NASA, VA open-source plans spark debate

Two agencies reaffirm their commitment to open-source software, to the chagrin of critics

There are few technology topics that spark an argument like open-source software, especially when you throw government into the conversation.

The debates got some fresh grist this month on FCW.com and elsewhere when NASA’s new chief technology officer said his agency is boosting its commitment to open-source software and an industry advisory group told the Veterans Affairs Department that it should use an open-source platform to modernize its popular but 30-year-old VistA electronic health record system.

An important element in this news is the role of government as a co-developer and driving force of open-source code and standards and not just another user that has chosen open software over commercial, proprietary products.

Chris Kemp, who became NASA’s first CTO earlier this month, said in an FCW.com article that open-source technology is a key ingredient in the agency’s IT strategy. He announced plans to create a high-level office to promote open-source activities and said NASA is nearly finished drafting a new open-source contribution agreement that will make it easier for outsiders to participate in government-led open-source projects by clarifying intellectual property ownership issues.

Several readers who commented on the article applauded the agency’s moves, while others said NASA hasn’t walked the walk on open source.

“NASA contractors and civil servants should be able to freely contribute to existing open-source projects and create new open-source projects that are truly open,” wrote a commenter who used the name rbc. “The open-source community does not view NASA's open-source license as open.”

Jonathon Snow of Houston said NASA’s “rules for access, disclosure and technology transfer (all extremely limited) are so restrictive you might as well be dealing with the NSA.”

Meanwhile, VA officials are weighing how to proceed now that an American Council for Technology/Industry Advisory Council working group has endorsed an open-source approach to upgrading VistA. The original system was written in a programming language — MUMPS — that is no longer popular, thus making it difficult to maintain, said the group’s chairman.

Readers of Alice Lipowicz’s original FCW story and her follow-up blog post came down on both sides regarding the merits of MUMPS and what open source could or couldn’t deliver that’s better. For one anonymous reader, the key issue is not the technical merits of one programming language over another but the government’s role in driving standards development.

“It is important that whatever the government develops be public domain so that the rest of the country's health care structure can benefit,” the commenter wrote.

 

About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

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