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Tuesday, 04 February 2014 08:44

Open source driving digital innovation

Written by    Volume: 20  Issue: 2
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The same power of digital communication that is disrupting the commercial marketplace is empowering direct citizen participation in government. Whether enabling on-demand assistance, real-time information, or communications with legislators, much of what is empowering this new wave of citizen participation has its roots in open source.

In the last few years, governments across Canada have turned to flexible open source solutions. Open source software is freely distributed, and its open codebase provides an engine for innovation, as any developer can create improvements and share their work back with the larger community of users.

Municipalities like St. John and Ottawa are using the Drupal open source platform to provide government services online with greater speed and flexibility. Ottawa moved to Drupal in November 2012, introducing a responsive design that enables an optimal experience across mobile devices, tablets and desktops.

Use of Drupal has increased dramatically among provinces and federally, particularly in light of the Open Government Strategy, which encourages federal departments to adopt solutions that promote open information, open data and open government. Open source apps are enabling people to explore the wild, get updated train arrival times, access government research and publications, and bid on government contracts.

The agility that open source provides helps speed government digital initiatives to market. This provides a network effect that’s unmatched, and not limited to a department’s IT team or project budget. With open source, projects can be prototyped and tested inexpensively and quickly, which can help get a public sector site launched in a fraction of the time. In Drupal’s case, more than 30,000 developers have contributed code. That’s why open source can be a critical asset for capturing the opportunities that new technology presents.

Driving innovation
The crowd-sourced efforts of the contributor community are helping improve citizen services. The Web Experience Toolkit is an open source code library developed to help federal departments build websites that are accessible and optimized for mobile devices. Those using the toolkit are standards-compliant and aligned with Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat's Web Standards protocol, which helps them get ahead of the game as Canada.ca seeks to consolidate information and resources with a common, open framework. Health Canada and Statistics Canada recently implemented sites with the toolkit.

At the provincial level, Ontario.ca is using the toolkit to deliver a highly engaging, attractive and easy to use site for citizens. In 2013, Ontario introduced a bold, streamlined portal that dramatically improves the user experience. Instead of offering a large menu of options on its home screen, Ontario.ca presents visitors with one simple search bar, putting the onus not on the visitor, but on the platform and systems to make it easy for constituents to find what they want.

Empowering collaboration
Canada’s Open Data initiative makes all kinds of government-sourced data available freely to everyone, making the creation of civic apps possible. The innovation isn’t limited by the capacity of government or private sector workers. Intra-governmental collaboration creates efficiencies that lower total cost of ownership for everyone. Scores of apps have already been developed based on open data – many delivering real-time information – making it easy to find out the wait times at border crossings or access home buying advice and resources. Apps exist to deliver transit line updates, share city snow plowing and trash collection status, or enable citizens to report incidents to law enforcement.

Security through transparency
No doubt security remains a core issue for IT departments at all levels of government, and open source offers greater transparency and ability to audit security processes than can be found in proprietary counterparts. Having your code open to anyone can result in greatly improved security. Simply put, anyone can find and fix a problem; that puts thousands of developers in play to ensuring application security.

With Drupal, changes to the core application go through an extensive peer-review process before they’re committed. The Drupal Security Team, a volunteer team of dozens of security experts, assists in handling security issues across the Drupal project and its contributed, plug-in modules.

Getting started in open source is as easy as connecting with members of the community and downloading the software. Seek out a MeetUp or head to a one-day training session.

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Todd Akers

Todd Akers is vice president of public sector at Acquia, which helps organizations succeed using Drupal (todd.akers@acquia.com).

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