Building collaboration

Government Open Code Collaborative

An initiative that allows cash-strapped state and local agencies to share the source code needed to develop a variety of e-government applications is gaining momentum.

The Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC) is first and foremost about sharing the code that other government officials have already paid for or developed. An agency official can upload code to the central repository, in which others can search for it, use it, improve it and eventually help develop complete applications from it that others can also use.

The idea spawned from the overlap of many state and local government functions. "So why is every one of us going out and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build those systems?" asked Peter Quinn, chief information officer for Massachusetts and chairman of GOCC.

"Particularly at the state level, [collaboration] has been the movement over the last couple of years," said Thom Rubel, vice president of government strategies at Meta Group Inc. "They've been sharing and collaborating, particularly on architecture, so this seems like a natural extension. ... There's more data sharing, there's more best practices sharing, there's more sharing of applications and code to drive costs down."

Government officials at any level and officials at academic and nonprofit institutions must sign the GOCC Operating Agreement before contributing code to or accessing the repository, which the University of Rhode Island hosts. Other members in the all-volunteer initiative include state and local agencies from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. Legal counsels from many of the entities worked on the agreement for several months, Quinn said.

The leading GOCC developers knew they had to start with that legal framework "so that we wouldn't have to rebid the legal agreement every time," said Claudia Boldman, director of policy and architecture for Massachusetts and leader of many of the collaborative's daily policy issues.

Getting that legal agreement is critical to the success of this initiative, Rubel said. "A lot of the time, you'll run into regulatory or legal barriers that can make a relatively simple thing very difficult, so the fact that they got legal [agreement] is a promising step," he said.

Open code includes open-source software such as the Linux operating system, but it also applies to other types of code that fall under free software licensing. Code for a wide range of applications is already included in the repository.

Praise for GOCC will be important to promoting the initiative. Since it was launched last month, GOCC's e-mail list has already grown to more than 70 subscribers, and leaders are getting requests to join the group from agencies nationwide, Quinn said.

"Our goal is to make this as grass-roots as possible and as simple as possible for people to participate," he said.

Once they are members, agencies have full access to the Web-based repository and the central e-mail list maintained by the New York State Attorney General's Office.

Rhode Island developers were already working on the repository before the initiative started. When the state's administration came into office, officials focused on the advantages of open source as an inexpensive solution and collaborative development process, said S. James Willis, chief information officer in the secretary of state's office. They approached officials at several federal agencies to measure government interest in sponsoring the initiative. When that didn't work out, GOCC was formed.

The repository is built on Zope Corp.'s content management system and Plone interface, both of which are open-source applications. A couple of commercial solutions would have met the system's basic needs, but Zope's solution, like many other major open-source applications, has full support and is free of charge, Willis said.

Although the GOCC repository didn't come in a box with slick packaging, full documentation for how to use it is available. And as a sign that sharing code and ideas will likely work, repository users provided the documentation.

"The day that I knew this was going to work...was the day that I saw somebody else I didn't know had written the documentation for something I wrote," Willis said.

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BUILT HERE, USEFUL EVERYWHERE

The Government Open Code Collaborative serves as a repository for all code that falls under the open-source initiative's approved license. But open code extends past the strict open-source definition to include free software and other code approved under the group's operating rules, as determined by the founding members' legal counsels.

The code that is already available to members and the public in the repository encompasses a wide range of applications, including:

Election tally — A Web application that counts and reports municipal election results by voter districts. Developed by Newport News, Va., government officials and intended for other local governments.

Security alert system — An application for managing information security incident notifications. Developed by officials from the Massachusetts Information Technology Division and intended for state and municipal use.

Simple Webcam scripts — A series of scripts to publish images from Webcams placed throughout a city or town to that local government's Web site. Developed by Gloucester, Mass., government officials.

Source: Government Open Code Collaborative

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