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Alexander Howard

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Open Source and Open Government Take the Stage at the State Department

Posted: 02/14/11 02:26 PM ET

How We Got Here: Industry and Open Source Software

Jeremy Allison, creator of Samba, Chris DiBona, open source and public sector programs manager at Google, and Darren Krape, of State Department, offered up a frank discussion of the history open source and industry. Looking back, a lot of people thought that open source gathered steam because proprietary software wasn't providing change fast enough, said DiBona. "They needed something that moved faster."

In that context, Dibona described open source software as a "remarkable form of liberation," with benefits wholly separate from philosophy. "As an end user, you don't even know that you're using it," he said "I see it as the fruits of labor of tens of thousands of open source developers."

Dibona asserted that open source can allow developers to move more quickly, with respect to bugs or building out features. It can also disrupt the industry. As he noted, "the computer business has been profitable but frankly some things don't deserve to be any more."

Allison similarly observed that lot of the time the easiest way for an organization to get needed functionality is to "just download something and make it work." He also referred to the role of software patents in technology, with respect to the ability of their owner to shut down innovation. "Software patents handcuff entrepreneurs," he said to scattered applause, and suggested that the issue could cost government "billions."

Code for America and "Zen and the Art of Open Source"

David Eaves kicked off with a great lightning talk on Code for America. After Eaves answered questions, Greg Elin, chief data architect at FCC, Dr. Linton Wells, director of center for technology and national security policy at the National Defense University, Deb Bryant, public sector communities manager at the Oregon State University Open Source Lab, and this correspondent talked about some of the fears, misconceptions and case studies that exist in the open source world.

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Key takeaways:

For Elin, open source and open data "go hand in hand." The biggest thing he needs support for is security patching. For handing open data on the scale that the FCC requires, commercial software doesn't address their needs; they were able to solve their issues by writing Python code, leveraging open source and integrating it with commercial software. In his view, one area where open source is superior lies in procurement and prototyping, given that you can do either for free.

For Bryant, it's that many of the same critiques that people levy against open source exist for proprietary software. You won't always have support, bug reports won't always be fixed and the person who wrote code won't always be available. Open source isn't free, given the support requires time and money, but there's a lot for "fear, uncertainty and doubt" out there, also known as "FUD."

For Wells, it was that the combination of open source, social media and government that we saw in Haiti showed the promise of "what can be done" in terms of situational awareness and assistance. In 2011, that combination is being tried in many more places.

Open Communications: The Changing Media Landscape

A remarkable historic confluence brought the Tech@State conferees to the State Department on the day that President Mubarak stepped down in Egypt after weeks of protests. At 3 PM, many attendees of Tech@State gathered to watch President Obama's remarks on Egypt on the big screen in the main meeting room.

As the president observed: "There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same."

The historic day framed a provocative discussion on how media has changing between Saad Khan, seed investor at CMEA Capital Katherine Maher, ICT Program Officer at National Democratic Institute, and Habib Haddad, founder YallaStartup, Yamli, co-creator Alive in Egypt. That video is embedded below.

Open Source vs Government Culture: Creating Change

The culture of open source and the culture of government aren't always aligned. As many people in those world know, open source wasn't validated as a legitimate alternative to proprietary technologies until the middle of the last decade. Now it's running straight into the "beast of bureaucracy," with varying results. The conversation between Richard Boly, State Dept, Emma Antunes, NASA, Lisa Wolfisch, GSA, Matthew Burton, Dept. of Treasury, and Gwynne Kostin, GSA, is worth listening to in that context.

Tech@State Unconference

The conversations continued at an unconference at the National Democratic Institute on Sunday. Details are at

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