OSCON ’09: US Developers, Code for Your Country—If the Government Will Let You

OSCON ’09: US Developers, Code for Your Country—If the Government Will Let You

If you’re going to host a tech conference in the middle of a global recession, O’Reilly’s Open Source Convention (OSCON) wouldn’t be a bad choice. What does a bear market mean to an open source project that thrives on programmers who code passionately—for coding’s sake, not for the almighty dollar? And haven’t cost savings always been the great promise of open source software for buyers? I’m oversimplifying things, but economic concerns did become a theme at this year’s OSCON where one huge organization, the U.S. government—tasked with leading an economic recovery here in the States—took center stage.

Founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly and Clay Johnson, Director of Sunlight Labs, both gave presentations centered on the emerging U.S. initiatives to establish an open government platform. One of the first projects in that effort is, whose stated mission is “to improve access to federal data and expand creative use of those data beyond the walls of government.” To put the site in a developer’s context, O’Reilly described as an attempt by the government to put together an SDK for all their APIs. If successful, civic-minded developers will be able to build an ecosystem around the platform.

Johnson knows first hand what type of innovation can grow out of this type of accessibility. Sunlight Labs is an agency that actively works on finding useful applications for the government data and creating tools that will enable users to apply them.

Both men stressed that this “government as a platform” idea won’t reach its full potential until the federal procurement process (i.e., the required procedures for a government agency to acquire goods and services) is streamlined. The process is currently so complex that Johnson couldn’t fit a chart of it on a single slide. What he did manage to capture looked like a Gantt chart wrapped in an object diagram inside an org chart (Take a look).

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When a bid actually meets all the process requirements, the results can be very lucrative for the bidder and exorbitant for the government, like the $9 million contract awarded for the construction of the web site (according to Johnson).

Open source developers (Drupal, anyone?) don’t need to be civic-minded to be interested in a share of payouts like that. But they’ll have to wait for a more accessible procurement model.

Some other notes from OSCON ’09…
Open Source as the ‘Exit Strategy’ for Government Projects
An interesting idea for overcoming the procurement problem came from the audience. As the keynote speakers were taking questions, a man (I didn’t catch his name) argued that a retirement strategy for government software projects is fundamental, and that open source licenses were a good match for that strategy. As I understood his point, if the government were to employ open source software, it could simply abandon (or retire) projects when they stopped being useful. With the vast sums the government invests in those projects today (see the contract above), just retiring them isn’t economically viable.

The Open Source Project as a Boys Clubs
If you’re a male developer who wants to know what it’s like to be a woman on an open source project, go get a pedicure. That was the proposition Kirrily Robert made in her “Standing Out in a Crowd” presentation. One of a small minority of women who work on open source projects, Robert argued that no matter how welcoming the nail salon staff and clientele may be, a man probably would feel somewhat out of place there.

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Such is the experience of female coders, who can face everything from openly displayed pornography to sexist jokes to outright harassment—along with the burden of representation. According to the feedback Robert has received from the mostly female development communities at Dreamwidth and Archive of Our Own, women contributors felt that their contributions to projects weren’t valued and that their skills were relegated to ancillary duties like documentation.

If you’re a woman who’s involved in open source, I’d be interested in your comments.

Microsoft Keynote Topic an Odd Choice
After Microsoft made perhaps the biggest open source news of the week by releasing 20,000 lines of Linux code under the GPLv2 license, I was surprised the company didn’t use its allotted presentation time to take a victory lap in front of an audience of open source developers. Instead, VP of External Research Tony Hey spoke about Redmond’s open tools and services initiatives in academic research. The work Microsoft is doing in this area is certainly important and interesting, but why ignore the 800-pound penguin in the room?

Most Entertaining Presentation of the Show
Hands down, Simon Wardley’s hilarious and informative talk on cloud computing was the highlight of the show for me. Not only did he send up the numerous definitions of the term (he found 67 on Google, some self-serving, many confused), but he put the technology in a historical context that you won’t find in vendor releases about supposed cloud computing products. Best of all, he saved the pitch for Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud until the end. Well done, Simon.

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Interesting Out-of-context Quotes
“Federation is, maybe, the new open source.”
– Tim O’Reilly discussing the possibility of federating the disparate data services that millions of web users access everyday

“I should be able to knock you over with a feather right now.”
– Google’s Chris DiBona during his presentation of Google Code Search crawl data, referring to a slide that showed GPLv3 penetration at nearly 46% this year


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