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What’s Ahead for Open Source in Government?

What’s Ahead for Open Source in Government?

(originally published at opensource.com.  Republished with permission.  http://opensource.com/government/13/9/trends-open-source-government-2013)

It’s a relatively quiet time for most governments around the world right now. Typically, during this time there are few new initiatives, policies, or announcements related to open source.

So, it’s a good time to consider the trends of the first half of the year and ponder what the remainder of this calendar year holds.

Here are a few that come to mind.

Open Source will continue to be the ‘go to’ approach for governments around the world facing budget constraints amid growing demand for innovative services and citizen engagement.

I speak regularly about the trends in government open source and one of my consistent themes is that the ‘wind is behind’ the take up of open source for government missions.

More than 40 governments, by my conservative count, have policies that create a positive environment for open source use.

These policies are important to level the playing field: on the one hand highlighting the benefits of open source to governments (saying ‘it’s ok to use it’) as well as providing meaningful answers to commonly asked questions by government IT professionals.

The more potent driver toward open source software utilization, I’ve come to realize in recent years, is the fundamental shift in IT architecture, away from coupled hardware, software, and data to more modularity, reuse, and a central focus on interoperability—all of which is enhanced by tigher government IT budgets and the goal of avoiding vendor lock-in.

More recently, open source use has grown with the rise of high profile ‘digital agendas’. As a means of enhancing civic engagement, governments are using community-powered innovation to build open data and digital services platforms that are almost entirely built on open software and applications. We may truly be on the verge of the ‘citizen CIO’.

Increasingly, governments are wrestling with the ‘how tos’ of open source choices; not ‘whether’ to use it.

As broader acceptance of open source grows, governments are seeking to understand how to grasp the broad array of open source offerings that are available.

Their challenge has grown as governments move beyond use of open source in traditional server environments. Today, the cloud, big data, and mobile—which are heavily enabled by open source—are driving IT strategies. They make the question of How? especially acute: How do I take advantage of all this innovation, while still ensuring long-term reliability and consistency with my procurement goals?

To start, it’s important to understand the differences. There are OSS products which have commercial support from firms with proven track records of service and integrity. There are also “insourced” projects where agencies share software with each other, but not with the private sector. Finally, some agencies download community (also known as “freebie”) projects without any commercial support.

If government IT professionals rely solely on ad hoc rules or seat-of-the pants judgement, this exposes government agencies to significant risk that is not, at present, properly documented or understood:

  • There are distinct risks associated with choosing a “freebie/insourced” model for use of open source software. In particular, community/freebie projects or “insourced” projects are likely to lack key security certifications, regular updates, support from third-party vendors, and interoperability with your critical applications.
  • Relying on ‘freebie/insourced’ open source software effectively means a strategy of relying on internal support for critical mission which is unknown territory and potentially expensive, given the difficulty of obtaining and retaining qualified IT and management personnel.
  • We could see a repeat of the failures and long-term costs associated with ‘government-off-the-shelf’ (GOTS) solutions. Although the projects may be, technically, commercial items as generally understood by governments, they present the same risks and economic liabilities as government-off-the-shelf software.

On-going policy discussions will continue about ensuring an ‘open’ cloud.

In a recent opensource.com post, long-time open source advocate Georg Greve writes of the ‘storm triggered in the cloud’ by recent disclosures of access by intelligence agencies (US and others).

The challenge for open source software advocates is to continue to press for ‘openness’ in the infrastructure and implementation of open source, even as the critical issues of access to information is sorted through.

It won’t be easy. Even prior to these disclosures, it was becoming clear that government initiatives on the cloud were testing the community’s ability to maintain ‘openness’ in implementation of those strategies, even where there were long-standing public commitment to open source and open standards. Some have even spoken of the prospect of a forthcoming ‘cloud war’ between Europe and the US, which would undermine even basic efforts to promote open source cloud offerings globally.

