Drupalcamp Ottawa: The Glacier is Melting
There's one kind of climate change that will benefit nearly all Canadians and that's the thawing of Federal Government attitudes towards free open source software (FOSS). The recent Ottawa Drupalcamp, which had about 200 enthusiastic attendees packing a University of Ottawa lecture hall, offered a visible indication that the melting process is picking up pace.
Although FOSS has been around forever, it didn't really show up much on the government radar until 2004 with the release of preliminary guidelines for the use of FOSS. Those guidelines, prepared by Defence Research & Development Canada, were a major step towards acknowledging the utility of open source software to the Crown. However they completely missed a key point, which is that the real power of FOSS often comes not from treating it like "just another solution, only cheaper", but from actually engaging with the open source community and becoming an active contributor.
This point has been beautifully demonstrated recently by two bold and related initiatives: one from the Treasury Board Secretariat and the other originating at Statistics Canada.
I don't know whose idea it was to host the development process for WET on Github, but it was an act of genius. Rather than work in supposed 'safety' behind the government firewall, the process was moved into public view. Not only that, anyone in the world with an Internet connection, the time, and the expertise could critique and contribute to the code.
This is a startling departure from the traditional 'black box' model of government development, where projects are conceived, developed and implemented in processes that are hidden, not just from the public, but often from other departments and sometimes even from other branches of the same department. Although it might seem like this is less risky (How can anyone criticize me or interfere if they can't see what I'm doing?) what we find over and over again is that when you close the door to the outside world you close the door to experts who, if they have a use for your code, will reciprocate your generosity by finding and fixing problems with security, accessibility, performance and myriad of other potential issues that even the best development team would struggle to manage.
And because WET development was an open process hosted on Github, it enabled Statistics Canada, which probably has the largest web content repository in the Federal Government, to jumpstart development of the Drupal WET distribution, a turnkey web content management solution optimized for WET and the Federal Government. And because Drupal WET was also developed publicly on Github it has drawn in collaborators not only from other government departments, but also the City of Ottawa, the University of Ottawa, other governments across the country, government bodies outside of Canada and the private sector, all of whom saw the potential of Drupal WET to solve their common problems.
In a little more than a year, Drupal WET has gone from a mad glimmer in the eyes of a couple of visionary developers and managers to something that's quite literally changing the business of IT in Ottawa, and drawing interest and praise from around the world. I’m quite sure that this inaugural Ottawa Drupalcamp would not have happened and certainly would not have generated such wide interest without Drupal WET.
But before we get too excited about government changing it's attitudes towards open source, there's at least one more major hurdle to pass, which is the long-delayed decision on a web content management standard. Will the Federal Government opt for the innovative, agile, massively popular and rapidly spreading free open source option which enables unheard of levels of collaboration and reuse (Drupal) or will they stick with the previous standard (HP Teamsite), an expensive, painfully awkward, legacy (circa 2001) application that so far has only served as an impenetrable barrier to collaboration, innovation and reuse? For those who are unfamiliar with Teamsite, I'd love to point to some helpful resources, but they are incredibly difficult to find. Even though the product has been around since 1995, only one book, now six years out of date, is available on Amazon (in contrast, a new or updated Drupal book appears about every week) and I couldn't even find a recent Teamsite product roadmap.
Another open question is the level of support for Drupal WET that will be offered by Shared Services Canada. Federal government developers are anxious to see SSC step up to the challenge of delivering an agile infrastructure that allows government sites to be easily provisioned, tested, deployed and scaled but it’s not yet clear that SSC shares that vision.
We’ll be watching both these issues closely in the coming months.