Our take on Open Source and Our Government

image taken from GovLoop

Fred Wilson wrote a great post yesterday about Open Source and Our Government.  Our take was buried in the very active “disqus”sion afterwards, so I’d thought I’d post it here and expand on it further:

Source Code is Data. So it can even be argued that Open Source falls under the Federal Open Data initiative.


For a civic tech startup like us, its so frustrating when we come across RFPs with such onerous requirements (e.g. insurance, financial statements, etc), that we’re effectively disqualified from bidding.


Granted, these requirements were put in place to protect the public interest, but they effectively bar small companies from participating, limiting participation to big government contractors with specialized teams dedicated to responding to these RFPs.


There are experiments like RFP-EZ from the Whitehouse Innovation Fellows program, but in the meantime, hybrid initiatives like checkbooknyc.com can be emulated.


The system was developed by one of the biggest government contractors – REI, but the contract stipulates that the resulting source code be made open source.


In the healthcare.gov example, civic hackers could take a look at the code without having to have a tech-surge. The added transparency will also incentivize system integrators to build quality code in the first place.

RFPs are meant to establish a level playing field for contracts.  However, over the years, as with most regulations, it has been used by incumbents to suppress competition (see Patent Laws which is supposed to promote innovation, but now used by patent trolls; HIPAA to protect patient privacy but are now used by companies as an excuse not to share pricing info, etc.).

These “regulatory capture” techniques come about because of the lack of transparency and the extreme opaqueness of the regulatory process.  So beyond Source Code,  we should also promote more Open Government.

Project Open Data (POD) is a perfect example in my mind.  POD is a direct offshoot of Obama’s Executive Order this spring to make Open Data the new default for Government Information.  But instead of drafting the implementation details in “smoke-filled rooms” with lobbyist writing specifics with their interest in mind, everything was done in the open in Github!

This doesn’t stop folks from advocating their agendas.  That’s their constitutional right and is to be expected.  What’s awesome about it is that its all done in the open!  We for one, were advocating for open standards and open source, and our pull requests were there for everyone to see and contests.

So, open is always good in our minds.  Open Source, Open Data, Open Laws, Open Government.

P.S.  Here’s an awesome must-see TED talk by Clay Shirky on the topic – “How the Internet will (one day) transform government.”   When I saw the 51-comment thread on our Project Open Data pull request, I said to myself that that day may not be that far away. :)



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