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Open Source Software and Government

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 8/29/2009

Open source software is everywhere, it seems—and increasingly, in our government. This article outlines some of the advantages that open source software presents for governments worldwide, as well as some examples.

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    Transparency To Trust

    Many people are distrustful of the government in this day and age, and much of that stems from how the government deals with information. Part of making this information open to all is making how the government applies itself to this information open, especially analytic software.

    Scientists around the world have the same problem with closed source software, and the research that the government carries out is no different. If government researchers have the power to tailor and tweak the software as they need, they will have even more powerful and accurate tools in their arsenal.

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    Cutting Costs

    Proprietary software is extremely expensive, especially when you're buying for the entire infrastructure for one of the biggest bureaucracies in the world. By switching to open source software, the government would be saving millions of dollars in everyday operating costs, money which can go to funding educational institutions (or decreasing the national debt.)

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    Engaging Citizens

    Open source is all about engaging its users, and that's what government is supposed to do. By using open source software, the government will directly be utilizing any civilian programmer who feels like contributing to the code, be it a patch or a derivative work. Think about the sprawling open source communities in existence, and think about them if the scope was expanded to the national level. Everyone could get involved, and not just by going to the voting booth.

    This also includes software for citizens to keep tabs on their government. Projects like Apps For America help propagate open source software for citizens to more easily follow the happenings of politics, including those of their local representatives—created by the people, for the people.

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    Many critics of open source claim that having the source code out in the open makes it more vulnerable to attacks. If anything, it's the opposite. Having an entire country to draw from for volunteer programmers to search for said vulnerabilities and create the appropriate patches means the software is going to be quite secure. This is compared to proprietary, closed software, where while the code remains secret, vulnerabilities are not widely publicized and fixed once found, instead remaining for any skilled hacker to take advantage of.

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    Examples: Germany & Brazil

    A great example of open source software already being made standard in government is the city of Munich in Germany. In '08 they started a complete migration from proprietary to open source software, both their desktops and servers. No computer is left untouched, some 14,000 desktop computers and 300 pieces of software, with all users completing training in how to use the new open source software. The transition has gone near flawlessly for one of the most important cities in Europe. This is all after, of course, the official support of the German government for the use of Linux systems within the government in 2000.

    The government of Brazil also actively pursues the use of open source software. Many of the schools run a customized distro called Vix Linux, and virtually all government institutions run Linux-powered machines along with a free, open source, custom software package.

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    Open Source Obama

    Obama has revealed some inclinations to involve the government with the open source movement. This is after running his web campaign largely on open source software, and having many parts of the government already running open source software without requiring any sort of mandate to do so.

    A powerful coalition of groups, including Google, RedHat, Mozilla, Novell and more have recently created an initiative called Open Source For America, which aims to lobby the government to use more open source software instead of proprietary.

    How this will turn out, only time will tell. However, the global trend seems to be one towards open source—and with good reason.