Overview: Open source software, patents, and research provide the codebase, data, and information to anyone who wants to explore it. For governments, this allows better citizen engagement and support without committing substantial funds to upgrading or becoming locked into proprietary systems.
What Is Open Source?
First coined as a term in 1998, open source has its origins in the computer science sector and refers to software where the source code of the project is freely available and can be modified by anyone. It was rooted in the belief that, since software is simply mathematics, it should be open to peer review and updated as new concepts are explored.
Probably the best-known result of this was UNIX, an industrial computer operating system, and its descendant Linux, which is commonly used across a wide range of software and is the basis for operating systems such as Android.
The approach has since moved into other sectors, such as scientific research, with open source papers that include all data sets for peers and others to analyze, and open source music, which includes the individual tracks to be excerpted, remixed, or otherwise experimented with. Wikipedia, for example, is an “open source” project as anybody can freely look at both the content of the page, how it was changed over time, who made the changes, and contribute changes themselves.
What Are the Advantages And Drawbacks Of Open Source?
- There’s a potentially broad development base, as anyone can contribute.
- Open source materials draw engaged people to contribute more and interact with each other.
- It’s easy to track changes and make revisions, with an open log of who performed what.
- It’s generally more reliable than many commercial products, simply because it’s been “live tested” and common problems found and fixed.
- There are no legal requirements for open source software; it can be used by anyone for any purpose.
- Open source is cost-effective and relatively easy to implement and customize to constituent needs.
- Open source software more easily “talks” with itself, making it easier to align systems and share data.
- Not all revisions are positive or effective, even if they’re made by those who mean well.
- Open source materials may come into conflict with disclosure laws, depending on the data collected and the purpose.
- Open source software is not as well-supported as corporate solutions; you’ll need people who intimately understand the software and will need to accept that documentation may be sparser or even non-existent.
- Communities can become engaged in irrelevant disputes, so the community needs to be carefully moderated and these arguments headed off at the pass.
- Training and instruction materials are generally less “user-friendly” than other solutions, more often written for a specific audience than a broader constituency, so effort may need to be invested in updating or rewriting the material for broader use.
- More modern designs may not connect with legacy systems, especially privately-built software, or may not use the same file formats as modern commercial systems.
Why Does Open Source Drive Innovation For Governments?
In many cases, the open source mentality dovetails with the obligations of government to its citizens. After all, anything bought with taxpayer money belongs to all the taxpayers, creating an obligation to make that material accessible. In a way, the open source movement simply reflects the open nature of a well-run democracy serving the people and offers a way to better meet that ideal.
Similarly, open source offers more effective engagement with citizen stakeholders. Especially for situations where citizen feedback and ideas are crucial to an agency’s mission, the open source philosophy improves access, accountability, and effectiveness. For example, the Federal Trade Commission has a web page for citizen developers that collects its application programming interfaces, or APIs, in one place for both public and private organizations to use for developing their own content, ensuring access to up-to-date data.
On a practical level, open source materials and approaches also make revisions, updates, and changes more transparent and simpler to implement. Especially if agencies and departments need to communicate with each other or use the same system to collaborate, they can be cost-effective and well-understood, making it easier to share and collect data and ideas.
How Should Governments Consider Using Open Source To Maximize Innovation?
While it may seem intimidating in some respects, even highly-regulated entities, such as the U.S. Department of Defense, have developed clear and effective policies around open source. Government organizations should ask themselves a few key questions when considering an open source approach to better drive innovation:
What regulatory requirements are already in place? List out what must be disclosed, how it needs to be accessible, and the reasoning behind these requirements. A good solution won’t just meet the letter of the law, but also the spirit, while creating room for innovative approaches and uses. Don’t forget to consider future initiatives as well, such as cybersecurity requirements.
What’s the value to the broader constituency? Understanding what an open source program offers to citizens versus a legacy solution or what’s already in place can highlight whether the change is for the best. An open source approach should implement a popular idea, better serve a community, or make your work more accessible while giving the tools to expand on or adapt that idea.
Who will most make use of the solution? While data management and programming knowledge are becoming more widespread and easier to obtain, many citizens still lack the tools to get the most out of these solutions. Determining who will use it and what they’ll use it for will point towards whether it’s a positive choice for those constituents. This also offers a good opportunity for feedback and crowdsourcing solutions, as your most engaged members will likely have thoughts on what approach to take.
What will you need to invest to maximize its utility? Many open source solutions are not yet written with governments and their citizens in mind, although this is increasingly changing as more governments show interest in open source. Look at what will be needed to smooth the path to innovation.
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