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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

Open source technology and collaborative models will matter in media, mapping, education, smarter cities, national security, disaster response and much more in 2011 and beyond. The success of open source in building systems that work at scale offers an important lesson to government leaders as well: to meet grand national challenges and create standards for the future, often it's best to work collectively on them. The hundreds of people who gathered Friday at the United States Department of State spent the day parsing open source at Tech@State, the technology conference organized by the office of eDiplomacy.

Open source is playing an important role in open government, although it's hardly a precondition for it. Whether it's or moving to Drupal, middleware for open government data or codesharing with CivicCommons, open source matters more than ever.

One challenge that Gunnar Hellekson articulated in his presentation on Open Source for America's federal open technology report card was that while many agencies are using open source, very few are contributing code or interacting with the community. As Melanie Chernoff pointed out, the Obama administration has shown unprecedented interest in open source.

The Administration generally emphasizes transparency, participation, and collaboration as government goals while maintaining a "technology neutral" policy. Yet they have shown unprecedented interest in open source. Macon Phillips & Dave Cole of talked about how open source can help the federal government achieve its engagement and collaboration goals in their OSFA award acceptance speech.

Phillips said that the White House has released more open source code this week, available at Perhaps one of the most important slides from the entire day came from his presentation, where he noted that the accessibility module that the White House had released was being used by over 1000 sites. When we work on our platform and contribute back to the public," said Phillips, "it's part of our service to the public."

Given its mission, however, the State Department will likely always need place limits on the radical transparency some equate with open government, but as Susan Swart, the department CIO, observed at Dipnote, "technology is the key enabler of our information enterprise." Open source will be a part of that enterprise going forward, whether it's MediaWiki, Wordpress or Drupal.

Many of the conversations, videos and presentations from the Tech@State open source conference are captured below.

Open Source at the State Department and what the White House and HSS are doing with it

Video of Swart, Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the United States, Macon Phillips, White House new media director, and Todd Park, CTO at HHS, is embedded below:

Open standards matter here too. As Phillips observed, the choice to use the H.264 online video standard and develop in HTML5 meant that when Apple released the iPad, the company featured, since users could go and watch video there. (In this context, at least, the White House avoided "shiny app syndrome.")

As Chopra noted, the U.S. moved forward into the pilot phase of an open source model for health data systems as the fruits of the Direct Project came to Minnesota and Rhode Island. The Direct Project allows for the secure transmission of health care data over a network. Some observers have dubbed it the Health Internet , and the technology has the potential to save government hundreds of millions of dollars, along with supporting the growth of new electronic health records systems. "Healthcare information will be shared around the United States, powered by the direct protocol," said Chopra. He says that's a philosophy to "engage entrepreneurs as problem solvers" in the context of open energy, transportation, where government platforms can spur innovation.

No where is that locus more dynamic that in the release of open health data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). As Brian Kalish reported for NextGov, HHS wants to be a data 'sugar daddy', so to speak. To put it another way, HHS is making community health information as useful as weather data, and here come the healthcare apps as a result. Tens of thousands of people have used open health data in the iTriage app to find local health centers.HHS CTO Park says that the new will be launching next week. In the meantime, is already live. Look for more activity in that space.


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