Apps for America and Routers in Ammo Shells: Open Source and the Public Sector at OSCON 2009

Friday, July 24, 2009 | 3:14 PM

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This is our final post from OSCON 2009 highlighting how open source is being used to improve the public sector. If you're interested in our other posts from the convention, take a look here.

OSCON wrapped up today, but we couldn't leave San Jose without sharing some of the exciting open source initiatives in the public sector that we haven't mentioned yet this week.

On Thursday, Clay Johnson of Sunlight Labs, who won a Google O'Reilly Open Source Award earlier in the week, started the day with a keynote about Apps for America, a challenge for open source developers to create innovative apps using Data.gov. Sunlight Labs wants Apps for America to show that open source developers can work just as well as huge government contractors, eventually letting small developers compete with contractors on federal projects.

Clay said that while "government is more open to transparency than it's ever been," the window is closing as politics and elections will soon start to take over the landscape. He challenged open source developers to "step up not just in their projects but in changing their country," and we agree - we hope you'll participate in Apps for America this summer.

Friday featured a talk by Gunnar Hellekson from Red Hat Government about how individuals in government have used open source principles in their work. He described how the Navy worked with IBM and Raytheon to modify the Linux kernel to support their real-time needs, and then contributed these changes back to the community, where they're now being used in other fields. Gunnar also spoke about a soldier in Iraq who was stuck with radios that couldn't reach the distance between watchtowers in a base. To solve the problem, the soldier built WiFi routers inside ammo shells and used open source software to set up a VOIP network betweeen the towers, increasing the range of his communication tools without waiting months to go through military procurement.

Gunnar concluded, "The government is made of people. They're not lazy and they're not stupid, they're just constrained by a broken system." He, along with the other participants in Open Source for America, are working to fix this system by encouraging government and private sector to collaborate using open source software.

Government 2.0 was a major focus of the convention this year, and we can't wait to continue this important conversation over the coming months and at the Gov 2.0 Summit in DC this September.