a single web interface. Of course, archived data is not backed up, and users should be well informed of this. But by limiting the consumption of new resources, the use of local folders for archiving is a significant contribution to the environmental footprint of the solution.
Incidentally, the deletion of attachments, which is often promoted as a virtuous solution, is almost irrelevant in this type of setup.
Automatic shutdown of client PC at a certain time of day reduces unnecessary energy consumption. Software can be deployed on all PCs for this purpose. In Echirolles, easily identifiable outlets are used for connecting computer equipment. Their power supply is cut off in the evening at a certain time.
The mutualization of all or part of the solutions can also be a factor in reducing energy consumption. The city is a member of the SITPI, an inter-municipal union that plans to invest in new premises in the near future. We see an opportunity to build a real "green data center" that takes into account environmental issues in its operation (power supply, server cooling, etc.).
French studies have shown that the use of laptops also reduces power consumption (by 50% to 80% !). The allocation of laptops, in our company, is now facilitated (but in this case the desktop previously used is given back to the IT department, in accordance with what has been defined as the minimum basis of equipment of a client station).
Other examples of contributions
The ADEME states : "multifunctional equipment consumes much less than the sum of the devices it replaces". In the municipal buildings, individual printers have been replaced by good quality multi-functional floor copiers.
On these copiers, the output of the printouts is subject to a code to be typed on the machine, which avoids the forgotten printouts that often pile up near the machines. The toner is recycled, and quotas exist for the paper. A review of the use of the copiers is carried out every 6 months with the service provider. This allows us to identify excessive consumption and to implement any necessary actions to remedy the situation.
Rendering credit to Caesar...
Some of these changes are recent (repairs), others are older (printing systems). In all cases, they require a major effort to adapt procedures and agents in charge of projects and computer maintenance.
While I have attempted to recount the city’s "digital adventures", I feel it is important to remember that these actions are the result of a formalized process of reflection by our elected officials, of a well thought-out structuring led by the general management of services, and above all of the daily work of the 10 agents of the IT department and the 4 agents of the team in charge of digital inclusion, whom I congratulate for their level of competence and whom I thank for their investment.
To learn more about the actions of the municipality, you can consult the page of the city’s website dedicated to digital (in french).
- Source image : https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eug%C3%A8ne_Delacroix_-_Le_28_Juillet._La_Libert%C3%A9_guidant_le_peuple.jpg
- Author : Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives via artsy.net
- Caption : Tableau d’Eugène Delacroix "La Liberté Guidant le Peuple", commémorant la révolution des Trois Glorieuses (27-28-29 juillet 1830) en France.
- Licence : Public domain
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