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Massachusetts Builds Open-Source Public Trough

Massachusetts' new software repository is designed to let government agencies make more efficient use of open-source software.

Massachusetts on Wednesday took the wraps off a new software repository designed to let government agencies make more efficient use of open-source software. The repository will be managed by the Government Open Code Collaborative, a newly formed group of seven states and four municipalities that will contribute and download open-source software and proprietary software designed by government agencies for their use.

The repository will consist of a MySQL database, Z Object Publishing Environment application server, Apache Web server, OpenLDAP authentication service for storing membership data, and Debian Linux operating system running on an Intel-based rack-mounted server. The University of Rhode Island will serve as the repository's home.

"We want to create a central place where the public sector can go and see what other projects are being developed," Claudia Boldman said at this week's Open Source in Government Conference, held at George Washington University. The director of policy and planning for Massachusetts' Information Technology Division also said the Government Open Code Collaborative, which held its first meeting in December, expects membership from Massachusetts towns Gloucester and Worcester, as well as state participation from Pennsylvania, Utah, Missouri, Rhode Island, and others.

Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn says embracing open source lets the commonwealth cut IT costs while opening up its systems to greater innovation--and has nothing to do with the commonwealth's ongoing antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. "This is not an anti-Microsoft movement," says Quinn, who's also chairman of the collaborative.

The real benefit of the software repository will come when state and local agencies throughout the country look to quickly and cheaply develop an application that will improve government operation and save taxpayers money, Quinn says. The commonwealth's main goal with the effort was to make open-source software a more viable option for government. "Open source has never had a play in the commonwealth," Quinn says.

Massachusetts looks to be changing that in a big way. In January, it instituted a policy in its IT division requiring the state to use industry-standard technology and to consider open-source software as part of any new projects.

Open-source repositories have always been available to government agencies through,, and Free Software Foundation's, but the Government Open Code Collaborative's repository will offer code developed by government agencies to meet their specific needs. In the past, this type of code sharing required formal negotiations between two states. "Every time we tried to do this, we had to sit down with the legal team, and it got expensive," Quinn says.

Government agencies looking to use the repository must sign a contract with the collaborative. This grants an agency a license to any open-source and proprietary software it finds in the repository and prohibits that software from being used to make a profit. This is a crucial component, since Massachusetts law prohibits commercial entities from making money off products developed by the commonwealth using taxpayer money.

Massachusetts isn't the only state pushing open. California, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Texas are among those that have, to at least to some extent, pursued policies or legislation to encourage their IT departments use open-source software.

Oregon's Legislature last year debated a bill to require public-sector agencies to consider open-source for any new software-development projects and to require written justification any time proprietary software was chosen instead. The bill died in committee. "The criticism was that the Legislature shouldn't tell state agencies what type of software to run," says state Rep. Jerry Krummel.

Just having the debate satisfied some open-source advocates. "The overall goal of getting state agencies to consider open source has been achieved," says Krummel, who's also a senior account executive for Systems Advisory Group Enterprises Inc., a maker of Linux-based Web servers.

Jim Willis, director of E-government for Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of State, contends that open source fits government's role. "For us, the open standards inherent in open source give citizens better access to information," says Willis, the collaborative's technology chairman. "People want the government to be transparent, so why shouldn't the technology be?"

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