Peter Gallagher | System reuse: Embracing insanity

Progressive Disclosure'commentary

This is the third of three Progressive Disclosure columns by Peter Gallagher. Progressive disclosure is an interactive design term commonly used in modern applications. Progressive disclosure helps to focus the user on the task at hand by minimizing clutter and details that lead to overload and confusion. Examples include +/- or more/less controls, collapsible outline trees and show/hide toggles among others. This column similarly strives to put the focus on issues of strategic importance to government IT managers while leaving some pointers to more detail.

Guest columnist
Peter Gallagher

GCN

In 2000, an oddly named technology book, titled Embracing Insanity, made a decidedly one-sided case for shared coding efforts via the open-source software model. The author, Russell Pavlicek, makes a compelling pre-Web 2.0 argument for how groups of people with common interests could combine talents in all sorts of unexpected ways to create value. Pavlicek contrasts the traditional, tightly controlled software team process with the untidy world of markets in which ideas and products are adapted at lightning speed in response to all kinds of competitive pressures.

Today, the phenomenon of net-enabled collective wisdom ' Pavlicek's 'insanity' ' has manifested itself in so many places that it is a paradigm. From Wikipedia to Facebook to countless other spaces, people are finding ways to create value through sharing. The public sector ' an environment that strives for transparency ' should be an ideal environment for a democratic networked model. Particularly in support of information technology systems, one might expect governmental bodies, with common requirements for interaction, to be overrun by collaboration given the advanced communication tools now available.

But is the federal, state and local government collective being used to create reusable or shared IT assets? Is it realistic to think that competing contractors will share anything of value?

The huge potential value of government to collaborate on optimizing IT resources has yet to be realized. Clearly, agencies at all levels buy and develop many of the same systems because they have many of the same business processes to support. This is especially true for the balkanized state and local markets. Efforts to encourage systems collaboration, such as the Government Open Source Conference initiated in 2005, continue to grow. And collaborative repositories, such as the Government Open Code Collaborative and GovernmentForge, have existed for years. But contrast them with the private sector, and it is clear that the evolution of government-specific solutions has lagged.

The private sector has taken great advantage of networked communities, especially in forging direct input from users/customers. Hardly a day goes by without something new popping up from one of the new wave companies, the poster parent of which has to be Google. How do its leaders do it so fast and so efficiently that the company has become one of the most profitable start-ups ever, with market capitalization approaching $200 billion?

A key to Google's success has been reuse of software via open-source models. Just check out the thousands of open-source projects at Google, and it is easy to understand the vital role that such software plays at the company. In fact, many of the most profitable new technology companies ' from Yahoo to Amazon ' have relied on open-source technology.

Some say a significant portion of the code in proprietary software packages is actually reused open-source software. And the market pressure to innovate quickly and less expensively means the reuse trend is accelerating. Who would have thought that some of our mission-critical proprietary applications would have significant elements of open source under the hood? And the embedded systems of some of the critical hardware vendors ' Google's search appliance, for instance ' are often built on, or with the help of, open-source technologies. Therefore, the proprietary software market ' although vendors might not advertise it ' is already aggressively reusing open-source software, and this trend will only increase.

How does the government get a handle on all this activity and all this code that could be reused? Managers worry about what is approved, secure and maintainable. How do we deal with all this open stuff getting into our systems as vendors compete to build the next great application at the least cost using shared software?

The natural instinct of large governmental organizations is to put controls and systems in place to limit risks. The open networked approach goes against the grain for government, where order and authority are preeminent. And given that contractors' competitive incentives still align with the 16th-century adage that knowledge is power, what can the government do to break the logjam and encourage more sharing?

The paradox in 'Embracing Insanity' is that the best way to get quality and value is to loosen the reins while increasing transparency. The creativity of the market has the potential to push the best assets to the forefront for reuse and improvement more efficiently than any centralized government-managed repository could. Ironically, to capitalize on the Web 2.0 mind-set, the government and its IT contractors must in some way give up control. The more information and code that are published as open source ' preferably by commercial entities that have an interest in the product ' the greater the opportunity for reuse. Letting go and publishing early and often will be messy at times, but 'coop-etition' and creativity have the potential to create more efficient and effective solutions.

Educating and giving incentives to the government IT sector to compete openly might not be so crazy after all.

Peter Gallagher, now a partner at Unisys in the Federal Civilian group, has been working to promote the use of open source software and open standards for government since the late 1990s.

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