Why governments need open source more than ever

We face larger than life challenges in our world. Maybe open source's wisdom of the crowds can help solve them.

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We’re in a unique—albeit confusing—moment in history.

“We’ve started 2023 staring down the barrel of a confluence of challenges unlike any other in our lifetimes,” said United Nations Chief António Guterres during the General Assembly in New York on February 6. “Wars grind on. The climate crisis burns on. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty rage on.”

Meanwhile, the Doomsday Clock, established by the science and security board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—an organization established by Albert Einstein and others in 1945—moved 90 seconds to midnight this past January.

Against the backdrop of these existential challenges, it’s unsurprising that “open source attracted unprecedented attention from governments and the global policy community,” wrote Mike Linksvayer, head of developer policy at GitHub, back in the Octoverse 2022 report.

No matter what's going on around us; however, it's up to us to remain optimistic in charing the path forward.

Naturally, a lot of people in the tech sector—and developers in particular—are thinking about the power of our work in building a better future for our world. Does our industry’s open source roots serve a purpose in debugging the issues that have led humanity to this point in the first place?

COVID-19 was—and continues to be—a learning experience

Consider the enduring challenge of COVID-19 vaccine inequity, which was a contributing factor to the rise of the Omicon variant that impacted people all over the world—not just people in poorer countries.

The problem persists. As of January 2023, just 24.6% of people in low income countries have received at least one vaccine dose.

Scientists are talking about open source as a pathway for vaccinating people against the disease in regions lacking vaccine access, demonstrating the power of continued, persistent, and enduring collaboration. Regardless of what else was going on, the scientific community had humanity’s back from day one of the outbreak.

“While political leaders [locked] their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history,” wrote Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times in April 2020.

“Never before, researchers say, have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.”

Within a matter of weeks from the onset of the pandemic, more than 200 clinical trials were launched. By August 2021, FDA approved the first COVID-19 vaccine, with the first vaccines beginning in December 2020. And that was only the beginning.

The power of bottom-up thinking

Mike Volpi, general partner at Index Ventures, pointed out in a 2019 article for TechCrunch that with open source projects, the community effectively acts as a QA department and product manager. The absence of hierarchy enables ingenuity to proliferate in a compounding, decentralized fashion.

“Open source software also ‘keeps up’ with change and executes on the promise of continuous improvement more effectively due to breadth and depth of contribution to design, development and defect correction,” elaborates Craig Heartwell who leads the Chief Architects team in the public sector for North America at Red Hat.

In December 2022, when The Linux Foundation Training and Certification Team announced a partnership with Rancher Government Solutions to address security and operational needs of the U.S. government and military, the stated objective was to work through long-standing issues related to cloud adoption and legacy application modernization.

“Government sector entities are facing many fundamental challenges in IT including cloud adoption, legacy application modernization and new application development followed by continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) in a DevSecOps environment,” explains Heartwell.

Open source is about many minds converging to establish a technical superbrain that can outpace a seemingly never-ending onslaught of problems.

“The world is incredibly dynamic, and technology and threats are evolving faster than we have ever seen before,” explains DARPA Director Stefanie Tompkins. “Status quo is a losing strategy.”

So what challenges are in the way?

Regulations. Compliance. Barriers to collaboration across and within institutions.

It's a long-standing challenge of technical innovation and policy to achieve congruence and balance with each other.

According to Code.mil, an experiment in open source at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), “code written by U.S. Federal government employees typically does not have copyright protections under U.S. and some international laws” due to the current regulatory picture in the country. That makes it difficult to issue open-source licenses. Governments also run into challenges motivating people internally to make open source a part of their professional responsibilities.

The good news is that there’s ongoing discussion about how to get open source right in government, with legislation opening new doors, particularly in the security industry.

With more bottom-up thinking, solutions to problems can truly come from anyone, anywhere, in spite of company layoffs, venture funding downturns, and whether or not the boss is in a good mood.

Regardless of what’s happening from an economic or commercial perspective, humanity cannot afford for knowledge sharing to slow down. There are a lot of smart thinkers, everywhere in the world, whose brilliance has a place in steering our collective future.

To learn more about how leading technology companies, of all sizes and types, use Stack Overflow to support knowledge-sharing and problem-solving at high velocities, take a look at our customer stories.

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