Governments in open source

by Sebastian Benthall

As I write this I am sitting in on the “FOSS GIS in Government” working session at being put on by SITA (State Information Technology Agency, the South African government created IT strategy company).  The working session is attended mostly by members of South Africa’s government, who are coming with questions and skepticism about using free software.

A lot of what I’m seeing here is unsurprising.  Arno Webb, the representative of SITA, delivered a presentation that was full of slides showing hierarchies and taxonomies of institutions and initiatives that SITA believes are necessary for the use of free software in government.  The acronym, FOSS, is a convenient encapsulation for them–it is peppered throughout the presentation and then paired with government-ese.  You would not be able to tell what the presentation was about if you didn’t know what that acronym meant.

As it should be.  There is a palpable difference between the culture and expectations of the government community and the open source development communities here.  Nevertheless, the alliance is a perfect one.  So it wonderful to see people working from both sides to bridge the gap.

One initiative Arno and other speakers from the government sector have describe has especially convinced me that these people get it.  When discussing the transition to open source, these government representatives often talk about how they will be producing training materials for the software they depend on.  And if anybody asks whether these materials will be made publicly available, the answer is, “Absolutely.  Yes.  We are adopting the same principles of openness as the software.”  Arno Webb describes a “Trilogy of Openness”– open software, open standards, and open content. The latter refers to the content that the government created training materials.

What this means is that governments will not only be users of open source software; they will also be contributing back to FOSS communities.  That’s awesome!  Free software developers are notoriously bad at providing documentation for their work, but everyone acknowledges that documentation is an important part of the software project and crucial to the software’s adoption.  And governments, who are real users with real needs, are highly qualified to contribute that documentation.  Those contributions are the perfect way for people in government to become part of open source communities.