Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part VII
The previous segments of this Linux Access in State and Local Government series discussed government developers' desires to share applications with one another in the spirit of other open-source projects. For example, Richard Brice stated, "I have latched onto and am modeling all of my work after something more important than a single software platform: the culture of the Open Source community, the bazaar style of development and the willingness to cooperate and collaborate openly with others. Open source offers advantages that I just can't pass up".
This article discusses the need for and construction of a Web site where Richard's vision can become a reality. In it, we ask you to ponder the possibilities of enhanced security and savings to taxpayers in a world where state and local governments work together. You might ask yourself, what if fifty states and thousands of local governments didn't have to buy the same applications fifty times, a hundred times or perhaps thousands of times?
Richard Brice works for the Bridge and Structures Office of the Washington State Department of Transportation. Like many other open-source advocates, he looked forward to a time when a specialized portal, like School Forge, would emerge for government. Also like many open source advocates who couldn't find what they wanted, he built it himself. He calls his portal The Alternate Route Project.
Along these same lines, the Texas Department of Information Resources also built their own portal. You might find it interesting that Government Domain.com carries the description:
In a new age of electronic service delivery and inter-agency communication, GovernmentDomain.com offers you the power of collaboration and idea sharing, as you seek to bring the most innovative ideas in government computing to your organization.
Search this database of solutions for free source code that address the issues facing your agency. Read the reviews and case studies for additional information about how these solutions are being implemented around the State of Texas.
GovernmentDomain.com now also contains a listing of downloadable sample forms submitted by participating agencies."
This page is intended to provide links to Open Source solutions, resources and agency initiatives. If your agency has implemented a specific solution using open source, please post a short description identifying the application area (e.g., content management) and a contact on your web site and send the URL to email@example.com.
Although the Texas DIR has taken what Doc Searls calls the DIY-IT approach (do-it-yourself information technology), few other states have similar initiatives. Looking at city and county government units, resource constraints prevent them from creating inter-governmental portals. In Newport News, Virginia, the city government has reported attempting to interest other cities in the area to share software. Jeff Self reports that they have run into some resistance.
The Alternate Route Project became Richard Brice's do-it-yourself, open-source software portal. Richard writes:
In June 1999, I submitted a proposal to the management of the WSDOT Bridge and Structures Office to adopt a policy endorsing open-source bridge engineering software. The proposal contained three elements, licensing our software as open source, preferring the use of open-source software and promoting open-source software through the Alternate Route Project. We have made it our policy to create and use Open Source Bridge Engineering Software. All future software developed by the WSDOT Bridge and Structures Office will be licensed with the Alternate Route Open Source License. This policy extends to both software developed by our staff and software developed for us by our consultants.
In an article by Dan Orzech, he states, "With relatively few local governments in the US using Linux, one might expect those who are to be putting their heads together, sharing information among themselves and with others who might be considering using open-source software". As Dan discovered, the following state and local governments IT departments have not put their heads together, mostly because they did not know what one another was doing and didn't have a place to meet:
Garden Grove, California
Pinellas County, Florida
Newport News, Virginia
St. Louis, Missouri
Jefferson County, Colorado
St. George, Utah
Chappaqua, New York
Rhode Island, New York
Aside from Knowledge Storm, a comprehensive archive of government applications does not exist. School Forge appears to be the only open-source collection, at least the only one our research has uncovered. As a result, a number of open-source advocates have created a new web site called Government Forge.
Now begins the challenge of sorting through existing software offerings from mega sites. Additionally, the site builders hope to find homegrown applications from such agencies as Richard's and the Brunswick County Register of Deeds.
When one finds white space on the competitive landscape, he or she must chose whether to seize the moment or let it pass. In the case of state and local government opportunities, one has to determine if the benefits outweigh the costs. Many discussions with knowledgeable people took place before we decided put our ideas into action.
