California Begins Effort to Use More Open Source Technology

The Government Operations Agency has launched the California Code website. The site will host policies and, eventually, the state's open source projects.

by Kayla Nick-Kearney, Techwire.net / December 14, 2018

(Techwire) — The state of California's Government Operations Agency has launched the California Code website. The site will host policies and, eventually, the state's open source projects. 

"Technology Letter 18-02 outlined the use of custom-developed source code and its reuse through a public code repository that will give agencies more opportunities to work together and eliminate duplication," the site reads.

State leaders believe open source code will:

  • Improve security in state systems
  • Improve vendor relationships
  • Save time on the procurement process
  • Improve system interoperability

GovOps stood up the site in an attempt to foster collaboration between agencies and vendors, according to Angelica Quirarte, GovOps' assistant secretary for digital engagement. This could lead to fewer non-competitive bids, cutting down on the time it takes to review those justifications and giving visibility to all bidders while they propose solutions.

"You can get more meaningful bids. So maybe you find out the reason why this isn't working is because you're paying too little," said Marc Jones, in-house counsel and compliance engineer at CivicActions, speaking Nov. 12 at a Code California forum put on by GovOps.

The state could then see that many vendors suggest similar solutions and choose based on a solution, not a cost, according to Jones.

Knowing how systems work, down to their code, makes it easier to fix bugs and get systems to work together, Jones said.

And knowing which systems are being built minimizes duplication of efforts, according to David Zvenyach, former 18F executive director for the federal General Services Administration. Agencies will be able to see how others have solved problems and built systems and be able to borrow from existing libraries, without reinventing the same foundations.

"Just build the source code that you need, build it in a way that's maintainable for you, and these opportunities are going to show up," Zvenyach said at the forum.

The best practice here is to just have the mindset of saying we're going to try it, we're going to improve upon it and we're going set our goal of being an open organization," Zvenyach said.

Jones said open source will change the relationships with vendors, from paying for software to paying for support.

"Pay them to help you now, don't pay them for work they've done."

"It's not just sign the contract and see you next year," Jones said. "You're going to talk to them in two months when there's a problem, because there's always a problem. No one makes software that's perfect, no one makes policies and procedures that are perfect."

The openness of code also puts vendors' customer service under scrutiny, according to Zvenyach. 

Having the open source licensing makes the vendor relationship more about customer service and makes the procurement process about getting a system done correctly, instead of the lowest bid. Vendors will also work better together, according to Zvenyach, because they will not be building duplicate systems for different departments.

"It avoids downstream challenges, but actually creates a sense of community around the product that your delivering," Zvenyach said. "We're all people and we care about the work that we're doing and we want it to have impact."

Using open source code can make things better since "having more eyes on it" can help projects improve as employees proofread each other's work, according to state CIO Amy Tong. The iterative process will create better projects over time and encourage state workers to innovate.

This will also make systems more secure, since more people proofreading and keeping libraries updated and patched means more people focused on security, according to Jones.

"If you open up your code, you have other people to help you with that," Jones said. But security needs to be a part of the discussion from the beginning, because the people that want to attack don't need access to the source code to do so.

Workers can also spawn ideas in other departments and jurisdictions, as seen when a worker from Santa Rosa stood up a recovery site for Butte County after the Camp Fire. The Santa Rosa employee had worked on a similar site with Rebecca Woodbury, senior management analyst in San Rafael, the year before.

The Department of Technology is further supporting this effort by allowing vendors to perform proofs of concepts in CDT's Innovation Lab. In order to get involved, Deputy CIO Chris Cruz suggests vendors reach out to Chief Innovation Officer Scott Gregory.