Posts by Matthew Burton

Open Source Government Tidbits

July 22, 2009

Matthew Burton

A few brief items about the progress of open source software within the US Government:

Normally, if a bunch of agencies want software for a single task, each agency builds their own. Silly. The DISA and NASA projects show evidence that agencies are beginning to work around this problem by starting their own code sharing projects.

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Wikipedia Reaches Out to NIH (and vice versa)

July 19, 2009

Matthew Burton

The National Institutes of Health scores big points for this: on July 16, they hosted Wikipedia staff and scientists at their headquarters in Bethesda, MD, for an all-day "Wikipedia Academy." The goal of the event was to recruit knowledgeable editors and teach them about Wikipedia standards and practices, with the end goal of improving the science articles on the world's largest, most popular encyclopedia. From the press release:

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Some Thoughts on Firefox @ DoS

July 16, 2009

Matthew Burton

I wrote a Web application for a federal agency, and last week, it was deployed. Two days ago, a systems administrator wrote to tell me that he was experiencing errors when using the app with Internet Explorer 6.

"And you will," I wanted to respond. The next day, I woke up delighted to see that YouTube is phasing out support of the browser that is the bane of every Web developer.

And then, as reported yesterday on PDF, employees at the State Department can't use Firefox. And they're annoyed. They're used to using one thing at home. Why can't they use it at work?

It's the cost of maintenance, Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy responded. Yes, it's true: someone has to be in charge of deploying updates, responding to support requests, ensuring compatibility...that takes time.

My problem with this is that it only accounts for the tangible costs of browser support: the department can easily estimate how much Firefox would cost them by multiplying a number of hours times a dollar rate. Voila: Firefox costs MILLIONS to support! Not worth it.

But what about the hidden costs of supporting the *wrong* browsers, and the intangible benefits of supporting tools that users know and love?

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Quintessential E-Government in Muncie, Indiana

July 12, 2009

Matthew Burton

According to legend, a man disguised as a pizza delivery boy used to shuttle secret communiques between the CIA's and NSA's respective headquarters, about 25 miles apart. This was before the two agencies' networks were linked in 1994, allowing them to switch to email. It's the archetypal example of how a simple technology can improve government, helping it work faster while saving money.

Twenty-five years later, Muncie, Indiana has done the equivalent. The Muncie fire department currently delivers messages to the chief's office via fire truck. About 20 times a day. The city estimates that each trip somehow costs $1500. Whether an accurate estimate or not, it is silly to use your firefighters as mail carriers. The fire department has discovered scanners, which will soon replace the fire trucks. Which is good, because the trucks are needed for other things.

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Playing Accountant With California's Budget Crisis

July 10, 2009

Matthew Burton

It is easy to be an armchair critic of government spending. When you're not on the ground, solving budget deficits is simply a matter of "cutting pork": governments spend money left and right! Finding places to save should be easy.

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