Open Source Obama

The U.S. government isn't just using open source, it's creating it, and even the White House has gotten into the act.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Every day, tens of thousands of developers from businesses, colleges, and homes contribute patches or new code to open-source programs. It's not every day though that the White House does it. That's exactly what happened last week when the White House's New Media Director Macon Phillips announced the White House's second code release to the open-source Drupal content management system (CMS).

Drupal, for those of you who don't know it, is an excellent CMS. According to a 2010 survey by Water & Stone, a digital marketing agency, "WordPress, Joomla! and Drupal dominate the marketshare (PDF Link) and brand strength ratings in the open source CMS market. The Big Three lead in almost every metric and we have seen little this year to indicate that their leadership is being challenged in the near term. "

It's easy to see why. While WordPress is great for blogging, and indeed it can be used for massive publishing platforms such as ZDNet, but you have to built onto WordPress to make it a full-scale CMS. While, starting with WordPress 3.x, the popular blogging program is becoming more and more like a complete CMS Drupal, along with Joomla!, work well for people who want a ready-go-platform for sophisticated CMSs.

That's one of the reasons why Obama's White House went with Drupal. Since then, the White House hasn't just used it. They've contributed to it.

Specifically, this is what the White House's IT staff have contributed back:

Today's code release constitutes a few modules we developed for ourselves, as well as a recognition of our sponsoring the development of modules widely used in the Drupal community, which improve the administration of our site in a variety of ways: file management, content presentation, and URL shortening are just a few examples.

For the code originating from within the White House, we wanted to improve the functionality offered by a popular file manager, IMCE, so we developed a module called IMCE tools, which has three major functions:

First, IMCE Directory Manager provides an interface for specifying which directories a user can access via the IMCE module. It is useful when you have users which have the same user roles but need to be confined to directories which cannot be derived from user data.

Second, IMCE Search allows for searching for files in the IMCE interface which helps identify the location of uploaded files.

Third, IMCE File Path easily presents the URL of a file, facilitating sharing it as a link.

We also recognize that there are really good projects already embedded in the Drupal community and reached out to help support their development. Several of these are used in the collaboration software suite, Open Atrium: Features, Spaces, Boxes, Context, StrongArm, and Admin. We also supported the development of an auto-tagging module, Calais; a bulk file uploading utility, IMCE SWFupload, as well as the module that powers our shortened wh.gov domain, shortURL.

This isn't the first time that the White House has contributed code to Drupal. Last April, the Feds also submitted improvements to Drupal's scalability, communication, and accessibility functionality.

Over the last few years, the U.S. federal government has become more receptive to open source, thanks in no small parts to both open-source's own innate virtues of low cost and high quality and the efforts of organizations like the Open Source Software Institute and Open Source for America.

You shouldn't think though that the U.S. government moving to using and working on open source is a new development. It's not.

The U.S. government was using and creating open-source and free software before either term even existed. For example, NASA's COSMIC software collection and VistA, the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) electronic health records (EHR), which is now used in open-source EHR systems such as WorldVista and OpenVista, date back to the 60s and 70s. By embracing open source, Obama is returning to free software's government roots.

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