Friday, November 15, 2013

Who's open sourcing in Australian government?

Open source is no longer new news. The movement has been around for over 30 years, longer than the public internet or widespread use of mobile phones, and around the same age as the desktop computing revolution which saw computers on every office worker's desks.

However for some reason open source has taken a very long time to get any traction in government. Even ten years ago there weren't many government framework in place allowing agencies to use open source software, let alone create and release open source software, documents or tools.

In fact misconceptions about what 'open source' means are still quite common. I still encounter folk who believe that 'open' means insecure and unsupported - even though some of the most widely used and deployed systems in the world rely on open source platforms - such as Apache web servers, Drupal and Wordpress websites - which have vast numbers of developers globally finding and fixing bugs and improving performance.

Others confuse 'open' and 'free' - there's always cost in deploying a solution, whether proprietary or open source. The difference is that with open source there's no ongoing licensing fees and vendor lock-in, which can add a great deal to development costs over time.

There's also sometimes concerns that open source may not be robust enough for intense use by large organisations. Of course this varies according to specific software, however there's no evidence backing this up as a general claim (particularly given Apache runs an estimated 65% of web servers)

Fortunately, the attitude of government towards open source appears to have begun to change.

In Australia several governments have IT policies which requires the consideration of open source in software decisions (though why it remains necessary to use policy to force IT management to consider potentially better solutions remains to be seen).

Governments are also deploying open source software, at least for web use - with the Australian Government's Department of Finance offering its GovSpace platform (which uses Wordpress) to any government agency at a relatively low ($4,500 annual) price.

Drupal websites are also flourishing - the last website I was responsible for in government, MyRegion, was a Drupal installation with an open source mapping stack (alas now the department has been absorbed, I understand the site will also disappear - I hope the code will be preserved for other agencies to reuse).

Some governments have even begun releasing their own open source software and materials, available for reuse by other agencies, governments and the broader community.

The US government has done it with We The People, the UK government has done it with ePetitions, their Service Design Manual and a variety of other materials, Canada has released their Web Experience Toolkit (WET), Philadelphia has released mobile apps, the City of San Francisco has released their entire municipal law base and New Zealand Land Information has released a range of coding tools.

In Australia the ACT government has released several code snippets and their Open Data Policy as open source and the former AusAID partnered with the Indonesian government to release the InaSAFE natural hazard impact scenarios plugin (get the code here).

The US even has a closed community where government employees and contractors share information about the open source software they're releasing and that is available for them to us (the Open Source Center).

This makes perfect sense if you consider that government-created software is a public asset, rather than a cost.

While some software may rightly need to be tightly controlled, there's a vast range of potential code for which there's no cost to government, and potentially significant value in open sourcing, allowing other eyes to spot bugs and provide improvements, while reducing the need for duplicate code development within and across jurisdictions.

When code is open it means that agencies can properly scrutinise it, understanding how it functions, the security risks and detect any potential backdoors - something much harder to do in proprietary software, which is closed source (customers can't analyse or edit it).

There's a great list of case studies and examples of governments open sourcing code and content at Github's new Government centre,, unfortunately though in Australia we don't seem to have any comprehensive list of which governments and councils are creating and releasing open source materials.

So I've created a spreadsheet, which I'll add to over time, of open sourcing going on across the Australian public sector.

If you're open sourcing materials, have used or know about others who have created or used open source code or materials from Australian governments or council, please let me know in the comments below.

Hopefully over time we'll see this list grow and become more official (maybe governments will even list their open source materials in their own sites one day!) - joining the government open source community.

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