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3.14 Open Source Software

Overview & Approach

HHS is actively using and repurposing free open source software and collaborating with interagency and intra-agency partners given the numerous benefits associated with the shared approach. Consistent with the Federal Source Code Policy, usage of open source software can fuel innovation, lower costs, and benefit the public. The federal Policy is designed to support improved access to custom software code developed for the Federal government. Furthermore, open source software can support the Digital Government Strategy's "Shared Platform" approach, which enables Federal employees to work together-both within and across agencies to reduce costs, streamline development, apply uniform standards, and ensure consistency in creating and delivering information. 

Using FOSS allows for product customization, advances interoperability between tools, and improves the overall quality of the final product. This creates real economic value by lowering the burden of replicating similar work or by allowing the private sector to build off of and create new businesses around previously-developed code. The 2014 passage of the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) created an opportunity to significant policy and administrative reform, including the requirement that each agency have a software asset and management plan. While much of the software asset and management plan focuses on category management and acquisition of software licenses, the implementation of FITARA also provides agencies with an opportunity to bolster their use of free open source software, include it within the software asset and management plan for greater transparency, and share it throughout the agency to illustrate the value of free open source software when compared with expensive software licensing and potential vendor “lock-in”. 

The HHS CIO’s office, as well as other agency divisions, has been conducting asset analysis and is creating and planning to share a listing of available contracts with agency leaders. To the extent practicable, this creates yet another opportunity to break down the silos by centralizing active, upcoming, or discarded open source software projects and coding in order for HHS and other agencies to identify, collaborate, or piggyback off of existing projects to lower costs and maximize savings to taxpayers. 

There is currently no mechanism in place for broadly sharing code among Federal Agencies exclusively, though some of the source code repositories shared publicly are meant to be more beneficial to other Federal Agencies than to the public at large. For example, the source code repository named “ckanext-datajson” in the HHS collection is meant to help other Federal Agencies meet expectations of the Open Data Initiative by providing an extension to the open source CKAN application that many Federal Agencies use to catalog the datasets they make publicly-accessible.

Location and Examples of Publicly-accessible Code

Various organizations within HHS have openly shared code on the GitHub website, popular among open source projects. The repositories of source code made available to the public can be easily viewed by visiting the website locations anonymously, (i.e. without logging in to a GitHub account). 

The two most popular locations where HHS publishes source code on GitHub are https://github.com/HHS and https://github.com/HHSIDEALab. A smaller number of source code repositories shared publicly by HHS can be found at https://github.com/FDA and https://github.com/AHRQ.  Open FDA is another popular resource for developers and researchers, who will have easy access to high-value FDA public data through RESTful APIs and structured file downloads. In short, our goal is to make it simple for an application, mobile, or web developer, or all stripes of researchers, to use data from FDA in their work. 

We’ve done an extensive amount of research both internally and with potential external developers to identify which datasets are both in demand and have a high barrier of entry. As a result, our initial pilot project will cover a number of datasets from various areas within FDA, defined into three broad focus areas: Adverse Events, Product Recalls, and Product Labeling. These API’s won’t have one-on-one matching to FDA’s internal data organizational structure; rather, we intend to abstract on top of a myriad of datasets and provide appropriate metadata and identifiers when possible. Of course, we’ll always make the raw source data available for people who prefer to work that way (and it’s good to mention that we also will not be releasing any data that could potentially be used to identify individuals or other private information).

Pillbox is one of the largest free databases of prescription and over-the-counter drug information and images, combining data from pharmaceutical companies, Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health, and Department of Veterans Affairs. Pillbox for Developers is a resource for getting open access to the data processing code, understanding the methodology, and contributing to the project.

TurboTax, in conjunction with HHS, has released Benefit Assist, a new open source software tool to help feed more Americans. Americans who don’t have enough money for food, approximately one in six Americans, will have an easier time finding out if they are eligible and applying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/Food Stamps with the release of Intuit TurboTax Benefits Assist as free and open source software and with the software code freely available as hosted by The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services at the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) following collaboration with New York City Council Member Ben Kallos. States that currently must administer SNAP will be able to save money by using Benefits Assist and can collectively build upon it to reduce overhead and save our nation billions.

Intuit’s TurboTax launched Benefit Assist in 2015, offering to screen 30.7 million Americans who file taxes with TurboTax an opportunity to learn if they are eligible for SNAP and even submit an application using tax information they had already entered. In 2016, Benefit Assist was expanded to include Federal Communications Commissions’ Lifeline free mobile phone service. Now in an effort to see even more Americans served Intuit is releasing the source code for its Benefit Assist search, rules engine, as well as benefit rules and definitions using the free and open source GNU Affero General Public License so that anyone whether state government, non-profit or a developer can freely use, share and improve upon Benefit Assist to fight hunger.

President Barack Obama has laid the groundwork to streamline access to nutrition, home energy, cash assistance, and other human services necessary to stay healthy facilitated by integrating eligibility and enrollment with Medicaid and CHIP at the state-level  through the Affordable Care Act, Executive Order 13563, Executive Memorandum, waivers, and guidance.  Enhanced federal funding is available through 2018 for each state to integrate, interoperate, and improve the delivery of federally assisted benefits to their residents by leveraging information sharing across health and human service agencies to automatically recertify or provide benefits.

In order to expand access to government human service benefits and in partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s State Health Reform Assistance Network the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services at HHS Idea Lab, have developed a free and open source tool that States can use to facilitate Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) eligibility determination for Medicaid and CHIP called “MAGI in the Cloud,” freely available on GitHub. The free and open source software is now operated and maintained by the New England State Consortium Systems Organization (NESCO) and in use by the District of Columbia, New Jersey, North Dakota and Tennessee. The Benefit Assist tool’s source code will be freely available alongside “MAGI in the Cloud” available at https://github.com/HHSIDEAlab.  The HHS Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) has been working on a comprehensive project to modernize their systems, switching from the use of legacy systems to open source software. This multi-year project involves a complete analysis, redesign, migration, implementation, and maintenance of a new web content management system (WCMS) as well as a public-facing website, intranet, and two legacy databases as well as hosting and marketing. The HHS Office on Women’s Health (OWH) recently awarded a new contract to modernize an aging online data query system, which will only use free open source software, including robust mapping tools that take advantage of modern web geographic information system (GIS) technology and Open Geospatial Consortium standards. The new, interactive online data query system will feature a user-friendly computer interface for queries that actively accesses and ingests data from a variety of sources using machine readable outputs, such as APIs.

Approach to Collaboration, More Broad Usage, Centralization of, and Publicly-available Free Open Source Software Code

HHS, like many other agencies, continues to make better use of open source software in developing or redeveloping aging legacy systems while finding collaborative, innovative ways to share these efforts and successful outcomes throughout the federal government as well as the public at-large.

HHS actively collaborates on various projects with digital and open source software leaders, including the U.S. Digital Service and GSA’s 18F. 18F has recently rolled out Cloud.gov, an open source Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) solution, which will further enhance HHS’ ability to embrace and share more open source software tools.

Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
Content last reviewed on August 16, 2016