Government Forge has benefited from the experience of many knowledgeable open-source advocates. During the research phase of the project, we sifted through much data to create a single focus. The site has a commitment to providing a place for government to find and eventually use 100% standards-compliant open-source software.
The commitment of the site allows the maintainers to configure a road map. The stages of the road map include 1) establishing the Web site itself, 2) providing the functionality to allow users to add and retrieve software, 3) becoming known to the site's potential audience and 4) providing the additional services needed to support the site's software archives.
Fortunately, no one owned the domain name for Government Forge, and we quickly grabbed them. Phil Howard of Internet Power & Light volunteered to host the Web site, providing essential functionality and administration. Many in the Open Source community consider Phil Howard to be one of the top security people around.
In addition to providing a secure environment for other sites dedicated to open-source advocacy, Phil Howard donated his software product, called DiskZapper, to help fund lobbying efforts. His product can help governments come into compliance with media sanitization rules when disposing of old drives. Computer Cops writes ,"DiskZapper is a Linux-based bootable (floppy or CD-ROM) tool intended to wipe all hard drives on the machine it runs on to binary zero. This is intended for uses such as making sure old computers or hard drives being sold or trashed are clear of any confidential data. It comes in the form of a floppy image (ready to dd or rawrite) or a CD ISO image (ready to burn to CDR). No other software or OS required."
When considering site designs, we found one of Haran Sivakumaran's designs on Open Source Web Designs (OSWD) called Sinorca. OSWD writes that Haran "is a novice designer who is interested in web page construction as a hobby. [He] believes strongly in standards compliance, especially CSS and XHTML, and refuses to use tables if avoidable." We contacted him and discovered a person committed to helping our project. Haran also agreed to provide technical support on the site's design.
Government Forge runs on an Intel rack server running a locked down and secure version of Slackware Linux 9.1. The system has real-time redundancy and a hot backup site. Third-party applications used to add functionality to Government Forge benefit from the added security of Howard's package management and modifications.
Fortunately, Government Forge had an opportunity to borrow a world-class advisory board. During the formulation stage, Chip Rosenthal invited two of the organizers to Austin and called the EFF-Austin Posse to a directors' meeting. During the meeting we presented an informal business plan and obtained valuable feedback for the Web site.
Chip Rosenthal then offered to provide a home for our technical mailing list at SoAustin.net. The mailing list utilizes MailMan version 2.1.1. Aside from his duties as the Chair for EFF-Austin, Chip runs Unicom Systems Development.
Government Forge benefits from the rich and abundant resources available on the Web. The site developers have found free software to manage the site, keep track of statistics, handle member privacy, maintain mailing lists, handle security and so on. Anyone wanting to build a dynamic and robust web site can find whatever they need in various open-source projects from around the globe.
One of the difficult tasks when building a Web site involves making it known to the public it serves. The fundamentals of Web site success remain the same: one must provide content that attracts a community of interest. The community of interest provides an identity and a brand for the Web site. The Web site in turn sees successful fulfillment of its objectives.
Government Forge seeks to become known to the general Open Source community and specifically to members in government. The founding members believe the community ultimately will spread word of the site's existence. Filling an important niche in the market often allows an organization to gain momentum.
Kevin Pate of Pate Consulting in Houston offered to become a support provider for users of Government Forge software. His firm has the task of coordinating and managing a virtual help desk using Request Tracker software. Pate Consulting also provides hosting of the support area of the Web site and the help desk function.
With the information technology job market in shambles, Linux users groups have reported high unemployment rates among their members. Kevin will begin the task of finding specialists in every state and community to support, train and work with members of the Government Forge community. We hope this will create jobs, projects and demand for Linux professionals.
This article discussed the need for and construction of a Web site where members of state and local governments can find open-source software. We ask readers to ponder the possibilities of enhanced security and savings to taxpayers in a world where state and local governments work together. Hopefully, the value of open-source software techniques and philosophy can set an example of how communities can help themselves.
Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant in Dallas, Texas. His current interest lies in the field of web services, security and supporting Linux deployments.