Ingang van het hoofdkantoor van Nextcloud in Berlijn

Nextcloud headquarters in Berlin


Own your data with open source collaboration platform

Collaboration in documents or direct mutual communication across the borders of institutions is often still difficult. Yet researchers, lecturers and other staff in research and education increasingly want to do so. For three months, therefore, together with some members, we experimented on the open source platform Nextcloud.

The reason for starting this trial is the need for institutions to be more in control of their own data and have choice in suppliers.

Cross-institutional collaboration most tested use case

SURF temporarily provided an environment in which trial participants could work with the Nextcloud platform for three months. Nextcloud is open source and offers options for word processing, document sharing, e-mail integration and online meetings. Around seventy staff from SURF members, the SURF organisation itself and stakeholders gained hands-on experience.

The digital environments used by institutions, such as Microsoft Teams, often do not allow documents to be shared with third parties outside their own institution. Users then find solutions in opening a guest account or emailing attachments to each other anyway. Not surprisingly, this was the most popular use case in the Nextcloud trial.

Not an empty café

"Nextcloud has many of the same options as the software we use at the university," says trial participant Mathilde Sanders, postdoctoral researcher at Utrecht University (UU), "SURF services, Microsoft Teams and Outlook. Technically, Nextcloud could serve well as an alternative, although in the trial it is (still) a bit more user-unfriendly than Microsoft of course. A big challenge will be: how does Nextcloud ensure that everyone switches to this alternative at the same time so that it is not an empty café?"

According to Thomas van Himbergen, who supervised this trial from SURF, it was quite exciting, because how does something like this work out? And, expectations about what users could do with it were high. During the trial period and the evaluations, it showed that participants could get on well with Nextcloud and that the platform is applicable in practice.

In charge of your data

The University of Amsterdam tested within the Faculty of Medicine with employees who are part of the UvA in the Faculty of Medicine, but are assigned to the university hospital. Within the Microsoft 365 offered by the institution, this sometimes causes problems, explains policy officer information management Frank van Tatenhove (UvA), because they are seen as 'guests' by the currently used technology. With Nextcloud, tests were carried out to create documents and collaborate in them, and it worked well.

Daniel Ostkamp is a researcher at Radboud University and his main focus during the trial was the integration with exchange to synchronise his e-mails and calendar events. "It's not perfect yet, but work is in progress to achieve two-way synchronisation for events." Nextcloud's forms application was also relevant to him and a nice alternative to Google forms when collecting data. "It's good to look at alternatives to the Microsofts and Googles of this world. You want to be in charge of your data yourself and not rashly hand it over. So it is also about reclaiming a bit of autonomy," says Ostkamp.

Alternatives arising from protection of public values

"With increasing digitalisation, we need a lot more resources and often these now come from large international commercial parties," says Van Tatenhove. "We are positive about the type of developments, where we jointly look for alternatives that better fit public values."

Advocate of more use of open source in higher education José van Dijck (UU), professor of media and digital society, also participated in the trial. She, too, thinks working on alternative software tools and platforms is important. "In the Netherlands, we are now too dependent on a handful of global (non-European) technology companies. These companies manage our online public space, but pursue business goals rather than public values such as privacy, security and inclusion. Developing our own alternatives - however difficult - is a possible way out of this impasse."

Possible next step: a scaled-up living lab

This initiative was a trial and in it, points for improvement naturally emerge. These were, for instance, in the areas of performance (speed) and user-friendliness. Meanwhile, Nextcloud proved to be a mature environment for collaboration, which is also easily configurable. "A logical next step is a scaled-up trial period in which we investigate whether Nextcloud can be included in the service portfolio," says Van Himbergen.

"Maintaining autonomy is an important ambition that we have agreed upon together as an education and research sector and in this we are continuously taking steps," Van Himbergen says. "It is not the easiest path, but with initiatives like the Nextcloud trial or Mastodon pilot, we continue to address public values."

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