The Obama Administrationâ€™sÂ Open Government Directive ordered Federal agencies to produce open government plans by April 7th, and while some advocates are disappointed, we have before us a bewildering number of initiatives to improve transparency, collaboration, and participation across the Government. It will not surprise you to learn that I spent some time looking for places where open source is being used in these plans.
Iâ€™m not sure I can recommend reading all of the plans cover to cover, but if youâ€™re an advocate or have a vested interest in the future of a Federal agency, these plans are fascinating peek into each agencyâ€™s interior life. Itâ€™s not just the content of the plans, which run from exciting to comical to mundane. You can also learn a great deal about how agencies view themselves from the way these plans are presented and marketed. It will come as no surprise that the Department of Justiceâ€™s rather unlovely document spends a lot of time thinking about reducing its FOIA backlog. The Department of Energy clearly understands itself to be a first a research organization, based on its flagship data sets. The Department of Defense plan is crisp, to the point, and focuses on getting theÂ behemothÂ to better collaborate and interact with other agencies, rather than the public.
The organizational psychology betrayed by these plans is for another post. My interest is in where agencies found open source. Iâ€™ve long advocated for open source as a concrete, tangible way to encourage collaboration between agencies and between the government and its citizens. I was pleasantly surprised, frankly, to see how many agencies agree. Hereâ€™s what I found, in no particular order.
The USAID plan was a total surprise. I had no idea how many open source initiatives were being conducted by USAID. Page 30 contains this gem on their Global Development Commons work:
With over four billion subscribers in the world, the mobile phone is often the keyÂ to connecting and exchanging information with people in developing countries.Â The 2008 USAID Development 2.0 Challenge, implemented by the GlobalÂ Development Commons, invited innovators and entrepreneurs from around theÂ world to participate in a global competition to seek access to information andÂ build new connections to the global community. Crowdsourcing and OpenÂ Innovation have become increasingly important engines of innovation globally,Â leveraged by the commercial, non-profit, academic and government sectors toÂ identify opportunities and solve problems. USAIDâ€™s Development 2.0 Challenge yielded 115 submissions using high impact, low-cost, open source solutions.
The winner among the 115 submissions was theÂ RapidSMS Child Malnutrition Surveillance system, which â€œenables health practitioners to share and track childrenâ€™s nutritional information with the touch of a cell phone.â€
The agency also operates the Intra-Health OPEN Initiative, which is â€œaÂ suite of free open source solutions toÂ supply health sector leaders andÂ managers with a collection of newÂ tools.â€
The Social Security Administration is another open source underdog. Imagine all the pent-up innovation they can unlock once this project is underway:
We are in the process of creating internal capacity to host websites and applications based on open-source software solutions and we look forward to a lively exchange of ideas and program code within the growing Federal openâ€“source software development community;
As part of SSAâ€™s fifth goal, â€œmaking government more sustainableâ€, they see open source software as an essential tool:
We are a Federal leader in the use of Health Information Technology. Our work with the private sector may yield transferable ideas and tools. We will share our results and products as appropriate. For example:
- We look forward to sharing the products of our openâ€“source platform efforts across the growing Federal openâ€“source development community, as well as partnering with other agencies in future endeavors; and
- We are in the process of designing and developing an Electronic Technology Repository for communities of innovation. We expect this repository to employ openâ€“source social networking and other tools to permit users to better manage agency knowledge, avoid unproductive duplication of effort, and share experiences. The repository will support the storage of shared materials and project artifacts, discussion boards, wikis, blogs, subscription feeds, and other pertinent information. We envision sharing these resources with other Federal organizations as well.
Others have criticized open source as being irrelevant to the open government movement, but I think interagency collaboration doesnâ€™t happen anywhere near as often as it should, it can be made easier with open source, and itâ€™s outstanding that the SSA seems to agree.
The DOD has been using open source software for years. Though I was a bit surprised that it wasnâ€™t explicitly mentioned in the DODâ€™s open government plan, and even more surprised that the much-hyped forge.mil project isnâ€™t referenced at all, the plan includes a number of initiatives that happen to take advantage of open source tools:
The Wikified Army Field Guide, based on Mediawiki, will allow warfighters to collaboratively edit the Armyâ€™s field manuals, allowing the documents to be more accurate and responsive:
â€¦as the battlefield changes rapidly, field manuals must keep pace.Â Under the traditional process â€“ in which a select few were charged with drafting and updating field manuals â€“manuals often failed to reflect the latest knowledge of Soldiers on the ground.
Using the same free software behind Wikipedia, the Armyâ€™s â€œwikifiedâ€ field manuals invite military personnel â€“ from private to general â€“ to collaboratively update the Army Tactics, Techniques and Procedures Manuals in real time.Â In so doing, the Army provides a secure means for battle-tested Soldiers to share their experience and advice from the field.Â Wikified Army Field Manuals ensure the men and women who serve our Nation have access to the best possible information when they need it.
