Does government finally grok open source?

New GitHub data suggests that governments are finally all in on open source, but the truth may be a little less sexy

It's one thing to join an open source community. It's quite another to create one.

This becomes infinitely harder when you work for the most hidebound organization on the planet. No, I'm not talking about your employer. I'm referring to the government.

Which one? Take your pick.

After all, governments are known for regulation, not innovation. This may be starting to change, however, as new GitHub data suggests. Government, long a technology laggard that dumped taxpayer money into proprietary software, is dramatically increasing its investment in open source.

Open-sourcing the U.S. federal government

Yes, the government -- one U.S. federal government employee told me that government IT tends to be "stove-piped," with people "even working within the same building" not having much of a clue what their peers are doing, which is not exactly the open source way.

That's changing. One way to see this shift is in government policies. For the U.S. federal government, there is now a "default to open," a dramatic reversal on long-standing practices of spending heavily with a core of proprietary technology vendors.

As the U.S. Digital Services Playbook stresses:

When we collaborate in the open and publish our data publicly we can improve Government together. By building services more openly and publishing open data, we simplify the public's access to government services and information, allow the public to easily provide fixes and contributions, and enable reuse by entrepreneurs, nonprofits, other agencies, and the public.

This U.S. policy follows on the heels of the U.K.'s design principles, which also insist, "We should share what we're doing whenever we can" because "the more eyes there are on a service the better it gets." That's now common practice in the industry, but it hasn't been within government IT.

The GitHub government generation

This is what makes GitHub data around government adoption so intriguing. While government has used open source for years and now has nice-sounding policies to go with that use, the real measure of open source adoption is contribution of code.

While code is housed in many places, ground zero for modern open source development is GitHub. Based on that data, governments are finally getting their open source acts together.

Ben Balter, a D.C. lawyer and GitHub's new Government Evangelist, recently announced that there are now 10,000 active government users on GitHub:

Government users on GitHub
Credit: Ben Balter/GitHub

Even more important, however, is the number of GitHub repositories these users have created:

Government repositories on GitHub
Credit: Ben Balter/GitHub

While many of these repositories likely house somewhat useless code, similar to nongovernment open source repositories, it's a clear signal of intent. But is it the best policy?

Open by default?

Both the U.S. and U.K. internal guidelines express a preference that software and data should be "open by default," but not everyone agrees. Tom Schenk, Jr., director of analytics for the City of Chicago, suggests, "Many platforms, rationally, are closed source with some customizations."

This isn't to suggest that Chicago's code is "closed by default" -- far from it. The City has "used open source in a couple of contexts," including an open source data dictionary platform, but has also released some data as "open source" as opposed to just "open" (that is, gratis), which is the case with its data portal.

Talking with Lorelei Kelly, a research fellow at the Open Technology Institute, there's still a chasm between "open source revolution" and governmental "institutions":

The free software/open source movement decades ago was full of civic spirit and humane values. I am looking forward to the day when the civic component of open source is more fully discussed and for bridges to be built -- between the revolution and the institution.

Part of this involves basic education, she advises. To wit, "there is an assumption in the tech community that people working inside government know what [open source] is" -- a false assumption, in Kelly's view. Asked about the 10,000 GitHub number, Kelly responded, "I'll bet those 10,000 users are pretty young." That is, they may not represent the real power center of government IT.

In other words, as great as the GitHub numbers are for government, they represent the tip of a colossal iceberg. We've come a long way with government and open source, but we still have many miles to go.

This article, "Does government finally grok open source?," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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