Open Source Software and Public Services

Open source software allows its source code to be “open” to the public for use and improvement at no charge. Essentially, proponents of open source believe that a larger group of programmers, not concerned with financial gain or internal politics, will more quickly develop bug-free, useful products that are shared with everyone.

The “peer-reviewed” system, which enables developers to test, redistribute, and modify source codes, is often a more effective, flexible, and timely way to make improvements to software applications. This can be especially true when compared with commercial or public technologies which are usually reviewed through long, painstaking processes by a single developer.

Open source software is licensed by one of several groups (OSI, GNU, Microsoft, and Apache, most often). Licensing varies slightly between agencies, but usually requires at a minimum that the code be offered for free, without royalties paid to the license holder; the code is accessible and allows for modifications by others; and that no one can be denied access to the program. The source code can be monetized, but only as part of a larger package of software that contains proprietary compilers (which translate code into the binary language of computers). Often, there are also rules that impact additional software restrictions placed on users when it is sold.

Non-open source software is called closed software, and the source codes are private. It is not an either/or situation, however; many technologies today rely on a combination of open and closed source code and are typically referred to as “mixed-source” projects. Open- and mixed-source projects are frequent in the public sector. Here are a few examples, often involving platforms that serve community engagement purposes:

The Plinket Community Collaborative creates and develops softwares for libraries, in a different way: they work collaboratively to identify requirements openly, and then use two traditional open-source projects, Plone and Zope, to develop platforms. The code is more directed than that in traditional development, but it is still open source and can be used by libraries everywhere.

NASA transitioned from its issue tracking system, ARS Remedy, in 2006. NASA required more flexibility from a program, and used the open source system OTRS, modified by a subcontractor; because the components were subject to an open source license, the components developed for NASA were later made available to all users.

ESRI, the software developer behind ArcGIS (used in most public agencies for mapping purposes) relies on open source codes for its shapefile technology. ESRI offers a hybrid model solution that incorporates their software with complementary open source projects.

Sweden’s Police Department transitioned to a mixed-source management system for tracking data in 2007. They wanted a system that was more flexible, allowed them to change classifications and categories quickly, and managed large amounts of data on crimes, victims, and perpetrators. a

Belgium and France worked together to collaboratively create a platform for public administrations within local territories, relying on the local IT departments to collaborate and develop software. This is one of the first and most significant public development projects, as it was sponsored by public agencies in both countries and most of the development work was performed by public servants.

Google is perhaps the most recognizable early user of open source code. They even have an Open Source Programs Office to manage the licenses and generate projects, and still rely on an open source approach for much of their work.

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