March 24, 2003

Open Source in Government Conference Wrapup

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -
The Open Standards/Open Source for National and Local eGovernment Programs in the U.S. and EU conference held in Washington DC March 17 - 19 was attended by nearly 500 people, not counting speakers. Microsoft representatives made a presentation about their Shared Source program, and that drew a handful of protesters, but both Microsoft and the protestors were minor sideshows that had little to do with the "meat" of the conference.

Microsoft's people were questioned harshly by the audience, and answered with PR-style sidesteps, maintaining over and over that only a tiny percentage of users ever want to look at a program's source code, and that an even tinier percentage would ever need or want to change it.

The only truly amusing moment came when a Microsoft person talked about how Microsoft Word adhered to open standards by giving users the option of saving in many standard formats, including HTML.

Apparently this Microsoft person has never looked at the non-standard HTML Word produces. He also said the reason users used the proprietary Word format is that they preferred its "rich features" to open file formats. Really? Most MS Word and Office users I have met didn't know they could save in other formats until I told them, but I probably know an unrepresentative sample.

The anti-Microsoft protestors -- all five or six of them -- wore colonial-era costumes attendees described as "quite nice" while they handed out leaflets in the building lobby the first morning of the conference. They were asked to leave by security guards, and refused. The security guards didn't push the matter. The protest, such as it was, fizzled rapidly due to lack of interest. We received an email pointing out that no matter what they said, the protestors did not represent New Yorkers For Fair Use in any way. Okay.

The "Tractor Guy" protestor about 10 blocks away near the Washington Monument, who did not seem to have any interest in software at all, had a much greater effect on the conference because police closed streets -- including several main arteries -- and created total traffic chaos throughout central Washington, including the streets adjacent to George Washington University, which was where the conference was held.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most telling statement about the conference I heard was from a European, who wondered at the fact that "you in the U.S. are still talking about open source advocacy, while in Europe we have moved past that stage and are now discussing implementations."

This statement was only partially true. Yes, advocacy was discussed, but so was implementation. Many government agency IT people presented case studies showing how they were using open source and free software to save taxpayers money and make their operations more efficient and more reliable.

One GSA (General Services Administration) representative felt that this conference's primary benefit was that it showed him he was not alone; that there was more open source being used in more places within the federal government than he had thought. Not only that, he said he learned some helpful tricks from some of the sessions and -- best of all -- hooked up with several people from other agencies whose needs are similar to his, with whom he can cooperate on several projects, thereby increasing development and deployment efficiency even more.

Conference presenters ranged from independent security experts to government insiders to vendor reps from companies like HP and Red Hat to physicians discussing open source patient recordkeeping systems.

Indeed, the medical people were out in force. They suddenly seem to be discovering open source like mad, driven partly by the increased data processing needs of even the smallest medical practice that deals with Medicare and other insurers, and partially by a need to find new ways to save money in response to constant pressure on hospital and clinic budgets.

One of the most interesting medical presentations was given by Dr. Scott Shreeve, Chief Medical Officer of Medsphere Systems Corporation, which hopes to become "The Red Hat of health care" by offering training, support, and services surrounding the public domain Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) packages and IT infrastucture that run VA hospitals and several other major healthcare institutions around the world.

After his presentation, Dr. Shreeve met casually with Dr. John Danaher, President/CEO of Quick Compliance, a company that "offers comprehensive e-Learning, testing and tracking solutions to help your healthcare organization comply with the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA)." Dr. Danaher was previously involved with WebMD and several other medical IT ventures. He is an old hand at the business of selling IT-related services to hospitals and physicians, and this conference gave Dr. Shreeve a chance to pick his brain.

Dr. Danaher told Dr. Shreeve he needed to stop worrying about getting love from the open source community and trying to build partnerships with companies like Red Hat and HP, but should get out and do whatever he needs to do to get a pilot installation going before he uses up too much of his $800,000 in seed capital.

"Even if you have to give it away, you need to get an installation up and running," Dr. Danaher advised. "No one wants to be first."

While VistA may be proven, you see, Medsphere is not. At this point, the company is really nothing but some smart doctors and IT people, an office, a Web site, some good ideas, and some brochures -- and, of course, that magic seed capital. Dr. Danaher told Dr. Shreeve he shouldn't waste time looking for venture capital right now; that the VC well is so dry at the moment it is best to spend no energy trying to tap it, but focus all of Medsphere's energy on getting at least one pilot installation running successfully, then concentrate on sales. "I do a lot of cold calling these days," he said. "You need to get out there and get business and revenue. That's your key."

This was just one conversation of many that went on during the conference between mentors and mentees, vendors and potential clients, and people from different government agencies sharing implementation tips and exchanging business cards, even a woman from Kenya who was taking notes while a United Nations development official talked to her one-on-one about how she might use open source to help build a low-cost IT infrastructure in her country.

Many attendees, including a number of speakers, were there to make contacts that could lead to government contracts. Hans Reiser, creator of the highly-regarded ReiserFS journaling file system, was openly seeking contract programming work now that DARPA's sponsorship of (nearly complete) ReiserFS 4 is ending.

Shaun Savage, the developer behind the interesting MozApps project, was there on his own dime from his home in Portland, Oregon, staying in a hotel across the Potomac River in Virginia to save money, hoping to find a government agency or contractor to sponsor his work, because he's nearly broke and has kids to feed -- and will soon need to take a full-time job instead of spending most of his time on MozApps.

There were plenty of other contractors, consultants, and hopefuls there, not only from the U.S. but from other countries, although some foreign visitors cancelled due to fear of flight disruptions if war broke out. The entire Japanese government contingent was recalled, for example. But conference organizer Tony Stanco said that, overall, he didn't think war fears hurt attendance much; after all, he pointed out, there were many more people around than at the last government open source conference he put together.

The biggest single complaint was that there were too many "tracks." Four sessions running at once, from early morning to early evening, made this an exhausting marathon for many, and often it was a hard choice which session to attend when two or three or four interesting ones were going on at the same time. The second most frequent complaint was that there were no "keynote" sessions that got everybody together in one room at the same time, which might have led to more cameraderie, and might have made the conference look larger. As it was, many government people from nearby agencies came to attend a few sessions they felt would interest them, then went back to work, and some only came for one or two of the three days, so most of the time the conference didn't "feel" as well-attended as it really was.

Even the ballyhooed (and protested) Microsoft presentation only played to a crowd of about 80; while their guy was making his pitch, at least 100 were in other rooms, listening to serious technical talks or discussing the future of open source in medical administration, and another 80 to 100, possibly more, were scattered in the hallways and on the nearby sundeck or downstairs in the conference center's food court holding casual meetings -- or simply schmoozing, which is another perennial conference activity because these get-togethers are often the first time you get to put a face to a name with which you have exchanged email for months or even years.

Stanco says next time he'll try to keep things more focused, and he plans to have fewer sessions and speakers. If nothing else, he's forced to do this because, he said, "This is just too much. I'm running all over the place. I haven't been to 80 percent of the sessions myself."

Open Standards/Open Source for National and Local eGovernment Programs in the U.S. and EU is a long title for a conference, but this is an important one; the only Washington D.C. open source get-together specifically for government IT people. It is something we need to have at least once a year, possibly twice, and it's nice to see that the second version had so much higher attendance than the first. We hope v3 attracts even more people, and helps spur even more government open source use.


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