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State officials stump for Linux code bank

Technology leaders from Massachusetts and Rhode Island gathered at LinuxWorld Wednesday to provide an update on several open source initiatives, including the Government Open Code Collaborative.

BOSTON -- Under the banner of the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo 2005, technology leaders from Massachusetts and Rhode Island used the "open" atmosphere to discuss the growing Government Open Code Collaborative (GOCC) and the development of new open source applications by the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office.

The GOCC, launched in June 2004, is an open source code repository, based in the University of Rhode Island, where participating states can deposit and withdraw code and view open source projects being developed.

"Sign the agreement, deposit code in the code bank and we don't care if it's pure open source or legal proprietary code that you can distribute," said Peter Quinn, chief information officer of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State House. "We believe at the end of the day we're going to get a lot out of this."

Jim Willis, the director of eGovernment for Rhode Island, echoed Quinn in promoting the benefits of open source and open standards for state governments.

"There is no need [for Rhode Island] to research and develop a $12,000 piece of software and then sit back and wait around for Massachusetts to write a check for the same piece of software," Willis said.

Willis added that he believed in five years it will seem very strange to him if 50 states are writing 50 separate checks for a piece of software because it should be available freely through avenues like the GOCC and open source.

Willis, who has already had success with a previous open source project involving an electronic elections rules and file system, said Rhode Island's state government has already made considerable steps forward using open source applications.

When he arrived with the new administration two years ago, Willis said the government shop was largely Microsoft. The majority of costs were predominantly for licensing or maintaining Microsoft software, he said.

"Anecdotally, we had one guy whose job 30% of the time was visiting various machines and checking for virus and locked-up workstations," Willis said. "As soon as we moved away from Internet Explorer to Firefox, he did not have to do those jobs anymore."

As a side note, Willis said the two biggest changes made within the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office was switch the desktop browser software to the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, and the mail server from Microsoft Outlook to Thunderbird.

In the two years since Willis joined the staff, the servers have seen a switch from a 9-1 Windows to Linux ratio to a 9-1 Linux to Windows ratio. The operating systems of choice, he said, were Red Hat Linux and Debian.

"We've moved more toward open source software because it is more robust; it leaves more time for creative development," he said. "Now we are not just maintaining existing software, but we are developing our own software as well."

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Check out all of our exclusive coverage of LinuxWorld.

Read our article: Open source leading state's IT overhaul.

Indeed the Rhode Island Secretary of State's office has also introduced RSSonate, pronounced "resonate," an application that uses Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds to enable citizens to access real-time data on anything on the database, from government lobbyist lists to election rules to meeting schedules.

RSS is a method of describing news or other Web content that is available for "feeding" from an online publisher to Web users. With RSS, content is updated as soon as it changes on the original URL.

The RSSonate application is currently available at no cost to any state that wished to download the source code to use or supplement, Willis said. Also soon to be available at no cost are the Open Meetings Database, a collection of electronic meeting notices for state and local government agencies; a lobbyist registration tool; as well as simple shell scripts.

At this time, both Willis and Quinn said it was far too early in the development cycle of both the GOCC and projects like RSSonate to report any specific numbers on total cost of ownership.

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