Intro to open source

What is open source software?

Broadly speaking, open source software is software whose inner workings are made fully public and distributed freely to the community. As an open source team, the software 18F writes is made public (mostly at https://github.com/18f), and we welcome anyone to use that software, copy it, and change it.

Generally (and at 18F), people publishing open source software tend to be open to receiving public contributions. So, members of the public may copy our software, modify it, and then submit their modifications back to us for potential inclusion in the original.

What does it mean in our work?

The last 5-6 years have seen a slow but steady growth in the government in the open source community through:

  • Releasing something government built as an open source project
  • Using other open source projects
  • Contributing and being involved in open source communities

In 2016, the White House published a government-wide open source policy: the Federal Source Code Policy. 18F helped with that work and with the creation of code.gov, the accompanying code sharing platform. We have our own strong open source policy and have also brought together in one place many resources that agencies find useful.

Everything we as a team do should be public and available for collaboration. An open source project isn’t just code - think of it as many forms of contribution working together, including documentation, support, design, and code.

There are also several listservs and communities that facilitate working with others within the government.

Would any personally identifiable information (PII) live in open source software?

Open source software has no direct relationship to PII or the Privacy Act. PII is data. “Open source software” refers to the release of code. Data can be managed entirely separately from code, and generally is. Additionally, “open source” is an entirely separate concept from “open data”.

For example, whitehouse.gov is powered by an open source system named Drupal. Drupal publishes their software as open source for anyone to use, but this software doesn’t contain any of the content or data that users of Drupal might put into it when publishing a website. Another example is WordPress, an open source blogging platform that also powers digitalgov.gov.

GitHub usage at agencies

  1. Every agency is allowed to create a GitHub org, based on OMB 10-23 and the addendum to GitHub’s terms of service that GSA coordinated with them to add section 17 at GitHub’s terms of service.

  2. Many agencies already have - here’s a list of many of them.

  3. Any government employee can create an account for themselves. This was recently reinforced by OMB’s Office of the Federal CIO.


Still have questions?

Ask in Slack #product, #wg-opensource.