Open source matters to open government. Really. |

Open source matters to open government. Really.

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"Open source and open government are not the same," I've been reading recently. When discussing the role of open standards in open government transparency projects, Bob Caudill at Adobe, is concerned that open source and open standards are being conflated. He likes open standards just fine, but:


"Open standards are driving for interoperability between systems or applications, while, the goal of open source is to make high-quality software available to the market free of charge."

As an open source advocate, I'm surprised. What, I have to wonder, is so threatening about open source? Why the effort to take open source off the table? I've written on the topic before, and I didn't think this was controversial -- but apparently I was wrong. Andrea DiMaio at Gartner is more pointed:


"For those who have been following some of the vintage discussions about government and open source, this will probably sound like a déjà vu. I honestly thought that people had finally given up pushing the confusion between open source and open standards or open formats, but here we are again."

While they both agree on the importance of open standards (although transparency also seems to annoy DiMaio), they also remind us that tools, proprietary or open source, are a means to an end. An open standard is an open standard, whether implemented by an open source project or a proprietary one. What's important, they insist, is more transparency, collaboration, and participation. Open source is immaterial at best, and a distraction at worst.

They're right, of course, that open standards are crucial to ensuring meaningful transparency in government. It does not follow, however, that this precludes a role for open source. Open source software is an invaluable tool -- one of many -- to approach all three goals (transparency, collaboration, participation) of the Open Government Directive. It's not about open source software specifically, although the software helps. It's about the process that open source projects use to create good software. Because the open source development process requires real collaboration, tangible progress towards a goal, and the participation of a broad community of users and developers, it's an excellent mechanism for getting citizens involved in the work of government.

DiMaio couldn't disagree more. Referring to Nat Torkington's idea of using the open source development model to improve transparency projects:


"...there is a fundamental flaw in this line of thought. Open source projects cluster a number of developers who collaborate on an equal footing to develop a product they are jointly responsible for, as a community. "Government does not have the luxury of doing so. An agency publishing crime statistics or weather forecast or traffic information is ultimately accountable for what it publishes."

I couldn't disagree more. Again, DiMaio and Caudill misunderstand how the open source process works and what it can contribute. The trouble, I think, is with a too-narrow understanding of what participation and collaboration might mean, and a similarly narrow view of what the open source development process has to offer.

The goal of open source is much more than just making no-cost software, as Caudill suggests. It's about producing better software through a process of inclusion and rough consensus. The source code is free of charge largely because that is the best way to create a large community around the project, it's not the final goal. And while some open source projects function better than others, they are not, as a rule, unaccountable. In order for the projects to succeed, they must be highly accountable to their community. Further, many open source projects have commercial ventures (like my company, Red Hat) that live or die by their success, which makes them extremely accountable. So to say that the government cannot rely on open source software or the open source process because it is unaccountable is just not true. We know this to be the case because you can find the government using open source software in the Army, the NSA, the Census, the White House, and just about everywhere else. So there's no reason to think that open source process cannot inform and support an open data project, as DiMaio suggests.

Setting accountability to the side, the more interesting conversation is how open source can bring some unique benefits to open government, unavailable any other way.

If you look at the outstanding work of pro-transparency organizations like the Sunlight Foundation,, RECAP, and others, nearly all are using open source and the open source development model. It's not, as DiMaio and Caudill suggest, because they're naive ideologues who are confused as to the meaning of "open". These are smart people doing serious work. They're using open source because it's the best way to collect a large number of contributors around a common problem. They're using open source because the transparency of the process and software makes their work credible. They're using open source because they believe that free access to government data means free access to the tools that make that data useful.

The alternative is closed, proprietary tools, which do little to further the transparency goals. RECAP, for example, had a difficult time understanding the US Courts' closed PACER system, and had to do a lot of difficult reverse-engineering to work with it effectively. The job would have been significantly easier if they had access to the PACER software source code. Fortunately, because RECAP is an open source project, their hard work making PACER usable is now available to everyone. So to dismiss open source as irrelevant to the crucial work of making government data available and valuable to the private citizen, and the even more important work of encouraging a collaboration between government and its citizen, is deeply misguided.

Again, even though data transparency seems to annoy DiMaio, I think there's good reason for the tremendous transparency effort the administration and the private sector have brought to bear. First, data transparency is a relatively simple problem to solve. It's easy to publish data on the Internet, and there's a tremendous amount of value to be extracted. So while it's only a part of the challenge -- indeed, is only one leg of the Open Government Directive -- it's an easy win for both government and its citizens.

But DiMaio is correct that open government is about much more than just data, so let's generalize this further. We could understand open government as an opportunity to increase the quality of interaction between citizens and their government through collaboration. "The government is not a vending machine," as Tim O'Reilly paraphased Frank DiGiammarino of the National Academy of Public Administration, "which we kick when it doesn't work right." Instead of treating government as a black box, we should treat our government as the place where we, in the public and private sector, come together, to solve problems as a group. This is why we refer to "government as a platform." Yes, as DiMaio says, each agency is responsible for its own output. But that doesn't mean the public has no stake. Precisely because we want to hold agencies to a higher standard, we must provide a means of collaboration and participation.

The trouble is, there's a lot more of us than there is of them. How can one agency effectively collaborate with 300 million constituents? Likewise, how can an agency effectively communicate with that many people? One of the reasons the open government movement is so preoccupied with technology and the Internet is that they represent a solution to this problem. For the first time, the government and its citizens have the means to work effectively at this scale. There are all kinds of tools for this: social networking, blogging,, the Ideascale Open Government sites, and so on. One of those tools, the one that is most interesting to me, is the open source development process.

Note that I didn't say open source software. Although I love the software, and could talk for days about why the government should be using more of it, it's the process that creates this software that is most valuable to the goals of collaboration and participation.

In the last 40 years, open source software communities have learned how to effectively solve complex tasks with large, far-flung, geographically dispersed communities. Why wouldn't we take these methods, and apply them to the task of creating a better government? As I mentioned earlier, Nat Torkington suggested using the open source process to improve data quality. The NASA CoLab project uses open source software and the open source development process alongside other collaborative tools to get researchers from the public and private sector to work together. The Defense Information Systems Agency is using the project to encourage collaboration between the DOD and its contractors -- not just for software, but for testing, certification, and project management. The Apps for Democracy, Apps for Army, and Apps for America contests are all attempts to harness the collective intelligence of citizens and government to solve common problems using the open source model -- not just building tools, but building the means to collaborate on top of open tools, like Open 311 and DataMasher.

So when DiMaio bemoans the lack of government employee engagement and the lack of community data, it may be because he doesn't realize that this work is happening, and it's happening using open source and (more generally) collaborative innovation models.

Both DiMaio and Caudill make the mistake of believing that open source is about making cheap bits. Instead, it's a blueprint for effective collaboration on a massive scale. Advocates for open source in government, like me and my friends at Open Source for America, aren't just talking about open source tools, although those are also useful. We believe that the open source development model has a concrete contribution to make to the open government movement -- and those who dismiss open source as irrelevant don't realize just how open a government can be.

About the author

Gunnar Hellekson - I'm the Chief Strategist for Red Hat's US Public Sector group, where I work with systems integrators and government agencies to encourage the use of open source software in government.