International agency opens demand estimation software

Update: 22 June 2023: This topic was previously titled “Legal status gaslighting by international agency”. But subsequent events meant that that descriptor was no longer accurate. The topic is now titled “International agency opens demand estimation software”. See posting 7 for background.

I am blogging a small incident because I think the underlying pattern will become more common as interest in open source gains prominence within the wider domain of national energy systems analysis. I also think a commitment to transparency includes a commitment accuracy — and particular when the underlying discussions relate to public policy analysis.

This post involves the legal status of the MAED‑2 software developed in‑house by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This tooling is used to project future demand profiles. A user manual is available:

Over the last weeks I have had intermittent traffic on this topic with four interested parties. One researcher at a COP‑27 side‑event described MAED‑2 as “open source” but when asked for details, admitted that this was an innocent error. Notwithstanding, no correction was issued. Then, following some discussions on the openmod list as to whether a selection process applied, I emailed the IAEA for details of the software license provided. The IAEA responded with the following release form (received 10 January 2023):

That document clearly offers the software under very restrictive terms and certainly implies that all applicants are subject to screening. Two signatures are required, including the head of the applicant organization. Moreover the IAEA “reserves the right to charge” under certain circumstances. And I am not sure if I would get just an executable or the source code as well.

I later had contact with an IAEA staff member (LS) on the legal circumstances surrounding MAED‑2 at a recent private meeting. LS claimed the tooling is “available [to anybody] for free”. I then pointed to the release form I received, to which LS then claimed that this form was merely to collect statistics on usage and not legally material.

So that is where the matter stands. And hence my decision to blog my experiences in the interests of transparency and accuracy. This posting records my opinions on the matter.

I would welcome contact from the IAEA but only if the facts can be agreed upon first. Moreover, I would be interested in hearing if anything in this posting needs correcting in any way. And if the IAEA really wishes to make their software transparent, usable, and reusable, they should consider uploading the codebase to a public repository under an OSI‑approved license (OSI being the Open Source Initiative.)

In many respects, I don’t think this kind of non‑open tooling presents much of a threat. I say that because if the functionality is useful to this community, the code will be developed more rapidly and more robustly than in‑house development can match, even for multilateral organizations. Indeed, there are already some open‑source examples.

Finally, I often strike this general kind of response from large scientific institutions, incumbent NGOs, government agencies, and international organizations. Indeed, I normally receive just a set of assertions without backup or analysis and without reference to any of the legal details I had raised. Sometimes I receive assurances that apply personally and not generally. All of which is why I headed this post “gaslighting”. R


@robbie.morrison, thanks for sharing the MAED-2 case. I think it’s really important for the open modelling community to clarify publicly. How else people will learn about it?

  • The Nigerian Integrated Energy Planning Tool was sold by McKinsey & co. as great open-source tool at a launch event, however, there is not even code accessible making it only an open accessible interface.

  • More recently ECMWF signed a project collaboration with DLR. In the public release of the collaboration they point out how great open-source and open data is and mentioned that they looking forward to work with EnDAT & REMIX, both used for energy planning. To my knowledge these tools are promised for over two years to be open-source but haven’t made it…

I think neither of the examples is bad in terms of being closed source, maybe even the opposite is true and the tools do a great job and help people. However, I think it’s not fair to mislead people with selling “freedom”, when they actually receive some time in “prison”.

Did someone else observe such falsely labelled open source or open data projects?

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I would normally be more circumspect about naming possible transgressors in public, but I have spent so much time getting run around that I need to be more aggressive in that regard.

The following topic is useful in relation to public data. It is not about non‑open but otherwise clear licensing, it is about unclear, ambiguous, and/or contradictory licensing terms, including legally debatable terms:

On that note, the threshold for 96/9/EC database protection now requires exposure to commercial risk. And additional contractual terms cannot override the statutory exceptions that are provided under copyright law by various European member states. Similar provisions exist in other jurisdictions.

There is one major official UK energy system model (that I won’t name because the facts are not entire clear to me) that was going to be published as open for some years now (yet I still cannot find the repo using a web search or by interrogating Software Heritage).

