Government Software is Public Domain

My twitter friends @haacked and @dbness both tweeting out this from @anildash:

Software created with our tax dollars should be open source so we can use & improve it.

All software by the government is Public Domain.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives all citizens the right to request something from the government. Back in 2003, I was working at Dialog Medical and we started selling our informed consent software to hospitals, including the VA. So I filled out my FOIA request and sure enough a month later, I received a CD with a copy of the VA’s EMR - known as VistA. This is the real VistA before that other crappy Vista.

As I dug deeper into VistA and needed help, I turned to the online communities of WorldVistA and Hardhats. These groups have taken the freely available, unrestricted and open copy of our government’s software and they would install it at non-federal government hospitals.

WordVistA lists several adopters and last I heard from people in the field, the installs at the American Somaon government and Indian Health Services are some of the more active installs. I even knew a geeky doctor that installed it at his own small practice.

The government doesn’t take pull requests.

The problem with this approach though is that once you request software via FOIA, you’re basically creating a fork. Someone on the outside of the government has to continually merge in changes from both sides or the government has to switch to an outside source. For VistA, it’s obviously the former since it’s a very large codebase and there are more developers working on it internally than externally.

The open government

I think what Anil Dash really wants to see is the government not only make their code available but to do so openly. To work on their code via GitHub and take in pull requests. It’s very possible to happen but it’s not going to be the White House being petitioned to do so.

Instead, I suggest that Anil Dash reach out to Todd Park, our Fed CTO. Work from the inside out by getting developers to join in on the fun. Come up with a plan to make government jobs as fulfilling and productive to the developer as a startup. I mean, of course government jobs gives you health insurance and sleep but it should also advance your career. Your work should be open, your labor should be rewarded and your options should be limitless.