October 14, 2005

New national center to assist governments with open source applications

Author: Stephen Feller

The National Center for Open Source Policy and Research (NCOSPR) was launched today at the first Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) in Portland, a meeting of more than 200 representatives of government entities and software developers hosted by at Oregon State University's Open Source Lab (OSL).

The mission of the NCOSPR will be to guide government agencies through the array of open source software available, as well as to develop specific solutions for individual agencies with its resource center. The center is also behind Government Forge, a portal to host and maintain open source software relevant to government agencies and other public entities.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," said NCOSPR founder John Weathersby. "We just want to go out and help identify programs that are either out there, or programs that need to be developed or modified to address these public section needs."

The Open Source Software Institute, of which Weathersby also is executive director, is staffing the NCOSPR until it begins hiring on its own, a logical arrangement considering that it was a project OSSI took on that led to the NCOSPR.

According to Weathersby, the Gulf Coast region of Mississippi needed a new jail management system. Proprietary jail management software runs about $1 million off the shelf, so a group of sheriffs from the region approached OSSI about finding a less expensive option. OSSI was able to deliver a custom solution for roughly $350,000.

"We built it in six months, in an open source environment ... and it is going to be available to anyone in the government for free," Weathersby said. "What we've done is taken a public investment of $350,000 and we're going to make it available to all public entities." The software, now completed and in its testing phase, will be hosted on Government Forge.

Federal government benefits

Mark Lucas, lead scientist and site manager for L3-Titan Group, and a consultant for the US Department of Defense (DoD), said the department is likely to utilize the center as a resource to find open source software that will work for it. He is currently putting together what he calls a roadmap for the federal government to find ways to use open source software more.

"I think there is the realization of an open source approach, especially in the research and development areas of the DoD," Lucas said. "One of the buzzwords is that they need a transformational change. If you just look at the amount of money that's being spent, there's not going to be many advances made just because of the cost of systems, and so they're actively looking ... to change the equation. And certainly they consider that the use of open source technologies is potentially one of those transformational changes."

According to Lucas, the current costs for the DoD to maintain its software are "eating them alive." Lucas offered as an example the fact that about half the cost of a new Navy ship is software. To fix the problem, he plans create a viable timetable for open source software integration, with a likely six-month turnaround on new software after testing and stability checks.

Weathersby indicated that as more government agencies move to open source software, even more will follow. As the center ramps up, he said, more software is expected to be transformed into applications useful for the government and public sectors. The point being, he said, to display what is available, how well it works, and who it works for.

"We're trying to clarify what's already out there," Weathersby said. "If you're a government entity, you're going to give a lot of credence to what is already being run in a similar government entity. We're just trying to connect like minds together."

University research possibilities

The University of Southern Mississippi (USM), where the NCOSPR is headquartered and a principal partner in the center, is one place that will likely begin using more open source software as a result of the organization's efforts.

The university expects to gain access to some exciting new research possibilities, and bring economic development to the Gulf Coast, with the center being located at its campus near the Stennis Space Center, said Dr. Cecil D. Burge, vice president for research and economic development at USM.

Burge also said the university would offer an atmosphere and participation driven by nothing but pure research, which he said is the major benefit of NCOSPR being not-for-profit and located at an institute of higher education.

"Universities tend to be places of neutrality," Burge said. "If the for-profit sector does this, regardless of why they would do it, then their motives might be questioned. But a university brings neutrality and hopefully a level playing field and ... probably one of the biggest pluses."

NCOSPR, registered as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization with the IRS, is trying to solicit public funding and trying to figure out how to accept money. While Weathersby is trying to get corporations involved, he's not sure exactly what they'll be doing.

"Nothing has been asked of them yet except their guidance and cooperation," Weathersby said. "We want this to be owned by the public. What we're trying to do is share open source as a public resource, so we're not really going out and soliciting corporate sponsorships."

Sticking to non-profit entities for the moment, in addition to USM, Weathersby is speaking to Syracuse University and Oregon State University's OSL about being partners in the center.

OSL is especially eager to get involved, and generally excited about the center, said OSL Associate Director Scott Kveton. Although they too are not sure what they'll be doing, Kveton said he expects the 14 employees of the lab could be co-developing projects and handling colocation tasks, or anything else they are asked to do.

"I'm excited to see this center come along because it's going to allow them to leverage some of the innovation that's happening across the country and have it compiled in one place," Kveton said. "[You'll be] able to go to one place and say, this is how you get to X, Y, and Z, here's the policy on this, here's how these things got done with these things."

OSL's experience is sure to pay off for NCOSPR, not only because of OSL's involvement with GOSCON, but because it already hosts the Mozilla infrastructure, master.kernel.org, and the Gentoo and Debian infrastructures, and is involved in a lot of open source software development. With so much experience working with open source projects, OSL could be an important partner for NCOSPR.

Weathersby said he would like to see the center be a resource for anyone in the public sector, and that the collaborative effort should welcome everyone both inside and outside the open source community. Both he and Kveton see the OpenDocument push in Massachusetts and the beginning of NCOSPR as the start of something big. "I think there is a definite confluence of events going on here and it's really exciting," Kveton said.

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