Willis: Resistance is futile

Open-source software offers benefits that go beyond the obvious price advantage.

Open-source software is here to stay, and resistance is not only futile but ultimately costly to taxpayers. A strict adherence to the rules of the open-source community — open standards, open protocols, and open discussion and decision-making — is fueling the momentum.

The days of massive, tightly integrated solutions that connect government technology decision-makers to a handful of vendors are thankfully coming to a close. Instead of this costly monolith, an almost limitless mosaic of components can be combined to solve technology problems quickly, cheaply and without selling your soul or citizens' tax dollars to any one vendor.

This wasn't always the case. Only three years ago, the suggestion that a solution to a major workflow problem might be found at a Web site called Freshmeat.net would almost certainly raise some eyebrows. Now, however, the pool of resources for open-source solutions has expanded to include not only sites like SourceForge.net but also government-specific sites such as the Government Open Code Collaborative (www.gocc.gov) and the Component Organization and Registration Environment (www.core.gov).

Open-source technology brings much more to the table than free software, and its merits go far beyond the cost savings. There are tangible benefits that some of the more seasoned open-source projects like Apache bring, such as bulletproof stability or the ability to tailor software until it fits your needs like a well-made suit. Other benefits are harder to quantify.

For instance, the Secretary of State's office functions much like an electronic filing cabinet for Rhode Island. I could store the data in a costly, proprietary database or in a free database that a wide spectrum of tools can access. All things being equal — and as today's open-source databases thrive, all things most often are equal — by storing data in a proprietary format, officials commit a disservice to the public because they essentially charge a tax every time someone wants to access personal data.

Another beneficial area, is still in its infancy, is the sharing of software among government entities. Many open-source licenses' flexibility allows software to be written once by a government agency and shared freely with other agencies.

This sort of sharing is starting to take shape. Common sense indicates that if many states have a law that requires the government to, say, register lobbyists, and we in Rhode Island create software that automates this task, then this software should be made available to other states.

If Rhode Island developers write the software using open standards and loosely coupled, freely available tools, they simply need a forum to share that code. As this sharing becomes commonplace, we'll see that open government, powered by open software, is a recipe for an invigorated democracy at reduced taxpayer expense.

Willis is technical chairman of the Government Open Code Collaborative. He also serves as director of e-government and information technology in Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of State.

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