Developers often face challenges when creating civic software applications or projects in an open source environment since they must remain compliant with government IT policies. In many cases, regulations like the Federal Information Security Management Act discourage public-sector IT administrators from adopting certain software and technology.
To help reduce the barriers between government and civic developers, GitMachines was created. The company, launched through a challenge by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in February 2013, provides a depot of open source, accreditation-ready servers that are available for download from GitMachines’ website, said Co-founder Greg Elin. The idea is that the servers can be up and running in minutes, allowing developers to use preconfigured tools like code repositories to innovate while keeping their applications compliant with government policies.
“If [developers] are coming from a very open world, and they move into the compliance world, it’s a very big culture shock,” Elin said. “Your tools are restricted, and you can no longer self-service your needs.”
Elin said public-sector IT administrators often have cumbersome auditing processes they must complete before committing to a full-blown software deployment for their organization. To help government IT leaders with the decision-making process, apps and projects created using the GitMachines platform can be tested first in a virtual environment before they are deployed.
Ideally, Elin said, GitMachines tools will be accepted as compliant more broadly so that IT administrators can simplify their auditing processes when accrediting a tool to use in their organization.
No government agency has adopted anything developed in the GitMachines environment just yet, according to Elin, but civic projects are already being created in the platform.
Avoiding Stalls with Installs
Open government technologist Waldo Jaquith developed a tool, The State Decoded, which when adopted by a public-sector organization can be applied to a website to help display all state and city laws online in a simple, machine-readable format. Jaquith served as a judge for the Knight Foundation challenge that GitMachines won and was impressed with the tool’s potential, so he found a way to integrate it into The State Decoded.
After building The State Decoded as a stand-alone program, he modified it to require the use of Apache’s Solr search engine, making the laws searchable. Because Jaquith didn’t want people to have to install Solr in order to use the tool, he created a GitMachine to help speed up the install process for his tool. “GitMachines takes a multi-hour installation process and reduces it to a few commands.”
Last October, Jaquith announced via Twitter that a version of The State Decoded was being packaged on GitMachines as a security content automation protocol, accreditation-ready tool. Down the road, the platform could have a one-click install through GitMachines for governments to adopt into their organizations. Having that resource could then help public-sector IT developers create websites with searchable state law information.
Before working with GitMachines, Jaquith spearheaded versions of The State Decoded projects for select jurisdictions. In September, the OpenGov Foundation launched San Francisco Decoded, a tool powered by The State Decoded website that puts San Francisco laws online. However, San Francisco’s version doesn’t use any component of GitMachines.
The New Standard?
Members of the technology community like Elin hope that in the future, open source technology will become more standardized for government use.
According to Pat Fiorenza, a GovLoop research analyst, it may take time for governments to accept open source projects into their organization, but new factors are forcing IT leaders to rethink the technology’s value, including projects developed in GitMachines.
“The big challenge around budgets is driving so many discussions around IT and investments,” Fiorenza said. “And if people are starting to really look at open source as a viable option, I think it’s going to escalate pretty quick, people exploring it and getting a better sense of adopting it.”
Elin envisions that GitMachines’ projects will eventually be accepted as standardized configurations on a broader level, enabling governments to adopt meaningful applications without undergoing long and complicated auditing processes. “We want to drive forward that community standardization.”