Agencies look to public for digital work on open source

Programs like the DigitalGov Open Opportunities page, run by the General Services Administration, are built so programmers and developers in the general public can lend a hand on digital projects that make an impact across government.

More teams around the federal government are looking to private citizens to collaborate on open source projects.

Programs, like the DigitalGov Open Opportunities page run by the General Services Administration, allow programmers and developers in the general public and across government to lend a hand on digital projects that make an impact. 

Sef Kloninger, an engineering manager at YouTube, was one of the first non-federal employees to try his hand on Open Opportunities, assisting GSA’s 18F digital services team with small but mission-based tech projects through its GitHub page. According to GSA’s DigitalGov blog, Kloninger contributed to “two data export buttons, and the initial groundwork on the ‘people’ section as well as the map of Open Opportunities participants.”

On the blog, he described his role on the Open Opportunities portal as important because it helped grow the open source ecosystem it’s based on.


“Too often, people see open source as free labor,” Kloninger said. “It can be that, but I think the real value of open source is getting more eyes on a problem and influencing how the software evolves. You end up with something that is more useful to a wider set of customers. I did some nuts and bolts features, but the contribution I made was not so much the features I added but encouraging the team to put things into place that help make it a good project, like the Slack channel.”

This type of work is a two-way street, because not only does it benefit agencies by bringing in great minds from around and outside of government, but it also give those software engineers training on problems they often don’t experience but that affect their everyday lives.

“I was very interested in the concept of contributing to something my government actually uses,” said Claire Sarsam, another Open Opportunities contributor and software engineer. “It was a very positive contribution experience.”

Currently, there are several opportunities on the portal for GSA, the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other agencies. These opportunities are typically reserved for federal employees, though some times, as in the case of Kloninger, they will be opened to the public via GitHub’s open source platform. 

There are other opportunities for private citizens to take part in building new technology for the government. Recently, 18F launched a micro-purchasing initiative in which it opens small projects to the public, who can bid to be paid for working on them. GSA also holds periodic hackathons, inviting the public to collaborate around some of the agency’s biggest problems, as do other agencies like the departments of Agriculture and the Interior. And of course, agencies that build their software in the open often allow outside citizens to contribute to a project.


Reach the reporter on this story at Follow him on Twitter @BillyMitchell89.

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