This is a very exciting opportunity to capture all the innovation happening â€œat the edgeâ€ and quickly incorporate it into useful, official documentation. It makes so much sense, Iâ€™m surprised it hasnâ€™t already been done.
The plan also highlights XMPP, which is a tremendously popular instant-messaging protocol that runs, among others, Google Talk. It may surprise you to learn just how much XMPPâ€™s most popular implementation, Jabber, is already being used inside the DOD. The Defense Connect Online program uses Jabber to provide secure IMs inside the DOD, and they announced in November that this would be opened up to the outside world. Because they standardized on an open standard with robust open source implementations, literally dozens of different chat clients are now available to these non-DOD DCO users.
Itâ€™s interesting how both Jabber and the Wiki Field Manual projects aim to improve collaboration, and do so on highly collaborative open source platforms. I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s an accident.
VirtualUSA is DHSâ€™ flagship initiative, which couldnâ€™t be more appropriate. From page 23 of the DHS Open Government plan:
On December 8, 2009, Secretary Janet Napolitano publicly launched Virtual USAÂ (vUSA), an innovative information-sharing initiative that draws on practitioner input toÂ help Federal, State, local and Tribal first responders collaborate to make fast, well-informed decisions. vUSA integrates existing frameworks and investments to provideÂ real-time access to operational informationâ€”such as weather conditions; traffic; theÂ location and operational status of critical infrastructure; fuel supplies; availability ofÂ emergency shelters and medical facilities; and other critical informationâ€”that allowsÂ users to improve situational awareness and to respond quickly in emergencies.
vUSA currently operates as two pilots â€“ one in eight southeastern states: Alabama,Â Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia and Tennessee; and the otherÂ in five states in the northwest: Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. InÂ Virginia alone, vUSA reduced response times to incidents involving hazardous materialsÂ by 70 percent.
VirtualUSA is much more revolutionary than this lets on. Itâ€™s a very disruptive piece of software in its space. FCW has a succinct overview of the projectâ€™s history and what it means for first responders. DHS is funding this project, based on open source and open standards, in part because it wants to encourage collaborative toolbuilding and cooperation among the states, and also because this capability is too important to be in the hands of a single GIS provider, like Google or ESRI. Because it is an open source project, and uses open standards, VirtualUSA ensures that critical assets are not locked into a single vendor, and simultaneously lower the barrier to entry for new GIS vendors.
On page 18 of the Department of Commerce plan, under â€œOpen Source Information Technologyâ€, we find some familiar prose:
Also emerging from Commerceâ€™s Open GovernmentÂ Ideascale community was a suggestion to â€œbecome more open through the increased use ofÂ open source software.â€ The Department has already begun using the open source tool,Â Drupal, for a number of its new websites and plans to increase this use in the future. UsingÂ open source technology will allow Commerce to develop new technologies and collaborateÂ more readily with the public and other government agencies, and within the DepartmentÂ itself.
To make this happen, the Office of the Chief Information Officer and the Office ofÂ Acquisition Management will be consulted to ensure that open source offerings are fullyÂ considered during procurement processes. That consideration will include the value that theÂ Department can receive through increased collaboration with the public and as a contributorÂ to open source communities.
Nothing short of victory at Commerce for Open Source of America, whose suggestion this was. Congratulations!
Youâ€™ll find open source in the strangest places. Until I read Laborâ€™s plan, I didnâ€™t appreciate how much data the Department of Labor is responsible for analyzing and disseminating. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense to find this initiative on page 29:
Create a â€œDeveloperâ€™s Cornerâ€
We plan to establish a â€œDeveloper Cornerâ€ on www.dol.gov/open that specificallyÂ targets and engages developers. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible forÂ developers to re-purpose our data, provide feedback, get technical help, bringÂ developers with similar interests together and, ultimately inspire the best possibleÂ uses of our data for the benefit of the public. Ideas under consideration include aÂ bug tracking system, RSS feeds for dataset changes, dataset versioning, publicÂ code competitions, data authentication, and an ideation platform to prioritizeÂ developer needs.
I think every department and agency that distributes data to the public (which is to say, all of them) should follow Laborâ€™s lead and establish their own Developer sites. Thereâ€™s no better way to stay engaged with this very powerful community.
The outstanding NHIN CONNECT project, which has a thriving open source community, got a mention on page 56 of HHSâ€™s plan:
Nationwide Health Information Network â€“ Direct
A key component of the Nationâ€™s emerging health information technology infrastructure is theÂ Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN) â€“ a set of standards, policies, and services thatÂ enable the secure exchange of health information over the Internet. â€œNHIN Directâ€ is the latestÂ development in the evolution of the NHIN. Itâ€™s an important effort to develop a â€œlightweight on-rampâ€ to the NHIN that will enable simple, direct exchanges of information betweenÂ providers, labs, pharmacies, and consumers â€” and which will be easy to adopt and implement.Â In a process that launched on March 1, NHIN Direct is being designed in close collaborationÂ with the community of potential users, with the entire process taking place in the open, inÂ public, on a NHIN Direct wikispace. NHIN Direct will then be implemented in real-worldÂ tests and deployments by members of the community â€“ with HHSâ€™s Office of the NationalÂ Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) playing a coordinating and conveningÂ role. The gist of the NHIN Direct strategy is to utilize a community-driven approach to ramp upÂ and power NHIN Direct-powered health information exchange.
