When you think of hotbeds of open source innovation, Canada’s Treasury Board typically doesn’t make the cut. But over the past three years, coders at this slightly obscure Canadian government agency have produced something that’s pretty rare in government: a hit open source project.
We’re not talking about the next Linux here, but this summer, the Treasury Board of Canada — which oversees Canada’s federal civil service — hosted a CodeFest to invite hackers — mostly government staffers — to hack its Web Experience Toolkit, or WET — a set of open-source tools that the Treasury Board uses for building websites.
One hundred and fifty people came. Many of them were young developers, excitedly swapping code and sharing ideas across tables. To Lucia Harper, a communications consultant at the event who has worked for the Canadian government, it wasn’t your federal coder snoozefest. It looked like the kind of hackathon that you’d see at private companies. There “were pods of people gathered in groups all sporting laptops; giant screens on the walls with Twitter feeds, code demonstrations, style guides and the like,” she wrote in a blog post about the event. “There was a hubbub people. There was a buzz of anticipation and solutions.”
2012 was the year that the U.S. government put the full court press on software developers. As we reported earlier this week, the federal CIO Steven VanRoekel has a vision of a more hackable, more accessible government where code-sharing is far more common — and far more useful.
And this vision is starting to pay off. Over the past few years, government use of the social-coding website, GitHub, has skyrocketed. Today, there are more than 350 government projects hosted there. But the sad truth is that most of this code hasn’t been able to attract a wide group of developers, outside of the folks who were paid to write the original code. That kind of crossover success is the hallmark of a really successful open source effort.
And that’s what’s starting to happen with WET. It already has contributors from 34 federal agencies, but now that’s starting to branch out. “We’ve had contributions from business and even academia,” says Paul Jackson, a web project officer with the Treasury Board. There’s a contributor in Spain, and another who works as a contractor for the City of Ottawa. There are close to 200 contributors in all, but the real number of people who have now participated in the project is surely much larger as many of those official contributors are simply passing along code that others on their team have developed.
With about 30 private sector participants, the project is getting contributions that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
That means that, for example, the Treasury Board gets the benefits of someone else’s user interface testing. “We’re still evolving with learning how to do user experience and improving the useability of our website,” Jackson says. “But there are a lot of firms out there that are dedicated to that very purpose. And if they can share their testing results and get involved and help us with improving our designs, it can make the product better as a whole.”
Down in New York State, Luke Charde says he’s using the success of WET to try to sell his colleagues on the idea of doing more open source development. “That’s my vision for what I want to do across different agencies in New York,” says Charde, a user-interface design lead with New York’s Office of IT Services. As he sees things, WET is a runaway success. Among GitHub’s government pages, at least, it’s “one of the first examples of massive collaboration happening and savings,” he says.