Open Source on Rise in Government

The use of open-source software is alive and well and growing among government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau.

PORTLAND—The use of open-source software is alive and well and growing among government agencies, including the U.S. Census Bureau.

In an address at the OReilly Open Source Convention (Oscon) here on Thursday titled "Open Source in Government," Lisa Wolfisch Nyman, a senior Internet technology architect at the Bureau, said the issue of open source and government was first raised at Oscon in 1999, where many public sector employees said they were forbidden from using open source.

But things have changed substantially over the past four years, she said. "In June this year, Bruce Mehlman, the assistant secretary for technical policy at the Department of Commerce, said that the Penguin has landed, which is quite a shift in just four years," she said.

A 2002 report from the MITRE Corp. also identified 110 open-source software tools in use at the Department of Defense. And this year, the office of the CIO at the Department came out with an official open-source software policy, which placed open-source software under the same requirements of Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) products and the same security certification, she said.

One of the real open source success stories at the Census is State and County QuickFacts, "the cheapest and most bang for the buck application on our Web site. This involved bringing data together in small profiles for novice users looking for quick facts. It serves some 200,000 pages a day," she said.

This was developed as an unfunded project, took six months from planning to release, and used existing hardware and open-source software, including Perl, Apache, MySQL and Linux.

The Census Bureau chose open source for many projects because there are no procurement delays, it is portable within a heterogeneous environment and has interchangeable components.

The Bureau has also started an open source research group to find out what is out there, to come up with ways to use it, and then work with other government agencies on this, she said.

Pat Moran from NASA Ames Research Center, speaking not as an official NASA spokesman, said in his address titled "Developing Open Source" that bringing in Linux machines is not a controversial thing to do at NASA as they already have Unix machines.

But collaboration across divisions is difficult and releasing things through open source is frustrating. But Moran said a plan started a year ago to get a more official policy on open source established within NASA.

NASAs legal division has said they see no problem in having an open source policy, he said, adding that "some of the software we develop I do not expect will become open source," garnering a laugh from the audience.

He is still working with the legal and the Software Release Authority on developing an open source process and, within a year, expects to try the process with some test projects.

Regarding the licensing options for NASA software, this is still under discussion but will probably be similar to the current Mozilla license, at least at first, he said.