First of all, I’d like to start this blog by pointing out that Open Source Software (OSS) and Free Software are not the same thing.
As Carla Shcroder mentioned in her blog
Think of Free Software as being a social movement fueled by ethics, while open source is a development methodology
Why is it important to know the difference between Free Software and Open Source Software in government?
Its easy to imagine, having worked in government myself, how anything that is termed ‘Free’ might make some people uneasy. It raises concerns, ethical issues and for some reason triggers discomfort.
I myself, experienced a backlash for offering a free social media course for public servants. Having been invited to consult and speak at various social media in government events and work on projects for high profile government organizations, I didn’t think that my offer would trigger any uneasiness. However this was the first time that I had used the term ‘Free’ for a project and little did I know, that would be the downfall of it.
Being a researcher, my gain for offering free advise is so I get to share my previous research findings and improve on it in a constructive manner and have an opportunity to understand the current and future challenges that government faces when dealing with social media. And in return, I would have publicly outlined a social media strategy based on a practical view of the situation in my blog.
However that never happened, because people are afraid that when something is free, its too risky, it cannot be trusted and of less quality.
Is Free = Risky?
Wrong, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes people give something out for free because they are passionate about it or would like to volunteer and contribute to a cause for the betterment of the society. Same goes with the term free software. The open source software term sometimes gets used interchangeably with free software and at the back of some peoples mind, free often means, less quality and not to be trusted.
So its important for people to understand the difference here.
Open source software is software whose source code is freely available (i.e., without any requirement for payment or any other obstacles) for anyone to inspect and study.
Most open source software is also free software. Free software is software for which everyone has the right not only to inspect and study the source code but also to use it for any desired purpose without monetary or other restrictions.
Free software is always also open source, open source software does not necessarily have to be free software. That is, software can be open source without granting its users the additional freedoms that free software guarantees. Source
What is a Source Code?
I think one of the other thing that we must understand before we go further is, what is a source code? The source code is the glue that is holds a software together. It is the life of the software, it is required for the software to live and breathe. Without it, the software will be non-existent.
Source code is the version of software (usually an application program or an operating system) as it is originally written (i.e., typed into a computer) by a human in plain text (i.e., human readable alphanumeric characters). Source code can be written in any of the several thousand programming languages in existence, but it is usually written in one of the dozen or so of the most popular (particularly C, C++ and Java). Without source code it is very difficult to study, modify and improve software. Source
What I would like to highlight here is that last statement…
Without source code it is very difficult to study, modify and improve software.
And with proprietary software, that is what you DON’T GET.
The future cannot exist without the past. Re-thinking digital public services.
I think the fundamental key to how government and citizens can benefit from open source softwares is not a hard one to crack.
In history, we often educate and better ourselves based on lessons we’ve learnt from the past. We understand the past, to understand the present. We understand the present, to understand our future. For OSS’s, agility is key and not having the ability to see or understand the past source codes and learn from them, can be detrimental to the delivery of digital public services.
Imagine, if only the manufacturer of a rifle were allowed to clean, fix, modify or upgrade that rifle. The military often finds itself in this position with taxpayer funded, contractor developed software: one contractor with a monopoly on the knowledge of a military software system and control of the software source code. This is optimal only for the monopoly contractor, but creates inefficiencies and ineffectiveness for the government, reduction of opportunities for the industrial base, severely limits competition for new software upgrades, depletes resources that can be used to better effect and wastes taxpayer-provided funds. Source
Computer security expert Bruce Schneier points out, true security is never achieved by attempting to conceal any security defects that a program may have, but rather by allowing anyone interested to seek out these flaws and eliminate them.
Open source software makes this possible. Many government agencies will not use a piece of software in a security-critical application unless the agency itself can examine the source code for flaws; in the case of proprietary software, this often means difficult and costly negotiations allowing the agency access to the source code. If open source software is available to fill such a need, source code is available at no extra cost to the government, and in many cases the software is already more secure.
The information and cultural revolution
We are on the verge of a information and cultural revolution. We are on the precipice of putting all the pieces together to sew our shared transparent social fabric. The UK Government has been keen to be as transparent as possible in recent years because the belief that transparency not only makes it easier for citizens to communicate with government and receive public services, but also create efficiencies and innovation where once thought not possible. This has been proven true with the open data movement.
Some people may think that technology advances will and can happen with or without them. But the truth is, for digital public services, the government purchasing authorities can make technology advances in public service by making the right the decisions to lower the cost, increase the reliability, security, and inject the ability to modify software to suit specific needs. The biggest challenge here is getting technology to be more USEFUL to us and the only way that will happen is if we make them better and our source codes can start learning from past errors.
Procurement Challenges in Government
Often enough, the battle of getting OSS into government falls at the first hurdle. As Dr. David Wheeler of the Institute for Defense Analysis said at ‘The Government Open Source Conference’,
Too often, government procurements are worried only about the current budget cycle. In software procurements, this can be deadly. Future costs are almost always higher than the first-year costs. The mismatch between software lifecycles and hardware lifecycles can play havoc with a TCO analysis. Perhaps most important, if you aren’t accounting for switching costs, you’re missing a huge cost driver: how expensive will it be to exit the solution in question? Source
Luckily enough, Wheeler also mentioned of a way of overcoming the procurement dilemma that suggest that RFPs are “wired” for a proprietary solution.Wheeler reminded the audience that in many cases, the RFPs aren’t wired deliberately. It’s far more likely that the procurement officials are simply unaware of the open source alternatives and inadvertently create requirements that preclude their use. He recommended responding to the Requests for Information (RFIs) that preceed most RFPs. This way, the officials can be exposed to the open source alternatives. Source
The relationship between Open Standards, Open Data and Open Source Software and how we can recycle digital waste and save taxpayers money
Talking about the exiting a solution, have a listen of this video why Open Standards is important and why OSS can save taxpayers money.
