President Obama: Good for Open Source?

Even though Barack Obama was only just sworn in as President of the United States on Tuesday, his administration already appears to be showing an interest in open source.

Technology — both in application and message — was a big part of the Barack Obama presidential campaign. Now that President Obama has been sworn in, technology appears to still be front and center. Case in point: Co-founder and former CEO of SunMicrosystems, Scott McNealy revealed to the BBC this week that he had been tapped by the Obama administration to write a paper on the benefits to the government of using open source.

There have been no shortage of nods toward the new President’s stance on openness: Blogs especially have been quick to point out his weekly YouTube videos, www.whitehouse.gov’s creative commons license, or the site’s metaphor-rich robot.txt file. But this request of Mr. McNealy sounds like something that could be used to develop a substantial plan of action for government-funded technology. Certainly a more open approach to US technology would be a good thing. To quote Mr. McNealy:

“The government ought to mandate open source products based on open source reference implementations to improve security, get higher quality software, lower costs, higher reliability — all the benefits that come with open software.”

So, where might President Obama apply open source? If you look through his technology agenda (which makes no mention of open source), one section that pops out falls under the topic of Electronic Healthcare Records (EHRs).

Lower Health Care Costs by Investing in Electronic Information Technology Systems:
Use health information technology to lower the cost of health care. Invest $10 billion a year over the next five years to move the U.S. health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems, including electronic health records.

While this sounds promising, there are a host of issues that quickly appear when you start to dig a little deeper into the migration toward EHRs.

So not only would you have to solve all of the problems of security, standards, and existing record scanning just to get started, you would then need to go in and put computers on a lot of desks where there are none.1

That’s not to say that applying open source and open standards to the healthcare industry is impossible and isn’t already gaining traction in some areas. For example, the Veterans Administration clinical information system software (VistA) is open source and, by all accounts, an incredible success: “VistA saves lives and money.”

But even with ready successes like this to point to, President Obama will find the transition to open source difficult. The DoD has been waging a long-term war to have VistA replaced with a proprietary system.

Old habits — particularly in Washington — die hard. But I take the new President at his word when he said in his