Note to Obama: Consider the Open Source Way

The advantages of open source, standards and methodologies have been working their way to the surface for the past few years. Whereas in the past, open source projects were more likely to be described as fledgling efforts that lagged far behind proprietary counterparts, “open source” has become a buzzword with more positive than negative connotations.

While we in the software business have complex and nuanced definitions and understandings of the term, the media, politicians and other offline audiences have tend to have a less sophisticated interpretation. Lest they malign our livelihood and taint the term “open source” more than Microsoft could, I want to offer some tips and usage advice to the incoming administration.

Defining Open Source

First of all, we know that open source is an umbrella term that doesn’t necessarily mean free software, but because Linux is the most common platform for open source software and the GPL is the most common license, we urge the new government to assume they are opening under those terms.

As such, members of the Obama administration and incoming Congress are likely to begin writing new laws and modifying or repealing previous legislation. However, they should not interpret this freedom to make changes as a license to privatize or otherwise make proprietary government functions.

The Free Software Foundation has had considerable success defending the GNU General Public License in court, and it will not be cowed or intimidated. Similarly, although representatives of the newly elected government have the freedom to modify laws, our project, the United States of America, has no use for modifications that fail to comply with our existing architecture, the U.S. Constitution.

To that end, these representatives will notice in our bug tracker that the most recent administration and Congresses have committed a number of revisions that conflict with this architecture. Resolving these conflicts is a top priority.

The America Project

When it comes to talking about open source software projects, you will find various statistics emphasizing the role a small number of developers play in large projects. Whether it’s 97 percent of the code being written by 3 percent of the developers or 99 percent of software being authored by six developers, the new government would be wise to dismiss these statistics. Regardless of who is writing what or how much, the point of open source software is that anyone can participate.

It may seem expedient to hire a couple PhD candidates from MIT or Stanford or, say, a cabinet full of Ivy Leaguers, but what makes the bazaar better than the cathedral is that the user community plays a significant role in defining features and testing the software.

It’s wonderful to be able to pick the allegedly best and supposedly brightest, but the users are the audience that matters. Seeking user feedback and contribution and, moreover, creating channels for their input and participation is a way to make sure your project is the best it can be. Engaging users fosters loyalty and aids the development process by making end users into QA testers which, let’s face it, is of critical importance when you’re operating on a shoestring budget.

President-elect Obama has shown some signs of taking interest in citizen input, which is reassuring because as our national project is riddled with bugs (wiretaps?) and less than 20 percent of the population thinks the project is on the right track, now is not the time to assume that any specific group of appointees can imagine and implement alterations that will substantively improve conditions.

Who’s the Boss?

A final point to be made about open source development for the new government is that this project belongs to all of us.

Sometimes folks get to thinking they own it and that the rest of us are just here for their benefit, but they wind up having to travel with heavy security details and dodging flying shoes in press conferences. You will be much better off working with us on our specifications documents and features requests than you would be trying to write it all up unilaterally.

The product will be much better in the end, and the development process will be much more pleasant for all of us. Moreover, we will get more favorable press coverage, better reviews, and more fans of our product if our story can focus on the product and its benefits rather than negative drama arising from its production.

Jeremiah T. Gray is a LinuxInsider columnist, software developer, sysadmin and technology entrepreneur. He is a director of Intarcorp, publisher of the Linux-oriented educational comic book series, “Hackett and Bankwell.”

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