GOVERNMENT TECHNOLOGY/A source for software
In recent years, government agencies and municipalities have faced a daunting combination of tight budgets and growing demands on their computer systems. As information technology managers seek relief, one option is “open code” software, which can be obtained from the Internet at little or no cost and then modified as necessary.
The practical difficulties of finding, implementing and supporting such software, however, can be enough to discourage attempts to use it. Also, many open code Web sites expect participants to contribute and support new code if they are going to take any. Some government entities think those requirements conflict with legal restrictions on intellectual property rights (IPR), or that code developed with taxpayers’ money should not be shared with private companies, who may enjoy equal access to the open code Web sites.
In response to some of those concerns, and to encourage governments to share software code, the Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC) was formed earlier this year. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in conjunction with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), sponsored the initial discussions to form the group. The organization now is run by volunteers who are employees of various government entities and educational establishments. The GOCC members come from across the United States and are mostly in state government, although some are from municipalities and nonprofit academic institutions.
The collaborative has created a repository of code on the Internet at www.gocc.gov where members may deposit and download code, as well as participate in discussions, bug tracking and support activities. Once members sign the group’s operating agreement, the legal framework provided by the GOCC gives them a relatively red-tape-free method of sharing and collaborating on software. It allows members to limit the amount of support they will provide for the code they share and assures members that the code deposited in the repository can be freely shared.
Because only government and academic entities may join the group, concerns about restricting IPR are considerably reduced, and time and effort spent on support benefit the group. Organizational peers (states with states, cities with cities) usually have common needs, so founding members hope that a library of relevant applications will develop. As the applications are used and improvements are made, those changes will be fed back into the library so that the applications improve in functional scope and depth, as well as in quality.
Many small cities with one- or two-member IT departments may feel ill equipped to join such a community because they do not write significant amounts of code. However, no one is obligated to submit code to join, and the group does not have a minimum limit on the size or scope of the shared software. Also, the ability to download proven software, and to contact the authors and designers of the code, should make software from the collaborative more appealing than software from repositories that are open to anyone. The GOCC suggests the possibility of low-cost, tightly targeted applications for government if the venture continues to gather momentum.
The author is director of information services for Gloucester, Mass.