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Benefits of Open Source Software During COVID-19 Response

Posted on May 12, 2020


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This blog post is shared by ELGL member Mark Lerner, the creator of New America’s new Pandemic Response Repository.


As local government technology needs expand and budgets contract, open source presents solutions.

The majority of local governments expect IT budgets to be reduced by the end of the year, while their tech needs balloon. Budgets are falling across the board, as local governments are being stretched thinner than ever. Many local governments have had to furlough employees, and all have seen tax revenues shrink rapidly as businesses are closed and economic activity comes to a standstill.

Governments simply can no longer afford the expensive technology systems that traditionally find their way into public problems.

At the same time, local governments are extremely busy providing critical services to people in great need. More often than not, digital solutions are central to these services. People need to apply for and receive benefits from the safety of their own homes, rather than coming into government offices in person.

A huge number of public servants are now working from home, and processes that were handled physically (such as by passing paper files around) now need to operate digitally. There’s more of a need than ever for updated, accurate information to make decisions on public health and economic recovery. Even things as simple as sharing documents and having discussions, are all being adapted to this new world.

So how can local governments meet their growing digital needs while avoiding expensive procurements? Open source software presents a solution. Many of the digital needs of local governments, such as document management, databases, geospatial maps, or inventory tracking, all have well-supported open source solutions that can be used. Open source software provides a boon for governments by being free, collaborative, and sustainable.

What is open source?

Open source software means that the source code for a software solution is available to the public for anyone to use, copy, learn from, and modify as they see fit. Most importantly, open source software is free.

All kinds of software can be open source, from operating systems and under-the-hood utilities to web browsers and user-facing apps. The majority of the world’s software is open source, and some estimates say that nearly all software has some open source components to it. Chances are high that your organization is already using open source software, either directly or through other software that depends on it.

It’s free

This is one of the biggest and most immediate benefits of open source solutions. There are no expensive licensing fees or purchasing fees. Open source software is available for all to use, however they see fit.

This doesn’t mean that there are no costs associated with using open source software. There are still some costs – like hosting the software on a server, or modifying or configuring the software to match your specific needs. However, even these costs are far less expensive than starting from scratch.

It’s collaborative

When you use open source tools, you benefit from the collective work of all other users and contributors to that software, including other government peers. Organizations that adopt these tools can collaborate with each other on things like adding new features, providing each other guidance, and sharing training.

Open source software is more than just the code, it’s also the community. People and organizations gather around the open source tools they use, and this community can support each other in using these tools. If your organization adds a new feature, you can contribute that back into the source code for all other users to use if they would like.

Contributions aren’t automatically added, but validated by the maintainers of the project – you don’t have to worry about random people changing your code, but rather can enjoy and approve contributions from involved citizens.

It’s sustainable

Open source software isn’t proprietary, meaning you completely avoid vendor lock-in. Open source software can be supported and modified by any organization. While you may need technical talent to set up and maintain the software, it can be entirely your choice who you work with, completely separately from what solution you use.

Most open source solutions are maintained by central organizations, such as the Apache Foundation. These maintainers verify incoming contributions, support security updates, and ensure the quality of the solutions. Some maintainers offer specialized support services for a fee, but none of this is needed to use the software they maintain.

Finding open source solutions for your needs

New America recently published a list of open source software projects to help governments respond to the coronavirus.

Projects on the list include symptom self-assessment guides, maps for the public to find food assistance, and open data models showing how the pandemic will affect incarcerated populations. Each software project listed is already being used by governments across the world in their response efforts to the pandemic, meaning that they’re already showing effectiveness in the response. New America is continuously updating this list with new open source projects as they come up.

If you find a project on the list that you think could be helpful in your organization, and would like support in using it, the U.S. Digital Response is available to provide pro-bono technical support.

Open source in government

While open source software usage in government has increased in recent years, it has already been a staple in government for quite some time. The Census’ CSPro software has been used in over 160 countries, and the Department of Defense has extensive guidance for how open source is allowed in their context. At a more local level, San Francisco’s affordable housing portal is open source and available for all to use, as is New York City’s ACCESS NYC site.

Some newcomers to open source software may be concerned that, by being openly available for anyone to see, the software may have more security risks. However, by opening the source code, organizations allow for security audits by institutions everywhere, and enable contributions from outside their organization to fix any issues that might exist.

Open source projects are able to build a much larger community who can vigilantly locate and address security issues. Closed-source proprietary projects require continued support from the originating organization to handle security risks, and often put misplaced trust on their closed-source nature as a guard against security risks.

Making things open makes them better

Governments at all levels are making important technology decisions daily. The urgency of the pandemic requires that decisions be made fast. However, that shouldn’t require spending top dollar on proprietary digital solutions that lock governments into a single solution for years to come.

Open source software gives local governments digital solutions that they can use on any budget, with the confidence that the solutions are tried and tested. In the long run, adopting a digital strategy that includes open source software means that governments will have more opportunities to work together on joint solutions.

Open source software is about working together to solve common problems. We are all in this together, so let’s take this opportunity as we’re working together to make each other stronger in the long term. Open source software is a great place to start. 

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