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Open-Source Benefits to Govt Outweigh Misconceptions, Report Says

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, November 27 2013

DC.gov, running on Drupal

Security challenges, lack of education, interoperability concerns and licensing and legal concerns are some of the top obstacles government officials see for adopting open-source software in agencies, according to a survey in a recent report from GovLoop.

In the survey of 233 government professionals, 73 percent mentioned security issues, 60 percent lack of education, 58 percent interoperability concerns and 50 percent licensing and legal concerns. The survey focused on U.S. respondents but also included some respondents from outside the U.S.

Of the respondents, 38 percent are using open-source at a basic level, 30 percent are not using such tools but would like to learn more, 20 percent are using open-source tools to meet agency goals and 12 percent are exploring ways of implementing open-source tools.

Respondents named improved efficiency and productivity, being able to gain software improvements from the open-source community, easy information exchange and replication options as benefits. They highlighted the ways that open-source software allows agencies to avoid dealing with proprietary vendors, outdated applications and updates from software vendors.

Govloop's report highlights open-source uses across the country and federal government using platforms such as WordPress and Drupal. "Austintexas.gov is the city of Austin’s official website and is built using Drupal," an employee from the city said. In D.C, "we have successfully implemented Drupal 7 as the District’s enterprise content management system for DC.gov, the government’s web portal,” an employee said. Another employee from the city of Arvada, Colo., responded that "we have successfully implemented an open-source content management system written by the city of Arvada and we are sharing the code. We also use Joomla! for our intranet."

A federal government employee responded to the survey explaining the architecture of Data.gov:

Data.gov runs entirely on open source. We started out on Drupal and now we are moving to WordPress. Our data catalog is [based on the Comprehensive Knowledge Archive Network] (headed by the Open Knowledge Foundation). We put all our custom development in GitHub, [a web-based hosting service]. Our open data interchange format (data.json) is crowdsourced via project open data. We run on Linux and use open-source databases like MySQL and Post-GreSQL.

Other respondents pointed out how the Department of Energy joined with the National Renewable Energy Labaratory to use a OpenStudio Application Suite for energy modeling and how USAID uses OpenStreetMap as a "base layer" for its work. "In many cases, in very poor and/or rural areas around the world, OSM represents the best geospatial option, better even than Google Maps or Microsoft’s Bing Maps," an agency employee responded. "This freely available, freely licensed data saves the agency a lot of money in out-sourced maintenance and initial mapping.”

An employee from the Dutch government replied to the survey: “We use open source for our intranet. We work together with two other agencies, on the software of www.pleio.nl. They work for the total of the Dutch government and connect them through a social media 2.0 solution.”

In spite of the benefits, many of the respondents said misconceptions about open source software hindered its broader adoption. “One challenge is the lack of knowledge within government workforce, as some of the stated concerns, while held, are largely invalid or easily mitigated,” a respondent to the survey said. "A lot of the pushback will be from people who depend on and only know proprietary software. Offer trainings and learning opportunities to those people so they don’t feel threatened. Having the IT ‘grunts' support will go far when it comes to getting approval from higher up," another respondent said.

GovLoop's report also includes interviews with Chris Mattmann, senior computer scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist at Red Hat’s U.S. public-sector business, discussing the benefits of open-source. Mattmann addresses the "myths" that open-source software is lower quality than proprietary software and that it allows outsiders to modify code. "In the next three to five years, open-source will be the standardized architecture at NASA,” Mattmann says in the report. He also believes implementing open-source software will help attract top employees especially when agencies can't compete with the salaries of the private sector. He also points out that use of open-source software will make it easier to work with the emerging fields of big data, cloud and mobile applications. “Ninety percent of cloud vendors are based on an open-source stack,” Mattmann says in the report, adding that it is also becoming the "default way to process commoditized and valued data," to the point that “open-source will be mission-critical."

“Open-source gives the agency a way out,” a respondent to the survey said. “They can develop new features in house, hire someone to maintain their applications or find another branch of the source. Open source may require more resources to maintain, but it certainly has benefits in the long term.”

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