Benefits of an Open Technology Development (OTD)
OTD is an approach to software/system development in which developers in different military, federal, commercial and possibly public organizations can collaboratively develop and maintain software or a system in a decentralized fashion. OTD depends on open standards and interfaces, open source software and designs, collaborative and distributed online tools, and technological agility.
I would like to point you to this document and highlight the Open Technology Development (OTD) key benefits written by the US Assistant Secretary of Defense (Networks & Information Integration) (NII) / DoD Chief Information Officer (CIO) and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L).
Key benefits of OTD are:
- Increased Agility/Flexibility: Because the government has unrestricted access and rights to the source code developed with taxpayer funds, that source code can be made discoverable and accessible to program managers, civil servants and contractors alike, increasing the potential of matching a need or requirement to an existing source code base that provides a large proportion of the solution that can be improved or enhanced to meet a new mission. Likewise, pre-existing government-funded components from different programs can be assembled without unnecessary costs and delays untangling intellectual property rights to determine what is and is not allowed. Instead of having to start from scratch to develop or enhance a capability, the government can reuse what it has already paid for and that works and draw from a broad base of developers and contractors who are familiar with the source code and component and can rapidly assemble, merge and modify existing systems and components with other existing source code.
- Faster delivery: Because developers only need to focus on changes to, and integration of, existing software capabilities instead of having to redevelop entire systems, they can significantly reduce the time to delivery for new capabilities. Even when a module or component is developed from scratch to replace an outdated one, such re-development benefits from open interfaces and standards that have a proven track record in the systems with which it interacts. Enabling cross-pollination of source code that is owned and paid for by taxpayer funds, development and deployment time can be significantly reduced.
- Increased Innovation: With access to source code for existing capabilities, developers and contractors can focus on innovation and the new requirements that are not yet met by the existing source code capabilities. This agility is particularly important because of a projected shortfall in the number of U.S. citizens with engineering and computer science degrees who will be clearable to work on military projects in the coming decades [National Academies 2008]. As a greater proportion of software engineering degrees are held by foreign nationals, and U.S. programmers are lured by innovative and lucrative work in the private sector, the military will face a long-term shortage of software engineers to work on military-specific systems. The Defense Department must therefore focus on the long-term challenge of generating higher levels of innovation out of a more limited pool of human talent and skill. It will be important to leverage that human capital by having engineers focus on the 10% of source code that actively improves a system without also being required to re-create the 90% of capability that already exists.
- Reduced Risk: creating new capabilities from scratch is riskier than re-using existing capabilities that are already proven and well understood. By re-using existing capabilities in the form of government-owned source code, interfaces and systems, developers can spend more time and resources on the riskiest parts of the implementation.
- Information Assurance & Security: One of the biggest values of open source development is enabling wider community access to software source. In this manner bugs become shallow and thus more easily found. Wider access to software source code also is key for forming and maintaining a software security posture from being able to review software source code to seeing what is actually present within that software.
- Lower cost: The first cost to fall by the wayside with OTD is the monopoly rent the government pays to contractors who have built a wall of exclusivity around capabilities they’ve been paid by the government to develop. They may have internally developed source code (IRAD – internal research and development) that’s valuable, but in an OTD system that code has been modularized so the government can make a rational decision about whether they want to re-license it for a new project or pay to develop a replacement. The entire value of the government’s investment hasn’t been voided by the mingling of IRAD into a government-funded system as a means of ensuring lock-in to a particular vendor. With unlimited rights and access to government-funded source code, the government can draw on a broader pool of competitive proposals for software updates and new capabilities that leverage current systems. The elimination of monopoly rent, combined with greater competition, will drive down costs and improve the quality of resulting deliverables, because any contractor who works on a system knows that they can be replaced by a competitor who has full access to the source code and documentation.
As Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said “The gusher [of money] has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time.” DoD needs a more efficient software development ecosystem – more innovation at lower cost. OTD squeezes financial waste out of the equation by reducing lock-in and increasing competition.
Discover more at the Open Gov Summit 2012
The Open Gov Summit 2012
Given all the information we have today and the one I have presented here, it is imperative that we take the next step and start discussing how we can really invigorate and create sustainable softwares and transparency in government. You can do this today by registering for the Open Gov Summit that will be happening on the 30th May 2012.
Government and institutional speakers include among others: Mark O’Neill, Proposition Director for Innovation and Delivery at the Government Digital Service, Tariq Rashid, Lead Architect at the UK Home Office, Graham Mallin, Head of Enterprise Architecture at the Met Office, Graham Taylor CEO and Co-Founder of OpenForum Europe and Gerry Gavigan, Chair of the Open Source Consortium.
Hope this was useful.