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As part of an initiative to help reduce the costs of developing software for government agencies, the White House has announced that custom software developed for those agencies will become open source code, available to be viewed, studied and deployed by anyone.
Improving Communication and Collaboration Across Agencies
Announced this week by Tony Scott, White House chief information officer, the project dubbed “The People’s Code” will be deployed across all agencies, and while one of the aims will be to improve budget efficiencies — with over $6 billion spent annually on software by the federal government — the new Federal Source Code Policy also aims to improve cross-agency collaboration and overall transparency.
“By opening more of our code to the brightest minds inside and outside of government, we can enable them to work together to ensure that the code is reliable and effective in furthering our national objectives,” Scott wrote in a blog post.
Open source code has the benefit of allowing anyone to use and modify it, and while this could potentially allow hackers to find vulnerabilities in software used by government agencies, open source code is typically more secure because it allows bugs and flaws to be more easily reported by the wider coding community.
Custom code is only required by agencies when there isn’t a preexisting federal solution available or a suitable commercial piece of software. However, when custom code is needed, apparently agencies aren’t very good at making the new software available to everyone. “Even when agencies are in a position to make their source code available on a government-wide basis, they do not make such code available to other agencies in a consistent manner,” Scott’s memo says.
As well as having to share all code with other agencies, the new policy decrees that 20 percent of any new custom code developed will have to be made available on the government’s new Code.gov website.
Addressing Security Concerns
This has caused some controversy however, particularly regarding the security of government systems. Back in March, when President Obama announced the plan to make government systems more transparent, comments attributed to the CIO’s office at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said this project could lead to the “mafia having a copy of all FBI system code” and terrorists accessing air traffic control software. “How will this be prevented?” the DHS asked. DHS CIO Luke McCormack subsequently filed his own official comments, saying that “prior comments do not represent DHS policy or views.”
The new policy does make concessions to address these concerns, as not all code will be eligible for sharing. Some source code is restricted by patent laws and export controls, while the release of other code could potentially compromise national security or private information.
Citizens are looking for the same transparency in government that they find in other sectors. Find out here how technology is at the forefront of new open government initiatives.