​The US government buys into open-source programming

The Federal government is embracing open-source programming with a new pro-open-source development policy.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Microsoft isn't the one only that's recognizing that open-source is the best way to create great software. Tony Scott, the US Chief Information Officer, announced that the federal government is "releasing for public comment a draft Federal Source Code policy to support improved access to custom software code."


More and more government programs and web sites will be powered by open-source software.


The US is buying into open-source software development methodology. "This policy will require new software developed specifically for or by the Federal Government to be made available for sharing and re-use across Federal agencies. It also includes a pilot program that will result in a portion of that new federally-funded custom code being released to the public."

This is far from the first time this has been proposed. Back in 2009, Scott McNealy, the former Sun CEO and then an Obama technical adviser, suggested that the Federal government should mandate the use of open-source software.

Why are they doing this? For the same reason that businesses have: It saves money.

Specifically, Scott said, "We can save taxpayer dollars by avoiding duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across Federal agencies."

The other reason is the one Eric S. Raymond spelled out in the bible of the open-source approach, The Cathedral and the Bazaar. By letting many programmers read and work on any code, the program is improved far more quickly than if it's left in the hands of a small group.

As Scott said, "We will also enable the brightest minds inside and outside of government to review and improve our code, and work together to ensure that the code is secure, reliable, and effective in furthering our national objectives."

This is far from the first time that the government has used open source. NASA was open-sourcing its software long before the term existed in the 1960s. Some of the fruits of that labor live on in the NASA COSMIC collection.

More recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created an open source tool for finding free housing counselors near you. The Department of Education's College Scorecard can help you find the right college. And if you want to see how these projects are doing, check out the General Services Administration's government analytics platform.

Open-source supporters outside the government are applauding its move towards open source. Bob Canaway, Black Duck Software's Chief Marketing Officer, said, "With this new policy, the U.S. government is bringing itself in line with the best practices adopted by many commercial enterprises today: emphasize source code reuse internally; prefer viable open -source solutions over custom code; and when custom development is needed, leverage an open source model to maximize transparency, access, and innovation."

Interested in knowing more about this new Federal open-source approach? You can read it today. And then, like any good open-source process, you can share your thoughts with the government.

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