Two years ago I wrote a post describing an open source model for developing government software. The driver then was improving the user experience of government services and making them more approachable but the news this week makes this much more than a nicer UX. The state of NJ is apparently looking for COBOL programmers in order to update the unemployment system to handle the unprecedented volume. It’s easy to make a government joke but there are real people that are unable to get the services they need. This particular problem will be solved but another one will pop up in its place.
I’m a techno-optimist but I do believe there are enough software engineers out there who would love to give back to their country. Imagine if this unemployment program was open sourced and the world’s engineers had access to it. Some may spend time digging into the code to document the rules. Others would work on generating test data. Many others would try to rewrite it in their own language of choice. I like to think that together they’d be able to revamp it for the modern era.
Governments would still require software engineers to handle the proprietary data, the infrastructure, and the release process but much of the remaining work would be able to be outsourced to the community. If this was done at the local and state level then we’d also have a variety of implementations for similar problems which would engender an arms race to improve the local version.
As I mentioned in the previous post there’s a lot to consider with this model but there’s no reason to at least try it on something low risk. Maybe it’s something as simple as open sourcing a static, low risk site, learning from it, and then expanding to others.