New York CIO Dr. Daniel Chan

Chan said he believes in open technology approaches – including re-using solutions developed by other states – whenever feasible to avoid unnecessary expenses. The strategy was cemented by the success of myBenefits.ny.gov, a 2008 portal he helped develop as CIO of the state’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. In building the site, his office modeled technology from Wisconsin Access, a benefits website developed by that state.

“We took all the underlying technology and converted it into open-source technology,” Chan said.

Chan sees cloud computing as a technology for supporting re-use of proven applications, especially among state governments. “If  you look at some of these federal programs, the rules are very similar from state to state, a portion are almost identical – so why do we need to reinvent these systems so many times?” he asked.

“Because you can stand up an environment so fast, cloud will allow you to experiment with different ideas,” he said. “It’s a platform that will allow us to be more innovative.’

And I holler: Comrade! The OTDA is one of my favorite examples of how open source can transform state operations, and Dr. Chan is one of the best state CIOs working today.

A Truly Open VistA

The VA has released a draft RFP to create a new open source project around their electronic health record system, VistA. This is a landmark event for both the VA and the open source community. The need for cheap and robust EHR systems is clear, and the VA has one of the leading platforms.

VistA’s a challenge, though. The community is notoriously fragmented as a result of regular FOIA requests for the VistA source code. The project is based on MUMPS, which a relatively unpopular platform, so developers for VistA are in short supply. Since there’s no clear mainstream for the project, the VA VistA project competes against this fragmented community for a shallow pool of developer talent. There’s the for-profit Medsphere, which has built its own offering called OpenVistA. There’s also the WorldVistA community and http://www.hardhats.org/. FOIA requests for VistA source code are so common that VistA appears on VA’s FOIA FAQ page, but few (if any) of the contributions from any private-sector VistA communities feed back into the VA VistA project.

“VA believes that VistA’s rate of innovation and improvement has slowed substantially, and the codebase is unnecessarily isolated from private sector components, technology, and outcome-improving impact. To address this issue, VA is establishing a mechanism that will open the aperture to broader-based public and private sector contributions.”

Johanna Blakely on Free Culture, Fashion, and CentOS

[I'll start this by reiterating that these are my own thoughts, and have nothing whatever to do with Red Hat.]

This presentation is great overview of the counterintuitive influence of intellectual rights laws on the fashion industry. It’s also cogent argument against the fiction that innovation only happens in the context of property. It’s 15 minutes very well-spent.

I work for Red Hat, so I saw some parallels right away. CentOS produces a Linux distribution based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux source code. Just like Blakely’s Gucci knockoffs, CentOS addresses a market that Red Hat doesn’t, and we actually benefit from CentOS in a number of ways: additional exposure to new customers, improvements to Linux from the CentOS community, and so on. CentOS also forces Red Hat to be innovative, much the same way that Charlie Parker had to stay ahead of other musicians. Red Hat can’t rely on code alone for that innovation — they have to provide excellent support and all the ancillary services around the code to remain valuable to customers. The additional services on top of the code is what makes Red Hat, like Stuart Weitzman’s steel heels, “difficult to copy” in Blakely’s words.

Citizen and government collaboration: let’s work it out.

Over the last couple years, many of us involved with open source in government have had discussions about what it means for citizen coders to become involved in state, local and federal efforts. There are all kinds of legal, ethical, and logistics questions that haven’t been answered. Everyone seems to be solving them individually, but it’s not well-coordinated. This means that agencies who want to engage developers are wasting valuable time trying to figure out the “right way” to work with the public.

The domain is large and already bearing fruit; I think we’re all enthusiastic about CivicCommonsCrisisCommons, and a host of public service oriented application development contests in many major cities.

On the other side, the Federal government is putting its toe deeper in the Open Source waters, recently making agreements with SourceForge and other web-based developer services. The GSA has announced its intention to launch forge.gov, inspired by forge.mil. The VA is exploring how to open source their VistA electronic health record system. The list goes on.