2004 may be the year for open source software to catch on in a big way in government agencies. For years, federal, state, and local agencies have been using open source software - some in the open, some on the sly - but the extent of open source's proliferation in public agencies remains unknown, as few hard numbers are available.
Government agencies have implemented open source solutions that range from Linux-running, data-collection computers on Naval Oceanographic Office survey ships to a Web-based tool that allows the U.S. Agency for International Development(USAID) to quickly process the visas of foreign workers scheduled to train in the United States. USAID’s Web-based Visa Compliance System, which went live in January, was developed using the open source Python programming language and runs on the Linux operating system, the PostgreSQL database, and the Apache Web server, says Peter Gallagher, president of IT contractor DevIS.
Open source may have flown under the radar at many government agencies, but that could soon change, says Tony Stanco, organizer of the Open Source in Government conference series at the Center for Open Source and Government at George Washington University. Stanco anticipates major discussions among government agencies about large-scale open source implementations at the conference this week in Washington. Public agencies have long used Linux and Apache to power Web servers, and he foresees announcements of more open source usage in the coming months. Stanco also expects open source Web services tools, such as Zope, and content management systems to catch on.
"Nobody in government wants to be the first," Stanco says. "I think that's where [many government agencies] are: talking about implementation right now."
According to Stanco and other open source advocates, this change in attitude toward open source software may be attributed to agencies’ need to reel in software spending and their IT staffs’ desire to tinker with code. With open source, agencies wouldn’t be tied to the whims of one software vendor; instead, a community of developers would control an open source project.
Open source software may also attract government users because the code can be exchanged between agencies, which are all watching their budgets. Agencies, which often develop their own specialized applications, view open source not only as a means to slash development costs but also as a vehicle for sharing their projects without worrying about licensing fees.
DevIS’s Gallagher agrees that government attitudes about open source software are shifting. “There’s been a major change within the last year,” he says. Gallagher’s software development company has assisted several federal agencies, including the Labor Department and the State Department, with open source software projects.