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Lisa Nyman Discusses Open Source in Government

by Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom

Lisa Nyman is a senior Internet technologist with the U.S. Census Bureau. She is one of the co-creators of QuickFacts, a user-friendly feature on the Census Bureau's Web Page, which lets visitors track down county, state, and national census data using a single pulldown menu. Launched in 2000, QuickFacts uses Perl scripts, Apache Web servers, and a MySQL database to deliver increased interactivity on the site at minimal cost.

Nyman has delivered numerous presentations about the project in an attempt to educate other government employees about the potential uses of open source software. She is also scheduled to participate in the Open Source in Government Panel at this year's O'Reilly Open Source Convention.

Recently, O'Reilly author Sam Williams conducted an interview with Ms. Lyman.

Sam Williams: I notice that this spring you participated in the Cyberspace Policy Institute's "Open Source & e-Government" workshop, giving a presentation on behalf of the Census Bureau. What did you discuss in your presentation and what was the reception like?

Lisa Nyman: My colleague, Rachael Taylor, and I demonstrated some of the open source projects we use for both data collection and dissemination. We shared how open source enables us to get these projects off the ground. For example, State & County QuickFacts is an unfunded project built with open source and is one of the most popular features at the Census Bureau's Web site. Using open source and existing hardware, we could rapidly develop this application. In fact, the application also drives FedStats's MapStats statistical tables. As these applications run on different platforms, the portability of the open source we used was critical.

Our presentation was very well received, and we've been invited to speak at other venues and consult with other agencies as a result.

SW: What, if anything, are you expecting to get out of the OSCON panel discussion on July 25? Will it be an extension of the spring conference?

View a timeline of open source in governments around the world.

LN: As the panel includes speakers from different nations and different levels of government, I'm very excited about the broad perspective we'll get.

I'd like to share open source success stories and hear about new and ongoing projects. I hope to gain better understanding of open source initiatives from around the world and how we can apply what others have learned here in the U.S.

I'm very curious to hear what kinds of issues are brought up by audience members. There has been much publicity this year about Dr. Villanueva's efforts in Peru and I know everyone will want to hear more about those as well as legislative efforts in other countries.

SW: How has the attitude within the federal government changed in relation to open source software during the last three years? I notice that IBM is racking up some pretty big sales this year. Is this a reflection of a government-wide trend toward open source acceptance or is it more a function of the fragmented federal IT marketplace?

LN: We'll have Mary Ann Fisher, the director of IBM's Public Sector Linux Program on the panel and I'm sure she'll speak to what trends IBM sees happening.

There have been studies done over the past three years that recommend adopting open source and sponsoring development. I think more agencies at all levels in the public sector are looking more closely at open source. I've worked with people at different agencies who are very eager to learn about the advantages open source.

I've held a Government BOF at previous OSCONs and each year, more people share interesting implementations they may not have been able to develop previously due to restrictions placed on using open source. Of course, some still do have restrictions placed on them with respect to using open source.

Related Article:

Linux in Government -- Open source has flourished in places where users view software not as a political football but as a pragmatic tool. In this article, Sam Williams looks at the impact of open source software in government--both inside and outside the U.S.

SW: Government and open source seem like a good match. As Dr. Villanueva pointed out in his response letter to Microsoft earlier this year, open source software solves a lot of problems when you're spending taxpayer money to purchase software and to build systems that may become powerful tools for political control. You don't hear this argument so much, though, when people talk about open source in the U.S. government. People tend to treat it as a business or security solution more than a political solution. Why is that?

LN: I think right now open source is still largely an unknown entity among many in the government, although educational efforts, like the CPI/GSA workshops are helping to introduce people in IT management to open source as a serious solution. It's definitely a hot topic right now.

SW: Do you see anybody out there proposing open source adoption as a political issue--such as something similar to the French, Argentine, or Peruvian free software activists who have managed to get bills introduced in their respective legislatures.

LN: I'm not aware of any initiatives like this in the U.S.

SW: What is the most ambitious use of open source software you've seen in the federal government to date?

LN: I can think of a few. The Census 2000 online form was an ambitious and very successful open source project. That prototype has led to the development of a more flexible survey system used for many online surveys. Of course, NSA's Security Enhanced Linux is an ambitious and ongoing project going. There are also interesting projects in bioinformatics coming out of NIH.

Sam Williams is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. He has covered high-tech culture, specifically software-development culture, for a number of Web sites.

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