How state government employees use open source

How far does openness in government trickle down?

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What's it like to work for your state government? What kinds of software are approved for use? How far do you think openness in government trickles down?

I've been asked questions likes these as a Geographic Information Systems Technician with the State Department of Health and Human Services in North Carolina, where I spend most of my day looking at maps. And currently, open source solutions are not approved for use in my department, but there does appear to openness in my midst. 

Along with my coworker, I saw the value of using the open source relational database management systems software, PostgreSQL, in conjunction with a spatial extension, PostGIS, to house and maintain some of our larger spatial datasets. Using this set up, we are less reliant on proprietary software for the day-to-day maintenance of our datasets (which I hope will save us a little money too).

I am also exploring open source solutions in my free time and ended up pondering some bigger questions about why open source software and principles are important to state government, the GIS field, and my own career.

How important is open source to GIS? What new innovations in the field of GIS could open source products and solutions garner?

Open source software can be very useful for GIS, but with the proliferation of proprietary software in government and private industry, finding the right places to integrate it into an already functional system is key. Open source GIS software, due to its nature of being constantly updated and improved by the user community, is much more nimble and open to innovation. I see it driving changes in the way GIS software operates. It has been evolving rapidly since my introduction to GIS just 5 years ago, and even then, it was fairly robust. Many open source GIS tools and software are just as capable, if not more capable, than the proprietary software available. I think that we would see wider use and adoption of these tools by simply improving the user interface.

I am currently trying to teach myself how to use a stack of open source tools in order to build a sophisticated web mapping application. It is admittedly quite tedious and has been a slow process, but it's rewarding for me because I am additionally learning how the Internet works on a functional level as well has how to develop code for browsers. Included with this is desktop software that connects to the open source stack of programs and lets me control, edit, and view the data before pushing it out to the web. These resources are very similar to the proprietary GIS software that I use everyday at work, and they have all, if not more functionality, built in—with the option to add tools that I can build on my own in the future.

Does using open source solutions require the user to be tech savvy?

Using open source solutions is a great way to make use of the collective shared knowledge and eliminate reinventing the wheel. Many times proprietary software provides a plethora of services that are well vetted and function properly, but those same products are also quite expensive and provide a significant barrier for companies and individuals striving to use or learn about the product. Open source products on the other hand provide free access to build programs and the source code behind it, allowing experienced users the ability to modify the program/software as needed and contribute further to the community knowledge and tool base. Over time open source products are vetted and become just as sophisticated as the pay products. Typically, open source solutions do require that the user is more tech savvy, but in my opinion the result of working with open source software offers much greater rewards because the user develops a better understanding of how it works and why.

Are the latest White House moves on open source of interest?

I am actually very impressed with the Obama administration taking steps to open up government data to the public. It is a great way to allow anyone to fact check the information put out by the government. The Drupal-based petition website code availability is pretty cool and I could see it being beneficial to state or local goverments when trying to guage the public's interest or need for changes, giving a larger voice to the community.

After taking a look at the Android/IOS apps on Github, I am further impressed that the White House is willing to put that out there for anyone to use and modify for whatever purpose. While it is only an aggregator of information, the goal to provide a working application that smaller governments with a smaller budget could use to similarly engage their communities is pretty awesome.

While I'd like to see the government be more technologically open, I'm most thrilled with the release of the White House homebrewed beers. I am actually planning to make the White House Honey ale soon, but with my own "open source" twist—more hops!

About the author

Charles Rudder - Charles Rudder is a GIS Technician for the NC Dept of Health and Human Services at the Center for Health Statistics, Health and Spatial Analysis Unit (HSUA). In this role Charles is responsible for building and maintaining data sets that allow his department to uncover and manage spatial relationships within public health data. He previously worked with the NC Forest service and the City of Raleigh. Charles also likes to brew and drink beer, and as a result has built his own open source brewing