That’s my quick take at the rest of 2013. What are your thoughts?

New source code policy: open and shared

For the first time a U.S. Federal Agency (The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) has come out with a policy that clearly delineates how taxpayer investments in technology should be handled. since they say it best:

“The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was fortunate to be born in the digital era. We’ve been able to rethink many of the practices that make financial products confusing to consumers and certain regulations burdensome for businesses. We’ve also been able to launch the CFPB with a state-of-the-art technical infrastructure that’s more stable and more cost-effective than an equivalent system was just ten years ago.

Good internal technology policies can help, especially the policy that governs our use of software source code.

Some software lets users modify its source code, so that they can tweak the code to achieve their own goals if the software doesn’t specifically do what users want. Source code that can be freely modified and redistributed is known as “open-source software,” and it has been instrumental to the CFPB’s innovation efforts for a few reasons:

• It is usually very easy to acquire, as there are no ongoing licensing fees. Just pay once, and the product is yours.

• It keeps our data open. If we decide one day to move our web site to another platform, we don’t have to worry about whether the current platform is going to keep us from exporting all of our data. (Only some proprietary software keeps its data open, but all open source software does so.)

• It lets us use tailor-made tools without having to build those tools from scratch. This lets us do things that nobody else has ever done, and do them quickly.

Until recently, the federal government was hesitant to adopt open-source software due to a perceived ambiguity around its legal status as a commercial good. In 2009, however, the Department of Defense made it clear that open-source software products are on equal footing with their proprietary counterparts.

We agree, and the first section of our source code policy is unequivocal:

We use open-source software, and we do so because it helps us fulfill our mission.

Open-source software works because it enables people from around the world to share their contributions with each other. The CFPB has benefited tremendously from other people’s efforts, so it’s only right that we give back to the community by sharing our work with others.

This brings us to the second part of our policy:

When we build our own software or contract with a third party to build it for us, we will share the code with the public at no charge. 

Exceptions will be made when source code exposes sensitive details that would put the Bureau at risk for security breaches; but we believe that, in general, hiding source code does not make the software safer.

2012 CFPB Source Code Policy

Liberating America’s secret, for-pay laws via BoingBoing

Brilliant article/project by Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org snip:

Public.Resource.Org spent $7,414.26 buying privately-produced technical public safety standards that have been incorporated into U.S. federal law. These public safety standards govern and protect a wide range of activity, from how bicycle helmets are constructed to how to test for lead in water to the safety characteristics of hearing aids and protective footwear. We have started copying those 73 standards despite the fact they are festooned with copyright warnings, shrinkwrap agreements, and other dire warnings. The reason we are making those copies is because citizens have the right to read and speak the laws that we are required to obey and which are critical to the public safety.

more here: Liberating America’s secret, for-pay laws

Congrats to Todd Park to be US CTO

Word broke today that Todd Park currently Health and Human Services CTO is to be promoted to Federal CTO.

In a Whitehouse blog post the announcement was made today snip:

“For nearly three years, Todd has served as CTO of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he was a hugely energetic force for positive change. He led the successful execution of an array of breakthrough initiatives, including the creation of HealthCare.gov, the first website to provide consumers with a comprehensive inventory of public and private health insurance plans available across the Nation by zip code in a single, easy-to-use tool.

On his first full day in office, President Obama created the position of “Chief Technology Officer” to help modernize a Federal government relying too heavily on 20th century technology, and to better use technological tools to address a wide range of national challenges. In his role as U.S. CTO, Todd will continue the work of Aneesh Chopra, the Nation’s first Chief Technology Officer, who stepped down last month after an inspired and productive three years on the job.

The U.S. CTO’s office is situated here within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where Todd will work closely with U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Telecommunications Tom Power.  Tom will perform the duties of OSTP’s Associate Director for Technology—a position previously held by Chopra in conjunction with his role as U.S. CTO—while a search is conducted for a permanent replacement.”

Congrats to Todd!