Open Source First

It was great to see the recent blog of US General Services Administration (GSA) CIO Sonny Hashmi in which he establishes “open source first” as an agency policy:

“Simply put, any solution developed using taxpayer dollars should be in the taxpayer’s domain (open source). At GSA, we believe that all code we developed should be shared under an open license so others may benefit from it. In addition, we will give priority to using open source software as we design [new] solutions.”

In this statement the GSA sounds like it’s talking about software licensing policy, but really it’s addressing its ability to interact with other organizations and its freedom to create flexible software applications. It is delivering on the promise of major initiatives like the Open Government Initiative and Data.gov.

By developing and deploying open source solutions, GSA ensures that agencies can go beyond simply publishing open APIs and towards opening their code for reuse and customization by other agencies and the public. By using open source as new solutions are developed, GSA is giving itself the flexibility to customize as needs change, select developers and software maintenance sources without limitation, and innovate at its own pace — without waiting for a proprietary developer to create new products or features.

I also see GSA addressing three of the key value drivers of software:

  1. Cost: By developing software solutions that can be “shared under an open license” GSA is lowering its costs to develop and test software. In an interview following the blog post, Mr. Hashmi describes how open source development allows outside testers access to code and the ability to suggest bug fixes — at no charge to the agency.

  1. Flexibility: Creating software solutions with open source from the start offers enterprises complete freedom to design and scale their applications without having to worry about vendor lock-in.

  1. Control: This also allows for faster time to innovation since open source allows for continual updating that was cumbersome under former GSA sourcing policies.

As GSA moves ahead with this, they must keep in mind that the term open source (like many other terms in technology) can be misrepresented, which would defeat GSA’s core purpose with this policy. True open source software that is able to operate for a government-level project provides these core tenets:

  • Interoperates with multiple platforms, both proprietary and open

  • Includes a free version available for developers globally to utilize for innovation

  • Commits to continual updates and innovation and ongoing governance and participation from contributors

  • Provides all necessary source code, not just lightweight pieces (i.e. free viewers, libraries and simple tools) designed to make you purchase a proprietary platform

  • Manages for distributed control of source code to ease collaboration and derivative development

Boundless has been in the software development business for a long time now (including our early days as OpenGeo) and we have seen the steady evolution of our industry to open source. Increasingly, we are finding that enterprises — both commercial and government — are embracing open source not simply because it’s the way to make great software, but also because “open source first” helps them manage their pace of innovation and the way they interact with users and partners. “Open source first” keeps the government — not a third-party software vendor — in control of its future.

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