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NASA's Open-Source Open Government Future

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, April 10 2012

NASA chose its website as flagship for a revamp of its open government plan rolled out yesterday, and — as if to show the agency meant business — did so with a brand-new, brightly colored buzzword-catcher of a website.

There are two things worth noting here. First, NASA — which, seeing as it has its own cloud computing environment, is on the leading edge of government IT already — is making the case that accessibility through web design and funcitonality will be important for open government. Second, the agency promises a full-scale reorientation in how it chooses technology. NASA's new goals include a transition to an open-source content management system and change its procurement process to value open-source over proprietary solutions. This in a federal government that wasn't clear on how to treat open-source software until 2009.

The headlining act for the open-government plan site is what's called "responsive design," meaning the site responds to the size of the window in which it appears by rearranging its content. View the site on a laptop-sized window and everything is there; view it on a tablet-sized one and things are rearranged; view it on an iPhone-sized screen and the site becomes more minimalist.

Underneath the window dressing, NASA promises "a new Agency-wide capability to create, maintain, and manage the nasa.gov websites and associated services." And all of this should be done with open-source software, according to the plan, with a test of just such a content management system happening soon.

The shabby state of federal IT has been a favorite topic for years. Many federal employees are still using BlackBerrys instead of more versatile Android or Apple phones, although different phones are now on offer for employees depending on their position; just recently, it was reported that an office inside the Commerce Department has gone 81 days without Internet access.

It is against this backdrop that agencies like NASA or CFPB are making noticeable changes to the way they handle software procurement.

The cloud computing environment first developed at NASA, Nebula, has been adopted in the private sector. NASA builds all of its open government websites in-house, including this one, which even tracks the location of the International Space Station on a map, agency open government head Nicholas Skytland told me in an email. It also hosts a portal to track all of the open-source projects people inside NASA have developed or are contributing to, so people at the agency's 10 field offices can share information.

Yesterday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau made a similar commitment to open-source, and to software built in-house. Alex Howard has more details today in an interview over at O'Reilly Radar.

This post has been corrected. NASA builds its open government websites in-house, not all of its web properties agency-wide.

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