The Federal Communications Commission was the first to do it. Now the General Services Administration, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the State Department are doing it too.
To date, more than 100 federal organizations are using GitHub to collaborate internally, across agencies and with the public on open-source content.
“Four to five years ago it may have been a controversial decision for an agency to use an open-source content management system,” says Ben Balter, a GitHub government evangelist. “Now, it would be more controversial to use a proprietary content management system.”
As a former federal employee, he knows all too well the government silos that can hinder collaboration. He recalls times when employees working next to each other on projects had no idea what the other was working on. The workflow of open source helps developers to collaborate in the open, even if the code never gets outside of an agency’s firewall, Balter says.
In other cases, software code is supposed to be shared outside of the organization. For example, the underlying source code for the White House’s petition platform is available on GitHub. While the public cannot directly alter the code, people can notify the White House of any glitches or potential changes to improve the code.
Balter, who has been described as one of the “baddest of the badass innovators,” spoke with FedTech about GitHub in government. Here’s a recap of the interview.
FEDTECH How long has GitHub been around? Its popularity has been growing recently in the federal space.
BALTER: GitHub has been around since 2008, and we’ve been in the federal government since about 2010. But we’re finally seeing this critical mass and big uptick in use. The time is right for social media, and a perfect storm of events and the buzz around GitHub. We first started seeing an uptick in open source after the 2008 presidential elections. The Obama campaign was social media–focused and tech savvy. That technical millennial talent got injected in government. It takes time, but those efforts are reaching maturity.
Four to five years ago it may have been a controversial decision for an agency to use an open-source content management system. Now, it would be more controversial to use a proprietary content management system. GitHub is similar to Facebook for geeks.
FEDTECH Facebook for geeks?
BALTER: Rather than sharing pictures of their kids or what they’re eating for lunch, software developers share what software source code they are working on. On Facebook, you can control who sees photos and share comments. You can do the same thing on GitHub. Other software developers can review code or provide proposed fixes. You have control over who can read what and who can make changes to what.
FEDTECH When did GitHub really take hold in government, and what triggered it?
BALTER: The one thing that really got the ball rolling was the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC was the first federal agency to create an account. Agencies were using SourceForge. There were a handful of agencies on that platform, but it’s just a publication platform, no different from putting out a PDF or press release.
GitHub creates a community around shared challenges. The White House followed the FCC. The two big shifts were budget cutbacks, and over the past two years technology really hit this tipping point where it’s easier to work together than alone. That is really empowering for nontechnical stakeholders in government and citizens.
FEDTECH Who is using GitHub at federal agencies?
BALTER: The software developers are using the day-to-day coding and building the software. There are also community managers, perhaps from the media shop or program managers, who are technically minded but not technical. They engage the user community and handle things like documentation and garner support for open source, but they don’t build code themselves.
We are seeing COTRs [contracting officer's technical representatives] and other members of the contracting community use GitHub. COTRs use GitHub as an interface to get daily visibility into a project’s status, especially when it’s contracted out to a developer. The contractor who is using GitHub to build the software can add the COTR to the project so that person can go to a URL and see the same thing the manager sees and the developer sees and comment on the issue.
As long as the government works on open-source software, GitHub is completely free. There is a hosted Software as a Service offering and GitHub Enterprise. Some agencies pay $300 a year to work on software privately, temporarily, and then open-source it. So, they will pay for the project while it is closed, even if it is eventually going to be open source.
FEDTECH In what ways can agencies use GitHub that they may not be taking advantage of today?
BALTER: USAID was the first to create a feedback repository and issue tracking to engage the public, similar to a Facebook wall. When people have questions about data, APIs or websites, instead of having each of those being one-off and happening between emails and inboxes, they can push that into the public so other developers can talk to each other.
Another easy way to get started is, take software that is already open source on an FTP server. You’d be surprised how quickly people will find it and try to improve it. This is the taxpayer’s source code. The taxpayer paid for this source code that you developed, and it should be turned over to the taxpayer whenever possible. Agencies find they are getting better software and engaging directly with the public. It breaks down the us-versus-them mentality.
GitHub By the Numbers
Total Users: 6.8 million
U.S. Government: 5,000+
Federal Organizations: 113
State Organizations: 27
County Organizations: 9