February 20, 2004

Preview: Open Source in Government Conference

Author: Tony Stanco

The U.S federal government is looking at open source software in response to the E-Government Act of 2002. This year's Open Source in Government Conference March 15-17 in Washington, D.C., aims to promote the use of Internet and emerging technologies within government agencies as an efficient way to provide citizen-centric government information and services.

The E-Government Act encourages collaboration on e-government among federal, state, local, and tribal government leaders in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches, as well as leaders in the private and nonprofit sectors. This cross-sector collaboration is designed to promote the sharing of best practices and innovative approaches in acquiring, using, and managing information resources for the government.

In its mandated search for best value and innovative solutions, the federal government is now looking to open source software, because, as one government official recently said, "the open source movement offers interoperable, reusable, commodity software as viable alternatives to proprietary software." In addition to low or non-existent initial acquisition costs, the open source model leverages external expertise to complement in-house integration and customization skill sets, providing a framework in which to build high quality and secure solutions for government.

Building on the position of a "level-playing field" established by the Department of Defense last year in its open source memo, the U.S. federal government is ready to implement open source systems that meet its needs. However, open source applications still need to demonstrate "best value" in the complex, heterogeneous IT environments of the federal government.

Open source as best value for e-government

At the conference, a number of government officials will present existing cases where open source has already delivered value to the government. One government implementation in particular may become a precedent for how governments around the world can do open source. The Department of Labor's (DoL) WorkforceConnections software makes it easy for non-technical individuals to create, acquire, share and control Web content in real time. WorkforceConnections lets users build and maintain traditional Web sites, online courses, knowledge repository, online coach, and communities of practice portals.

WorkforceConnections began as an R&D effort under the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Co-Laboratory initiative, under the leadership of Will Peratino, director of WorkforceConnections programs and policy. DoL promotes workforce development activities nationally, working closely with state agencies to provide training and information resources, often through Web channels. The key technical requirement for DoL was that any type of content be stored and presented in compliance with both the ADL Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) and the Americans with Disabilities Act Section 508. SCORM includes an XML definition to enable interoperability, accessibility, and reusability of Web-based learning content. Section 508 is closely aligned with the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines but also defines accessibility requirements for all IT products.

The important thing about WorkforceConnections, however, is that it is licensed under the GPL. WorkforceConnections is an open source custom distribution originally created by devIS, a small northern Virginia software company, specifically for the Department of Labor. The product was written in Python and built on Zope, Apache, and other open source tools.

The software has already paid for itself in various DoL implementations, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now some 15 other agencies are using the product, including The White House's DisabilityInfo.gov site, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Employment and Training Administration, Department of Education, U.S. Air Force, Food and Drug Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration. This reuse is compounding the cost savings to the government, because once the code was released under the GPL, it could be, and is being, used by all these other agencies at no additional cost.

Lower cost is not the only major benefit accruing to the government. Historically, government systems have had a difficult time interoperating with each other. Interoperability of agency systems is a major obstacle that the government is facing in delivering the citizen-centric government services mandated by the E-Gov Act. With open source software like that of WorforceConnections, cross-agency interoperability is much easier, because now all the agencies that use it can have the same structure, code, and data formats.

The government can finance tremendous amounts of open source software development by paying small open source companies, as it did with devIS. In this way, the government can deliver e-government efficiently and at lower cost, while at the same time helping local small businesses around the country.

Enlightened government officials are becoming so convinced that open source can help them provide cost-effective e-government solutions that they are building a number of code directories and repositories. The federal government has initiated two, www.CORE.gov and www.ComponentTechnology.org, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is working with about a dozen other states to create the Government Open Code Consortium (GOCC) for state programs. Together, these initiatives have the potential to create opportunities for local small open source companies in every state across the nation.

These initiatives and other things that federal, state, and international governments are doing with open source will all be discussed at the March conference. In the meantime, to help governments find companies and consultants with open source expertise, The Center of Open Source & Government is compiling an Open Source Reference Book. We invite you to enter your company and services in the book, which will be distributed at the conference and used like a "yellow pages" by government officials.

Speakers at the March Open Source in Government conference include:

  • Marc Andreessen, Chairman and co-founder of Opsware Inc., co-founder of Netscape
  • Mary Mitchell, Program Executive for E-government Policy, GSA
  • Bob Haycock, FEA Chief Architect, OMB
  • Dawn Meyerriecks, CTO, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA)
  • Barbara Held, German Federal Ministry of the Interior
  • John Borras, Assistant Director, Office of the e-Envoy, UK Cabinet Office
  • Claudia Boldman, Commonwealth of Massachusetts

Other presentations will come from senior government officials in OMB and CIO Council Emerging and Component Technology Sub-Committees. Government participants will include federal, state, and local program and acquisition managers. Industry participants including IBM, HP, Oracle, and Microsoft will give their perspectives on this important topic.

This year's conference is being co-sponsored by the Center of Open Source & Government and the General Services Administration (GSA). GSA procures billions of dollars of products, services and technology for the rest of the Federal government to support the roughly one million Federal workers.

Tony Stanco, Esq., is the founding director of the Washington-based Center of Open Source & Government. He works on software policy, Open Source, cyber-security and e-government with universities and governments around the world. Tony has given presentations at the U.S. Congress, various U.S. defense and civilian agencies, World Bank, European Commission, United Nations, Inter-American Development Bank, Organization of American States, World Summit on Information Society, UK, Germany, Canada, Mexico, India, Denmark, Jordan, LinuxWorld, Advanced Computer and Internet Law Institute, and International Computer Law Association, among others. He is an Associate Director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute of The George Washington University. He is also adjunct professor at George Washington University, teaching courses on Open Source, and "From Lab to IPO: The Hi-Tech Start-Up."

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