Sunday, November 03, 2013

The problems with healthcare.gov is just code - we can fix that

Civic life in America is based on the principle of government of the people, by the people, for the people. It's a concept well understood by the typical high schooler (I understood this by 6th grade, but schools seem to be different now). It doesn't always work out that way, though. One look at the controversy surrounding healthcare.gov provides a good example.

Upon opening, the Affordable Care Act site was slow, difficult to navigate and unable to let anyone get any work done. Since the opening, things have improved, but problems remain. The vendors hired to build the site are pointing fingers at each other, blaming each other. Oh, how they missed a wonderful marketing opportunity. The outcome would have been much different had they not engaged in a blamefest. What if they just said, "Don't worry, we got it covered". I think they would if they could. But they can't. They just don't have the capacity.

Enter the open source movement. According to an article on Venturebeat.com, Github, a place where coders love to code, the coding community has something to say about the problems at healthcare.gov and they're responding with a positive attitude. The Github community says to the government, "hey, open source your code and we'll fix it for you". This from a site with more than a million users who just love to code. It's not very well publicized that Obama's presidential campaign ran on open source code, successfully. Github isn't the only organization offering to help or making this suggestion. There are many other organizations who want to help make healthcare.gov run. This is, of course, news that Senator Ted Cruz isn't going to talk about anytime soon.

The suggestion of using open source development models for healthcare.gov is compelling. "Many eyes make all bugs shallow" is what we have learned from open source software. It is even more compelling in terms of government. Our government is of the people, by the people, for the people, something that the government tends to forget. But the government could learn a lot from the open source community as there is truly no better execution of this philosophy than in open source software.

Let's take a look at the scale of this success with just one project, the Linux kernel. Linux is managed by a core team headed by Linus Torvalds, the man who wrote the first working Linux operating system - just for fun - more than 2 decades ago. Everyone who has an interest in the code gets a chance to submit improvements and bug fixes to the code.

There is now more than 20 years of experience with Linux in personal and production use. Billions of lines of code submitted, vetted, tested, and thinned out to give us what is actually approved for use by the maintainers of the code: the most useful fraction of the submitted code, a few million lines of code. Estimates place the amount of code submitted by paid developers to be around 75%. The value of this code is now in the billions. But you can download it for free to use in any way you like, as long as you adhere to the General Public License that loosely encumbers the code. That's it.

Linux is now the single most successful operating system in the world, surpassing Windows by miles. Yes, Windows still rules the desktop (not in my home, thank you), but Linux rules the computing world. From phones to tablets, to desktops to Google to the fastest computers in the world, Linux is ubiquitous. Linux is everywhere you choose to look. In the TV. In your new car. In power plants, particle accelerator labs, colleges, websites, wherever you choose to look in tech that you use, you are very likely to find Linux.

Obama would do well to heed the call of the coders and let them help fix the problems. Not just for healthcare.gov. Eventually, we should be doing this for all government web properties. Why not let the people you serve help you run the government? Isn't that what the United States is all about?
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