US gov't agencies embrace collaborative software development

The DOD and other agencies look for ways to work with each other and with the wider community

U.S. government agencies have long used open-source software. Now, some agencies are embracing the collaborative development model of open-source software development and are releasing code back to the wider community.

The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) both host software projects on GitHub, a software collaboration website based on the open-source Git version control system, officials with the two agencies said Tuesday. The U.S. White House has also hosted projects on the four-year-old website, including its "We the People" petition app.

Open-source software has been a "transformative force" for the DOD, said Dan Risacher, associate director for information enterprise strategy and policy, in the agency's Office of the CIO. After years of using open-source software, the DOD has been looking for ways to collaborate with other developers, he said.

Risacher has been pushing open-source software at the DOD since 2008, but has run into some resistance in the past, he said during a speech at the Red Hat Government Symposium in Washington, D.C. When challenged about open source, his argument has been: "I made this thing open because someone else is going to make it better, and I'm going to get those patches back."

The DOD is also meeting regularly with about 10 other agencies to talk about cross-agency software development and a cross-agency open-source counsel, he said. Other participating agencies include the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Energy, he said.

"We're starting to see this aperture open within the government recognizing this model of collaborative development is really powerful," Risacher said.

CFPB, which began operations in mid-2011, has three projects hosted on GitHub, said Chris Willey, CIO for the agency. An open-source policy the agency released earlier this year releases any CFPB software developed in house to the public domain, he said.

Willey challenged attendees of the Red Hat conference to use the software CFPB has posted on GitHub and to suggest changes to it.

The agency is also posting proposed regulations on Regulationroom.org. "This is sort of our first toe in the water into how can we make the whole process of rule-writing more accessible to people," he said.

GitHub allows users to suggest changes to projects and to split off their own projects without the old concerns about forking, said John Britton, education liaison for GitHub. "Back in the day, it used to be a bad thing to fork a project," he said. "There would be a political battle about what we should do here."

Git basically creates forks for every change made to a software package, and the owners of the package can incorporate those changes back into the project as they see fit, he said.

"The best way to have a truly great idea is to have lots of ideas," added Michael Tiemann, Red Hat's vice president for open-source affairs. GitHub sort of turns on its head the conventional model of the single-source theory and permits the diversity of experimentation."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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Tags U.S. Department of EnergyU.S. Department of DefenseDan RisacherGovernment use of ITU.S. Department of CommerceU.S. Department of Veterans AffairsMichael TiemannJohn BrittonChris WilleyRed HatgovernmentU.S. Consumer Financial Protection BureauGitHubU.S. Federal Communications Commission

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