David A. Wheeler's Blog

Tue, 22 Jan 2013

Speaking at ACM DC Chapter

FYI, on 2013-03-04 I plan to speak about “Open Source Software, Government, and Cyber Security” at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Washington, DC Chapter. It will be at 1203 19th St, 3rd Floor, Washington, DC. See the link for more information.

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Ozone Widget Framework (OWF) released as OSS!

The Ozone Widget Framework (OWF) has recently been released as open source software (OSS) by the U.S. government. OWF is useful but a little tricky to explain; as their website explains, OWF is a web application that “allows users to easily access all their online tools from one location… [users can] access websites and applications with widgets [and] group them and configure … applications to interact with each other via widget intents”. Go see their website to learn more about it; here, I’ll talk about the wider implications of OWF.

To me, OWF is interesting on several fronts.

From potential user’s point of view, this is great news. If you want something like this, well, now you can easily get it. If you’re outside the U.S. government, you’ve never had this program at all before. But even for those inside the U.S. government, this release makes OWF far easier to get, use, and improve if necessary.

But from the point-of-view of collaborative software development, this is a much bigger deal. The government all too often pays money to develop software on one project, and then re-pays to develop that software again on any other project that needs it. In the rare cases where reuse happens at all, the government makes it hard for others in the government to improve it as needed. The government often talks about “public/private partnerships”, and such partnerships are a good idea… but all too often this doesn’t happen in software development.

Here we have an awesome change. Per their original plans and a Congressional mandate, OWF is now released to the public. This means that instead of the government having to re-develop the code for every use, and for the public to have to re-develop it as well, “we the people” who paid to develop the software can actually get it.

What’s more, OWF has avoided some of the terrible mistakes that have hurt some past efforts:

  1. Sometimes software developed via government funding gets “captured” by one vendor, so that even though the government paid to have it developed, essentially no one else has the right or ability to maintain it. Once it’s captured, the cost of maintaining the software skyrockets. By releasing the software as OSS, the OWF project has avoided that problem. Instead, the OWF project can get wide use and improvements from around the world.
  2. OWF has wisely released the software under an industry-standard OSS license (in this case, Apache 2.0), instead of writing some government-unique non-standard license. Nearly all OSS is licensed under a few licenses (GPL, LGPL, BSD-new, MIT, Apache 2.0); using nonstandard or incompatible licenses greatly impedes any possibility of collaboration.
  3. Second, OWF has wisely chosen to use a widely-used repository and development infrastructure (in this case, GitHub), instead of unnecessarily developing and maintaining its own.

The U.S. federal government was formed by “we the people”. It’s great to see the government releasing software back to the people; in the end, we’re the ones who paid to develop it. I wish the OWF project the best of success, and I hope that there will be many similar OSS projects to come.

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