The 'magic' of open source: better, faster, cheaper -- and trustworthy
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Jul 28, 2020
Although open-source software has been available for decades, governments at all levels are seeing the benefits of embracing it to better deliver services to the public, a new report states.
Those benefits include improving efficiency, lowering costs, improving trust, increasing transparency and reducing vendor lock-in, according to “Building and Reusing Open Source Tools for Government,” released this month by think tank New America. What’s more, open source allows for collaboration so that government entities with common problems don’t have to reinvent the wheel to solve them.
For instance, the United Kingdom’s Government Digital Service’s Notify communications management platform is available as open source, and the government of Canada adapted it last year to fit its own needs, such as modifying it to support multiple languages, the report states.
In California, the Government Operations Agency tasked a team to rethink how residents access information online. One of the 20-odd prototypes developed was used by another team to stand up an unemployment insurance application within Covid19.ca.gov, a website created to provide pandemic information, said Angelica Quirarte, assistant secretary at the agency, during a July 14 New America webinar.
“Open source collaboration is a learning experience that allows both authors and contributors to exchange ideas about how each developer might solve a specific problem,” the report stated. “Collaborators can use open source work as a starting point in solving their own versions of similar problems, saving valuable time and growing the original base of work.”
The report defines open source code as “chunks of code that are available online for anyone to use.” It’s released with licenses that outline how the code may be used, such as with attribution to the original authors, or for non-commercial purposes only. The code itself is free to use, but there are associated costs, such as a server infrastructure and information technology staff to run and monitor it.
For example, Laura Kogler, engineering director at Code for America, said during the webinar that ClientComm, an open source tool that a CfA brigade built to help probation officers communicate with people on probation or parole, was adopted by only one agency. Feedback on the app from criminal justice agencies showed many departments lacked the technical ability to run the software.
Another stumbling block to using open source is being able to find the tools in the first place, said Mark Lerner, a report author and fellow in New America’s Digital Impact and Governance Initiative and Public Interest Technology Program. To support open source solutions for COVID response, the organization created, in collaboration with California and U.S. Digital Response, the Pandemic Response Repository, a GitHub website that collects all the open source tools built, run or maintained by government for responding to COVID.
Data security is another challenge to open-source solutions, according to the report, but the key is publishing the code, not the data associated with it, Quirarte said. “By keeping secrets and user data out of your source code, you easily and drastically reduce any risk of data exposure when using open source software,” the report added.
The government has five main paths to using open source, according to the report. The first is working in the open, in which new software is developed to address an unmet need. Second is migrating a solution into the open, or reviewing and refactoring code from existing solutions to make the software more secure, understandable and useful. Third, governments can adapt an open source solution to their needs, as Canada did with Notify. The final two paths are to use open source as-is and to use a mix of open source and proprietary software.
“Bottom line: It’s not about the technology. It’s about delivering for people,” said Robin Carnahan, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. “And if open source and these other kind of tools help you deliver better, faster and cheaper for people, then it’s going to build trust. That’s the magic.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.