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Open Source Government: Code-Sharing Site Hires Federal Liaison

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The computer code sharing site GitHub's first government liaison says he hopes to be a bridge between the government and open source communities on legislation and regulations, not just code.

Federal agencies and the White House have posted the underlying code running numerous websites and Web tools to GitHub in recent years so outside developers can pull data from the sites, suggest improvements or retrofit the sites to serve their own needs.

As GitHub’s government liaison, Benjamin Balter said, he will encourage agencies to extend that open source mentality to government-gathered data, agency policy decisions and even proposed regulations and legislation.

Balter will be GitHub’s first staff member to focus solely on outreach to government. He will be based in Washington but his job will include working with state, local and other national governments, as well as the federal government.

GitHub doesn’t have any plans for Balter to lobby for particular legislation at this point, he said. The only analogous position at the company is an education liaison who focuses on outreach to universities and organizes code-a-thons for students, he said.

Balter described his idea for open sourced legislation as similar to the Madison project, launched by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., but “on steroids.” That site allows users to suggest edits to proposed bills in a process similar to tracking changes in Microsoft Word documents.

“Today, stereotypically, you have a lobbyist with a briefcase full of money who says [to a congressman] ‘hey I’d really love for a comma to be added to this law’ or something like that,” he said. “What if that entire legislative process happened in some sort of open, collaborative way? What if the congressman said ‘hey, the bill’s on GitHub and you’re welcome to make a pull request?’ Then, all of a sudden, that lobbyist with his briefcase of money is on the same level as an 18-year-old in her high school civics class.”

GitHub also wants to encourage government agencies to use the site to crowdsource data cleanup and analysis projects, Balter said.

The Federal Communications Commission, for instance, recently shared data about low power FM signals that it collected over a number of years and which contained inconsistencies that made it difficult to work with, such as dates being recorded in different formats. The government has historically been hesitant to share imperfect data. In this case, the FCC decided sharing the data would not only aid transparency but might encourage developers and communications researchers to voluntarily clean it up, which would benefit both the researchers and the FCC, the agency’s Geographic Information Officer Michael Byrne said.

Balter served in the first class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, a group of technologists and entrepreneurs who spent six months tackling thorny government problems. His team -- Project MyUSA -- focused on making the government’s Web presence more comprehensible by building a toolbar that points government website visitors to related government sites even if they’re managed by a different agency. The group shared all of its developments on GitHub and frequently advocated for more open source in government.

Balter previously interned with the federal Chief Information Officer’s office and at FCC. He expects to complete a joint law and business degree at The George Washington University in May.

GitHub is one of the largest repositories for open source computer code. Developers can share and collaborate on Web building projects using free GitHub accounts. Many companies and government agencies have paid accounts, which allow them to collaborate on some projects privately using the site while sharing other projects with the world at large.

GitHub frowns on formal titles, Balter said, so he expects his business cards to say “Government Bureaucat.” The GitHub mascot is the Octocat and most division titles pun on that cat them in some way, he said.

“The reason GitHub created this position,” he said, “is to send a loud and clear message saying ‘hey government, we’re here, we’re listening and we want to do awesome things together and make this whole process of governance easier and more collaborative.”

(Image via spaxiax/Shutterstock.com)

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