Advanced Computing in the Age of AI|Wednesday, September 23, 2020
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U.S. Open Source Policy Seeks to Leverage Code Reuse 

The Obama administration has released a new federal open-source policy for improving access to software developed by or for federal agencies.

The new policy released this week by Tony Scott, the Obama administration's CIO, "requires new custom-developed source code developed specifically by or for the federal government to be made available for sharing and re-use across all federal agencies." Officials added that the initiative includes a pilot program requiring government agencies "to release at least a portion of new custom-developed federal source code to the public and support agencies in going beyond that minimum requirement."

The new policy focuses primarily on reuse of software code within the government as the Obama administration seeks to adopt commercial practices designed to eliminate duplication of effort.

The pilot program requires federal agencies to release at least 20 percent of "new custom-development code" as open source software for three years. Several federal agencies including the Defense Department have already released custom code without restrictions on its use.

Observers said other agencies pushed during the internal debate over the open source policy to either go beyond the 20 percent solution to either a default open source policy or, in the case of the Department of Homeland Security, repackaging code paid for by the government into what one observer called "reusable modules."

Scott also announced the launch of a new web site, code.gov, which would serve as a repository for open source software generated by government agencies and contractors.

"By making source code available for sharing and reuse across Federal agencies, we can avoid duplicative custom software purchases and promote innovation and collaboration across federal agencies," Scott added. "By opening more of our code to the brightest minds inside and outside of government, we can enable them to work together to ensure that the code is reliable and effective in furthering our national objectives."

Software industry groups had previously questioned the need for a government open source policy. In comments on a draft proposal, the BSA Software Alliance argued that "we do not believe that an agency should prefer an [open source software] solution to a proprietary one if its total cost of use, security and performance are inferior, in particular because such a preference would be for the purpose of allowing a hypothetical reuse of the source code."

Those concerns appeared to have been largely dismissed by policy makers.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders said the new open source policy represents progress but hoped for more. "This looks like a good step forward," Mike Masnick explained in a blog post to the web site Tech Dirt. "It could have gone much farther, but it's still a step in the right direction. Hopefully the pilot program will lead to even bigger steps towards embracing more open source [and public domain!] software."

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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