VA approaches open source day of reckoning

The process illustrates why proprietary contractors have the upper hand in government procurement. They can put hire experts to write sparkling essays showing exactly why up is down and wrong is right. Open source has no equivalent of the million dollar washer.

Long before open source entered the lexicon, the Veterans Administration (VA) was known to techies for VistA, an electronic medical record (EMR) program written in MUMPS that was developed in an open way and published as a public record, freely available.

Now, with MUMPS experts looking increasingly like an opera audience (aging out), the VA is looking to replace VistA. They like the idea of open source, but they have serious questions about things like governance and management of the intellectual property.

So, in the way of Washington, they have issued a Request For Information, hoping the industry can answer its questions.

The whole process illustrates why big, proprietary contractors have the upper hand in government procurement. They can put experts onto this RFI, writing sparkling essays (complete with charts) showing exactly why sharing the intellectual property open source creates would be a really bad idea.

Open source vendors can't afford this, because the costs of the effort can't easily be capitalized into a later contract. Open source doesn't create million dollar washers.

Yet the advantages for the VA in the open source process are proven. The VA has been benefiting from that process for a quarter century. VistA itself, which has spawned a small open source industry with no help from the VA, is the proof of that.

It's like you have to educate someone on their own invention.

The RFI reminds me of how I discovered my own daughter was dyslexic, many years ago. She got a learning game, went through the first level, and instead of going to the next level created a new screen name for herself, going through the same level again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Her dyslexia was eventually repaired, through an education process that emphasized hands-on learning, at which she excelled. She would write her spelling words into shaving cream my wife spread on a glass tabletop. She's in college now and doing well.

But the VA has already gone through this hands-on learning process. Why should they need the benefits explained yet-again?

Because that's how government procurement works. The VA spent most of the Bush years pushing VistA to the sidelines, and even signed a contract for a proprietary lab system from Cerner. While the VA's new managers have some open source religion they are still in the position of judges, and need evidence before proceeding.

There are experts who can deliver the lesson, like Fred Trotter. Unfortunately Fred is currently fighting a patent troll (thanks again, Justice Roberts).

Medsphere could deliver the lesson, but they're pretty busy these days filling orders. They do have an interesting white paper out on how they're upgrading MUMPS with Java, but I suspect the VA wants more of a 10,000 foot view.

So consider this a call-out to my friends at the Linux Foundation. These boys need a re-education. If you do it right, you can educate enterprises of all sizes.