The TIMES model is now on GitHub with its license listed as “Unknown, GPL-3.0 licenses found”. The REUSE project offers good practice guidance in this respect, so there is really no excuse for getting license notifications wrong. Also just 3 closed issues reported so hardly an active open source project (and hence I won’t bother filing a new bug report).

Also worth recalling that the free and open source software movement more generally have invested huge effort in protecting the FOSS brand from false claims and non‑compliant behavior — as well as from copyright and patent trolls.

Finally, there are some open source claims that are indeed inadvertent mistakes.

UPDATE: 9 Feb 2023: The TIMES model on GitHub does have a complete GPL‑3.0‑or‑later license in a file named COPYING.txt which seems to be masked by a poorly structured file named LICENSE.txt. If this is indeed the case, the fix is trivial. The developers should also consider providing a explicit exception covering the use of the proprietary GAMS interpreter, rather than relying on implicit consent.

Hey Max. The goal is to be as open as possible with respect to the outcomes of the work (implemented workflows, methodologies, interfaces, etc.) However, the project doesn’t include working on EnDAT & REMIX directly. The decision to use a closed-source tool does not contradict our support for open source principles. Instead, a pragmatic approach is taken to achieving our goals while still contributing to the open source community through methodologies and interfaces.

@alexkies to me, the public release sounded misleading. I shared these thoughts also on LinkedIn. Some irritating sections:

DLR and its partners aim to uplift collaboration between the climate sciences and the energy sector to explore new approaches […] through open data and open modelling.

DLR’s key technology contribution. DLR will use some of its most advanced technology such as its ESM REMix, that will serve to implement the Demonstrator, the example case, showcasing how the energy system modelling community will benefit from DestinE. DLR’s also contributes with its data analysis tool EnDAT, that will be coupled to REMix, and the proposal will benefit from eye2sky, the unique radiation measurement network.


The decision to use a closed-source tool does not contradict our support for open source principles

Why not use open modelling from the beginning knowing they can achieve the same goals? This would also avoid the misleading article.

I appreciate your excellent work and that you share the support for open source and open data. The article is in the past, I hope you make the best out of the project, and I am looking very much forward to the really needed open data and open source contributions in that space :tada:

A major obstacle to opening legacy code can be identifying and locating the copyright holders and obtaining their consent for the new legal arrangements.

I am told that sorting out the legal status of such code can be surprisingly difficult. There are no shortcuts: one has to drill down into the provenance of every component. Moreover, one may need to completely reorganize (and retest) the codebase ecosystem to ensure the necessary legal partitioning is present.

The lawyers involved are normally overly cautious. And if one is unlucky, those same lawyers might not have sufficient background in intellectual property as it applies to computer programs and are reluctant, or perhaps even resistant, to unscramble this legal spaghetti.

If public money was used to build a road bridge that was barely used because its legal status remained vague, there would doubtless be an outcry. But when that public asset is instead code (or data) and no one can be much bothered to sort out the ownership and then license for reuse, next‑to‑no public clamber about the accompanying waste and duplication of effort (but perhaps some criticism over the intransparency).

This is not just about resources either — it is also about velocity. We have something like 27 years to reach net‑zero. Otherwise that bridge I mentioned earlier may need to be relocated in a somethat orderly albeit expensive fashion, or worse, be swept away during a modified weather event.

Scientific organizations should establish Open Source Program Offices (OSPO) to speed these processes. The European Commission has such an office, although I know nothing of its operation.

An interesting development is that the MAED software developed by IAEA has now been released by the Climate Compatible Growth project under a BSD 3-Clause License and is available on Github.

On a separate note, while it is not excusable to claim “open source” without actually being open source, I do have some sympathy for the often well-meaning individuals working within highly inflexible and restrictive organisations with conservative legal teams. In some cases, works may be developed under an open source license, but cannot be released due to some legal technicality. I think the idea of an Open Source Programme Office is a good one; but I suspect the challenge is that any organisation that realises they need such an office is probably already 80% there.

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