Public administrations that want to maintain open source software solutions should give their IT staff time to work on these and other open source projects, recommends Anna Shipman, the Open Source Lead at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS). Developers can then apply patches, look at outstanding issues, or deal with pull requests, all tasks that “don’t necessarily fit in the schedule of work you have for your team”, said Shipman, speaking at the GOTO conference in Berlin last November.
Her Infrastructure Team holds ‘Open Source Thursdays’, with developers working on, mostly, Puppet software configuration modules, which are an important part of the infrastructure tools used by GDS.
Public administrations should also take time to engage with the developers outside the organisation that want to take a government-created open source project in a different direction. This is a perennial problem in open source, with developers creating code forks that sometimes run in parallel for years. If you know the developers and users, you can talk to them to prevent projects from going in undesired directions, she said.
At the GOTO 2016 conference Shipman, who became the UK’s Open Source Lead last year, outlined her priorities; first, turning key projects into real open source projects, second, helping public sector development teams to start coding in the open, and third, increasing contributions to open source software.
Changing organisations to start coding in the open is very difficult, said Shipman. However, it does not have to be perfect from the start. “If we can make changes like this in an organisation as odd as the UK civil service, then you can probably do that in your own organisation if you want to”, she said.
Shipman’s talks showed the contrast between closed source and open source development projects. For example, the UK’s online Tax Credit Calculator used to be managed through framework contracts with external suppliers. Code changes would take 6 to 12 months, or more. Small bugs and suggestions would often be ignored, because the costs of investigating code changes could stretch to tens of thousands of euro, and the actual changes would costs hundreds of thousands.
Conversely, in the Child Benefit Tax Calculator, another open source UK tax calculator, code changes can be put in place in a matter of days. Shipman gave the example of a bug discovered in January 2016. “An edge case, that probably effected no one, where you’re claiming child benefits for children under 18 and also claiming a pension, and have an income of over EUR 55,000 a year.” The bug-reporter filed a code change on a Sunday, and the team merged and deployed the code the same week.
Other examples include the open source code for personal licence plates, prison visits, and voter registration. Shipman also showed how public administrations publishing open source are saving other public administrations and companies money. The template for the UK government website is being reused by New Zealand, Israel and the city of Lexington (USA). A publishing firm thanked GDS for sharing its cloud management toolset, saying it had saved the company a lot of money.