Feds put open source into active service

The federal government has embarked on an ambitious project that will use open source software to manage assets created for use in the public sector, including custom-developed applications.

Called Intellectual Resources Canada (IRCan), the project is being led by the CIO Branch of the Treasury Board Secretariat but has its origins in Public Works and Government Services. The departments are setting up a repository of sorts based on GForge, an open source collaboration and code management tool which grew out of the original Sourceforge.net system created by VA Linux.

Treasury Board CIO branch senior director of technology and internal services Chuck Henry said the first pilot under GForge was recently launched and is still going through a few growing pains. The long-term plan is to set up a secretariat around IRCan that will govern its processes, access to GForge and to capture the lessons learned from managing its assets through the system.

“We don’t know that this is going to work. We’re all geeks here, so obviously we’re pretty positive,” said Henry, adding IRCan is intended to help rationalize government spending on application projects. “We want to take advantage of that shared development model from outside and really to see how it works for us.”

Applications and software to be managed through IRCan include Online Proposal Appraisal (OPA) an open source grants and contributions management system started in 1999 at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC). For five years OPA has been used to run the largest international development research grants initiative at the World Bank.

ITERation (IT for Expenditure Reporting Automation), meanwhile, is the first open source solution to be initiated and shared by the Treasury Board Secretariat, Henry said, adding that ITERation could be key to complying with the forthcoming federal Accountability Act.

“Traditionally we’ve done (IT spending reports) from database extracts in spreadsheets,” he said. “We’re trying to automate and capture that knowledge in people’s heads so we can do things more consistently year over year.”

Agriculture Canada provided the servers IRCan will be using, while Public Works is offering the hosting and operations support. Public Works also set up contact with the GForge Group, a Des Moines, Ia.-based consultancy that provides services to those using the tool, along with a commercial version.

GForge Group founder Tim Perdue said several governments in developing countries are using the open source system to set up a way of promoting locally developed software. In other cases, the use of GForge is quite advanced, he said.

“One of our customers is the U.S. federal court – before they contacted us, they actually had it set up on Windows, which is kind of an engineering feat,” he said.

Henry said the projects in IRCan could be copyrighted under the Creative Commons licence or the General Public Licence, depending on the nature of what has been developed. Contributors may include academia or the commercial sector as well as government, he added.

“I don’t think we’re any worse or better as anyplace else in terms of understanding the value of open source,” he said. “There’s clearly places in government that have done this for a long time.”

The federal government has also set up a committee to look at the use of open source across the sector, which has attracted wide participation from several departments, Henry said.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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