Open source technology and collaborative models will matter in media, mapping, education, smarter cities, national security, disaster response and much more in 2011 and beyond. The success of open source in building systems that work at scale offers an important lesson to government leaders as well: to meet grand national challenges and create standards for the future, often it’s best to work collectively on them. The hundreds of people who gathered yesterday at the United States Department of State spent the day parsing open source at Tech@State, the technology conference organized by the office of eDiplomacy.
Open source is playing an important role in open government, although it’s hardly a precondition for it. Whether it’s Energy.gov or House.gov moving to Drupal, middleware for open government data or codesharing with CivicCommons, open source matters more than ever.
One challenge that Gunnar Helleksen articulated in his presentation on Open Source for America’s federal open technology report card was that while many agencies are using open source, very few are contributing code or interacting with the community. As Melanie Chernoff pointed out, the Obama administration has shown unprecedented interest in open source.
The Administration generally emphasizes transparency, participation, and collaboration as government goals while maintaining a “technology neutral” policy. Yet they have shown unprecedented interest in open source. Macon Phillips & Dave Cole of whitehouse.gov talked about how open source can help the federal government achieve its engagement and collaboration goals in their OSFA award acceptance speech.
Phillips said that the White House has released more open source code this week, available at WhiteHouse.gov/tech. Perhaps one of the most important slides from the entire day came from his presentation, where he noted that the accessibility module that the White House had released was being used by nearly 1000 websites. When we work on our platform and contribute back to the public,” said Phillips, “it’s part of our service to the public.”
Given its mission, however, the State Department will likely always need place limits on the radical transparency some equate with open government, but as Susan Swart, the department CIO, observed at Dipnote, “technology is the key enabler of our information enterprise.” Open source will be a part of that enterprise going forward, whether it’s MediaWiki, WordPress or Drupal.
Many of the conversations, videos and presentations from the Tech@State open source conference are captured below.
Open Source at the State Department and what the White House and HSS are doing with it
Video of Swart, Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the United States, Macon Phillips, White House new media director, and Todd Park, CTO at HHS, is embedded below:
Open standards matter here too. As Phillips observed, the choice to use the H.264 online video standard and develop in HTML5 meant that when Apple released the iPad, the company featured WhiteHouse.gov, since users could go and watch video there. (In this context, at least, the White House avoided “shiny app syndrome.”)
As Chopra noted, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet , and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems. “Healthcare information will be shared around the United States, powered by the direct protocol,” said Chopra. He says that’s a philosophy to “engage entrepreneurs as problem solvers” in the context of open energy, transportation, where government platforms can spur innovation.
No where is that locus more dynamic that in the release of open health data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As Brian Kalish reported for NextGov, HHS wants to be a data ‘sugar daddy’, so to speak. To put it another way, HHS is making community health information as useful as weather data, and here come the healthcare apps as a result. Tens of thousands of people have used open health data in the iTriage app to find local health centers.HHS CTO Park says that the new HealthData.gov will be launching next week. In the meantime, HealthIndicators.gov is already live. Look for more activity in that space.
How We Got Here: Industry and Open Source Software
Jeremy Allison, creator of Samba, Chris DiBona, open source and public sector programs manager at Google, and Darren Krape, of State Department, offered up a frank discussion of the history open source and industry. Looking back, a lot of people thought that open source gathered steam because proprietary software wasn’t providing change fast enough, said DiBona. “They needed something that moved faster.”
In that context, Dibona described open source software as a “remarkable form of liberation,” with benefits wholly separate from philosophy. “As an end user, you don’t even know that you’re using it,” he said “I see it as the fruits of labor of tens of thousands of open source developers.”
Dibona asserted that open source can allow developers to move more quickly, with respect to bugs or building out features. It can also disrupt the industry. As he noted, “the computer business has been profitable but frankly some things don’t deserve to be any more.”
Allison similarly observed that lot of the time the easiest way for an organization to get needed functionality is to “just download something and make it work.” He also referred to the role of software patents in technology, with respect to the ability of their owner to shut down innovation. “Software patents handcuff entrepreneurs,” he said to scattered applause, and suggested that the issue could cost government “billions.”
Code for America and “Zen and the Art of Open Source”
David Eaves kicked off with a great lightning talk on Code for America. After Eaves answered questions, Greg Elin, chief data architect at FCC, Dr. Linton Wells, director of center for technology and national security policy at the National Defense University, Deb Bryant, public sector communities manager at the Oregon State University Open Source Lab, and this correspondent talked about some of the fears, misconceptions and case studies that exist in the open source world.
For Elin, open source and open data “go hand in hand.” The biggest thing he needs support for is security patching. For handing open data on the scale that the FCC requires, commercial software doesn’t address their needs; they were able to solve their issues by writing Python code, leveraging open source and integrating it with commercial software. In his view, one area where open source is superior lies in procurement and prototyping, given that you can do either for free.
For Bryant, it’s that many of the same critiques that people levy against open source exist for proprietary software. You won’t always have support, bug reports won’t always be fixed and the person who wrote code won’t always be available. Open source isn’t free, given the support requires time and money, but there’s a lot for “fear, uncertainty and doubt” out there, also known as “FUD.”
For Wells, it was that the combination of open source, social media and government that we saw in Haiti showed the promise of “what can be done” in terms of situational awareness and assistance. In 2011, that combination is being tried in many more places.
Open Communications: The Changing Media Landscape
A remarkable historic confluence brought the Tech@State conferees to the State Department on the day that President Mubarak stepped down in Egypt after weeks of protests. At 3 PM, many attendees of Tech@State gathered to watch President Obama’s remarks on Egypt on the big screen in the main meeting room.
As the president observed: “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
The historic day framed a provocative discussion on how media has changing between Saad Khan, seed investor at CMEA Capital Katherine Maher, ICT Program Officer at National Democratic Institute, and Habib Haddad, founder YallaStartup, Yamli, co-creator Alive in Egypt. That video is embedded below.
Open Source vs Government Culture: Creating Change
The culture of open source and the culture of government aren’t always aligned. As many people in those world know, open source wasn’t validated as a legitimate alternative to proprietary technologies until the middle of the last decade. Now it’s running straight into the “beast of bureaucracy,” with varying results. The conversation between Richard Boly, State Dept, Emma Antunes, NASA, Lisa Wolfisch, GSA, Matthew Burton, Dept. of Treasury, and Gwynne Kostin, GSA, is worth listening to in that context.
Today the conversations continue at an unconference at the National Democratic Institute. Details are at http://techatstate-oss-unconf.eventbrite.com
The success of open source in building systems that work at scale offers an important lesson to government leaders as well: to meet Grand National challenges and create standards for the future, often it’s best to work collectively on them.