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Why It's Worth Noticing the White House's Big, Wet Kiss With Drupal and GitHub

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, December 6 2012

Between pictures of the president using Twitter and Vice President Joe Biden at Costco, the White House blog recently featured a little note advocating the use of open source in government. It is interesting to see how Barack Obama uses social networks, and a post about Biden at Costco feels a little bit like the White House just scooped The Onion — a shirtless photo would have been too much to hope for, but the author may have been able to slip in at least one Pontiac reference. But the White House making a point of name-checking open-source software touchstones is also worthy of note.

Peter Welsch, deputy director of online platform for the Office of Digital Strategy, writes:

... [W]e've established an official White House presence on Drupal.org, an online community dedicated to maintaining and improving Drupal, the software that powers WhiteHouse.gov. We've released the source code for several Drupal modules in the past and we're now working with members of the Drupal community who are helping us improve We the People, the White House petitions system. In the coming months, we hope to release a new, "white label" theme for We the People that will make it easier for others to re-use the code and set up their own petitions systems.

Since August, we've also been active on another open source community site, GitHub, and released the code for We the People and our mobile apps, White House for iOS and White House for Android, there. For those who've been following the We the People project on GitHub, we'll continue to work with the community there to maintain both it and our mobile apps.

The White House isn't the only federal agency on GitHub. Using the Federal Social Media Registry, a tool that regularly scrapes federal social media presences including GitHub, the General Services Administration publishes a list of every code repository on GitHub that belongs to a federal agency. Code repositories, or "repos," are copies of all the source code for a given software project. They range from the theme the White House uses on their Drupal-powered website to NASA's open-source tools for mission control.

"GitHub.com is now in the top 350 most popular websites in the world, and serves as a social network for developers," Gray Brooks, a senior API strategy at GSA, told techPresident in an email, through an agency spokesperson. "It is used extensively across government for code sharing, including for development of task specific tools and mission critical projects. GSA uses GitHub for major projects including data.gov. Github is also used by the Army Corps of Engineers for simulation software, and by the FCC for my.fcc.gov."

Just a few years ago, developers in federal government who sought to use open-source tools would encounter an impenetrable wall: Procurement rules didn't fit. Some government leaders were concerned open-source software might not even be legal. Others were concerned about security or reliability. Then, in 2009, the word came from the White House that open source was okay, announced through deed as well as by word when the Obama administration decided to use the open-source Drupal content management system for Whitehouse.gov. Over the last four years, the okay-ness of open source has gradually evolved into something that is becoming a standard practice.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced in April that all CFPB software would be open-source. The White House's Digital Strategy, released earlier this year, changed the General Services Administration from an agency responsible for keeping developers from doing the wrong thing or working with the wrong vendor into an agency with the primary task of engineering and disseminating ways for developers to do things right. GSA serves a pivotal role in the new strategy as a repository for best practices and now plays host to several teams responsible for guiding agencies into use of digital media and technology that is contemporary to our times. This might seem commonsensical to an outside observer, but in federal government, working in an up-to-date way has historically been a very difficult task.

GSA is expected to release more guidance on digital services very soon, as well as to establish a government-wide vehicle for mobile devices and wireless services contracts.

Now, a flagship pilot program promoted by the White House, the Innovation Fellows Program, hosts repo after repo on GitHub. The White House's arrival on Drupal.org gives cover to many developers in government who were probably already there. There isn't a lot of specific guidance around how federal developers should be interacting with members of the public, but when they talk to other programmers about code, developer-to-developer, that seems to be just fine and does not ruffle anyone's feathers. That allows for the kind of collaboration that's supposed to be the key benefit of open-source software — when someone not working for you uses your code, improves it, and then shares those improvements.

"Like many other emerging tools, the rules of the road are evolving," Brooks said through a spokesperson. "Existing policy on IT security, social media use, and licensing are often applicable."

Working with other developers on GitHub is useful in government because it's how technologists are used to operating when they use technologies like Ruby on Rails, Python, Linux, or other open-source technologies — all three of which were used in the service of Obama's re-election. If there's one lesson the Obama campaign may have imparted to political types, it's the value of allowing technologists to work in the ways they're accustomed to working. In many cases, that means openly, with spontaneous collaborations involving people outside of their own organization. The White House blog post offers further cover for people who want to do that.

There are larger implications to bringing government to GitHub. Clay Shirky famously suggested in June that laws should be treated the same way programmers treat open-source code — to be argued over, modified and repurposed using version control systems that help us track changes and understand what's happening to a system described by thousands of lines of language. Enterprising souls from the transparency world have ported the U.S. Code to GitHub for exactly that purpose, although they did so without the cooperation of the federal government. One could also posit that an embrace of GitHub, and of open-source version management anywhere in the White House, even if it's just in basement offices and data centers, is still open-source philosophy at work in the White House.

But for now, it might be safer just to note that federal programmers have more tools at their disposal, and go back to waiting for White House photos of the vice president sneaking an extra brownie at a Costco sample table. As with anything in government, the really big shifts might take a while.