Letter to Obama: Consider Open Source

The Collaborative Software Initiative (CSI) today posted an open letter to President Barack Obama on open source software. The letter urges him to mandate that the U.S. government consider open source software for federal IT initiatives.

The letter was signed by top executives of companies with a vested interest in open source, including Alfresco, Ingres, Jaspersoft, OpenLogic and Unisys Open Source Business. It was subsequently signed by several dozen others.

"We urge you to make it mandatory to consider the source of an application solution (open or closed) as part of the government's technology acquisition process, just as considering accessibility by the handicapped is required today (as defined by section 508)," the letter said.

CSI helps companies and public organizations build solutions based on open source software and methodologies. For example, the CSI-supported TriSano effort is an open source system designed to support infectious disease surveillance and outbreak management.

The letter was the brainchild of David Christiansen, a CSI senior developer, who decided to write the letter upon reading that creating electronic medical records was a priority for the president. In an interview on Tuesday, Christiansen emphasized that the letter is not intended to suggest that open source software be required. Instead, CSI's view is that open source should be considered in RFPs and federally funded programs.

"I don't want to mandate everything the government does should be open source," Christiansen said. "I think software should stand on its own merits, but I honestly believe that one of its merits should be the sourcing of the software, the way it's built and who owns the technology."

The government has used open source software in a number of projects, including at the Department of Defense. However, CSI's CEO Stuart Cohen believes it is often difficult to get open source software considered, although the situation is not as bad as it was years ago.

"I think it's getting there, but if we really thought it was there, we wouldn't have written the letter to begin with," Cohen said.

Some see open source software as the way to go, from a general perspective.

"We need the government to put its money where its mouth should be," said James Vivian, a Web developer at Burlington, Vt.-based, emphasizing he was not speaking on behalf of his company. "We need to start spending as a society on open source initiatives."

About the Author

Jeffrey Schwartz is editor of Redmond magazine and also covers cloud computing for Virtualization Review's Cloud Report. In addition, he writes the Channeling the Cloud column for Redmond Channel Partner. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreySchwartz.

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Reader Comments:

Fri, Feb 20, 2009 Anonymous Anonymous


Wed, Feb 11, 2009 Katherine McGuire, BSA Washington, DC

A government preference or special consideration for open source software would be unnecessary and unwise.

Government IT buyers will naturally “consider the source of an application solution (open or closed) as part of the government's technology acquisition process.” It doesn’t need to be mandated.

Seeking special status for open source software is no different than seeking an “earmark.” Open source may be perfect for some applications and less so for others. The IT buyer should be free to make the choice open source, proprietary, or a mix of the two that works best for the organization.

Also, government purchasing rules have a huge impact on the technology marketplace. Any limitations on government purchasers will also affect the choices that are available to everyday consumers.

Finally, the US Government asks governments around the world to adhere to the principle of technology neutrality, not mandating one technology by law or regulation. Abandonment of tech neutrality in USG purchasing would open the door to discrimination against US-based companies and workers.

Instead of picking winners and losers, government should focus on establishing performance goals and allowing companies to compete to meet those goals. A goals-based program will maintain flexibility in a world where technological change is inevitable and desirable.

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