Transit Project Highlights Benefits of Open Source Collaboration

Open source software is a known resource among government IT pros, who are continually asked to do more with less, but beyond the flexibility and freedom from licensing fees, those who know how to leverage IT to its fullest are also using the collaboration aspect of open source software to succeed.

Northwest transportation giant Tri-Met, for example, has partnered with Google to provide arrival times to riders via cell phone using an open source software project exhibited at the Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) in Portland, Ore. this week.

The plan garnered attention from representatives of other states and governments in attendance. The Google connection has generated substantial buzz for the project, said Tri-Met Executive Director for Communication and Technology Carolyn Young, speaking with a GOSCON panel.

“That caused such a ripple, we had calls from all over the world,” she said.

Go Time With Google

Tri-Met’s program provides traveler information to about 300,000 phones per month, according to Young. Google’s Transit system, deployed first in Portland, now provides arrival information in a handful of other cities across the U.S.

Google was among a variety of companies and sponsors represented at GOSCON, including IBM, Novell and Red Hat, that have a strong presence in the open source software community and are now looking to partner with government agencies to provide technology and support solutions.

For its part, Tri-Met looks to open source and open standards first when it faces an IT problem, Young noted. She contrasted that with an industry that had few options and few vendors before the advent of open source.

Conditions like that “can really hold us hostage,” she said.

With its open source solutions, Young said she was hopeful Tri-Met’s work could serve other government agencies, which could then contribute their own input and improvements in true open source style.

Open Ease

Much of the discussion Friday at GOSCON, the only event in the U.S. that brings together government IT officials on open technology and open source, centered on how to take advantage of the customization and collaboration possible with open source, which is typically open software code and freely distributable.

Government IT representatives also talked about the creation and management of development communities.

California Air Resources Board Chief Information Officer Bill Welty said his agency has seen good, open participation on its open source efforts. There is little patience within the organization for procurement cycles, which are avoided with open source, he remarked.

“With open source, we’re good to go today with design and process,” he said.

Life of Project

During his GOSCON keynote, open source pioneer, Apache Web server co-developer and Collabnet Chief Technology Officer Brian Behlendorf offered wisdom on the creation and continuation of open source projects, as well as participation by governments.

“Projects that start out with a company brand — there’s a challenge in getting other participants to be a part of it,” he advised.

Benefits of open source projects include access not only to program code, but also to the community of developers behind such projects, Behlendorf said. However, open source projects are not effective unless the process is accessible and transparent, he pointed out.

“[This] kind of ad-hoc collaboration can only happen if the conversation takes place in a forum that has this radical inclusiveness,” he said. “There really is an ecosystem.”

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