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Open Source Excitement at Tech@State!

A good crowd was on hand for the Tech@State event at the State Department on February 11. Keynoted by State CIO Susan Swart and with opening remarks by CTO Aneesh Chopra, Macon Phillips, New Media Director of the White House and Todd Park, CTO with HHS, it was an exciting event, and one that showcased the dynamism and flexibility of open source software. Given the public and outward reach of many of the open source applications discussed, my sense is that there is still a large role for enterprise content management/collaboration applications such as SharePoint and other proprietary enterprise software systems.

I attended two breakout sessions at the conference:

Open Architectures for Health, with presentations by David Riley, Federal Health Architecture, with the US Department of Health and Human Services; Heather La Garde, IntraHealth Consortium; Deborah Estrin, mHealth, UCLA; and Aman Bhandara, Office of Science and Technology Policy, the White House. Riley discussed his role in the “Connect Project” or National Health Information Network. The network seeks to operationally connect patient information from both large health providers and small doctor’s offices, and it tries to address all need security requirements in the process. Open source applications have been fairly successful in addressing this needed standard, with one such finalist open source solution comparing favorably with two commercially developed systems.

Estrin then noted the powerful potential of smart phones for real-time patient monitoring and self-reporting, although privacy issues still need to be addressed. As the last panelist, La Garde talked about her Intrahealth Open project to promote open source and mobile solutions for health in Africa and other developing countries. An immediate goal is to support local capacity building and to get more Africans involved in software development. Longer term, she saw a need for more standardized country architectural platforms, and growth of “greater data liquidity in developing countries.”

Open Model for Social Change: Changing Philosophies about Development and Aid, with presentations by Stuart Gill, the World Bank; Todd Huffman, Chief Scientist, Sofcoast; Wayan Vota, Inveneo; and Mari Kuraishi, Global Giving. Kuraishi spoke from her perspective of both a prior career at the World Bank and current role at Global Giving. She said large organizations such as the IBRD tendency to do “top-down” development, although the creation of the Bank’s Development Marketplace was a step in the right direction in mobilizing outside ideas for fighting poverty. Global Giving gathers funding for poverty projects all around the world, and may help change traditional institutions’ way of thinking – “change comes from the periphery,” she said.

Vota’s small company (Inveneo) based in San Francisco promotes ICT in developing countries by empowering and hiring local developers, and working through such fora as http://www.ictworks.org/. The firm’s work challenges traditional development approaches that tend to be stovepiped.

The IBRD’s Gil agreed that more bottom-up, open development was the preferred option. He noted Google’s, Yahoo’s, Microsoft’s and others’ partnering to produce software for disaster management as part of the the “Random Hacks of Kindness” program. He stated that such software dramatically shortened the time required to analyze disaster data in Haiti. Issues still occur, however, in that host countries often impose their own limitations on data-sharing – e.g. for a structural engineering survey in Haiti.

Finally, Huffman discussed his work in Afghanistan and relative success in sharing data and empowering local IT staff despite the challenges in a war zone. He and others noted that barriers to sharing information were often simply potential embarrassment by sharing organizations – hence a “need to become more failure tolerant” in opening up development project evaluation findings, and to try and get away with a preoccupation with measurable results. He noted their project’s success in funding revised and more open licenses to allow public sharing of road data in country. Indeed, one issue raised by the panel as a whole was how to go about funding specific activities to stimulate broader transparency in developing countries.

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Jeff Ribeira

Great post, Gary! I was at the same conference, and found it very fun and informative. It definitely was an interesting mix of people, wasn’t it? Public and private sector people from all sorts of backgrounds- really made for some great discussions. I also attended the changing philosophies in development discussion, as well as the discussion on the use of social media in the Middle East. Both, I felt, had great content with intelligent, experienced people leading the discussions. All in all, a very enlightening day. Thanks for sharing your review.