I should mention that my employer, Red Hat, is involved in this project.
There was nothing explicitly about open source in the NSFâ€™s open government plan, but their plan is worth mentioning anyway, as the NSF already does a tremendous amount of work in the open source community. Hereâ€™s a search for â€œopen sourceâ€ on their web site, which yielded over 5,000 hits when I last tried it:
NSF regularly awards grants under the condition that software developed under those grants is given an open source license. Some very progressive thinking, and shrewd IP stewardship from the NSF folks, so weâ€™ll forgive them for not mentioning open source directly in their plan.
Yet another revelation. Treasury plans to cultivate open source projects to facilitate collaboration between agencies and between Treasury and the public. Iâ€™ve written about exactly this kind of collaboration before, back in December, so Iâ€™m enormously pleased to see that Treasury agrees.Â Iâ€™ve emphasized my favorite passages here:
In the areas of transparency, participation, collaboration, and flagship initiative, Treasury strives to share its efforts acrossÂ Government to avoid duplication across agencies and to improve value/outcome of efforts. Treasury seeks to manifest cross-agency transferability in at least two of the following ways:
- Make training available to other agencies by opening up classes/webcasts to other agencies; providing slides, videoÂ and/or audio after the training; and posting on an e-learning platform.
- Name an advocate who gets the word out about what the agency has to share and invites other agencies to contact thatÂ person to learn from him or her.
- Design procurements for enterprise (where government is the enterprise) or in such a way that what is created can beÂ shared across government at no cost.
- Develop and post code so it can be shared with other agencies (open source or the contract written such that theÂ government owns the code.)
- Share platforms utilized by the agency with other agencies at no cost.
- Create participatory events across agencies with related missions.
- Collaborate on projects and challenges with the public and with the private sector in partnership with other federalÂ agencies that have similar missions.
- Share all materials, results, tools, and training that could be transferable to other agencies with the Interagency WorkingÂ Group as an efficient central dissemination mechanism.
The VA is an enormous consumer of information technology, and gained early recognition from the open source community for its public domain VISTA electronic health record platform. On page 22 of the VA plan, it becomes clear that the VA is expanding its use of open source to lower the barrier to entry for developers who want to help the agency:
A Virtual Installation of VistA Architecture (AViVA) is a recent innovation that we areÂ using to support collaboration. AViVA creates a universal user interface for theÂ electronic health record and includes prototyping of data connectors in order to securelyÂ link the AViVA platform to patient data from any source. The AViVA project incorporatesÂ HealtheVet as an update of the VistA legacy database system.
VAâ€™s current electronic hospital management system uses a graphical user interfaceÂ known as the Clinical Patient Record System (CPRS). CPRS data is stored in theÂ legacy data system known as VistA. CPRS requires installation on each machine thatÂ operates the program rendering the program difficult to scale and expensive to maintainÂ and update. AViVAâ€™s implementation improves this model in two ways. First, AViVAÂ creates a modular, web-enabled electronic health record system that can be easily andÂ remotely maintained. Second, Medical Data Web Services (MDWS), which can beÂ accessed by the Department of Defense, will allow the creation of applications for anyÂ data source to be plugged into the system.
AViVA is a very exciting program for the collaboration portion of our Open GovernmentÂ Plan and because we are committed to creating systems that allow health careÂ providers to collaborate to provide the best care for Veterans. AViVAâ€™s web basedÂ presentation layer will allow our doctors and nurses around the country to search patientÂ records as simply and succinctly as you can search for pizza on Google Maps and asÂ securely as the best retail financial service businesses. Additionally, AViVA createsÂ collaboration between VA and DoD, our partner in caring for our nationâ€™s heroes.Â Finally AViVA creates an open source platform that allows software to be shared withÂ entities outside of VA, creating opportunities for further innovation and developmentÂ beyond the agency.
â€œNASA is working to make open source software development more collaborative at NASA to benefit both the Agency and the public,â€ it says right on the first page of the NASA open government plan. Hereâ€™s an agency which has always relied on a vibrant research community, software developers, and a culture of innovation. Iâ€™m not surprised by their focus on open source, but I am delighted. Among other things, NASA will be sponsoring an open source code competition, has an entire section of their plan devoted to open source development, and will be developing their Nebula cloud computing system on open source software.
Itâ€™s fair to say that NASAâ€™s plan is the strongest Iâ€™ve seen for the open source community.
Who did I miss? What other opportunities for open source have you found in the open government plans? Leave a comment and let us all know!