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OSS benefits for government agencies

What benefits can working with an open source developer platform provide for government agencies? How does this differ from the standard business model?

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If you choose to base your project on open source software, you will enjoy many freedoms because of the licensing.

  • Generally, you won't need to pay anything for the software. If you want a packaged version, especially one with support, you can pay, but you can also go for the no-cost download option. That way you can try things out, set up pilot programs and even deploy without counting users or juggling licenses.
  • You will have the freedom to modify (or to hire someone to modify) the software as you wish, and to deploy it as well. In the case of some licenses (notably the GNU GPL), if you want to deploy the software outside your agency you must make its source code available to those receiving the binary versions -- that's the only restriction.
  • You can cooperate with other agencies to build or modify software so that you can all benefit from it, investing only the programming time necessary.

With proprietary software (the sort you see most commonly), you have to pay for the software, generally on a per seat/user basis, and, increasingly, on a subscription basis. You have the administrative costs of making sure you are properly licensed and paid up. And you will naturally have to square all this with your budget and supervisors.

Government agencies using open source software and keeping data in open standards can show the public that their activities are auditable and that the data will not become locked-up or unreadable because of proprietary software or standards. The GSA has added some open source software to its purchase list, and is working on an open source software development stack that agencies will be able to use freely.

This was first published in October 2006

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