October 26, 2009


If you have gone to whitehouse.gov since Saturday you may not have noticed any real changes. On the outside this is true, but underneath the hood they just replaced the entire engine and drive train.

When President Obama took over at 1600 Pennsylvania one of the first things he did was order the people who manage the White House website to investigate new software. The outcome was a move from expensive and clunky proprietary software to a very familiar open source system – Drupal.

Now I don’t expect all our readers to know what Drupal is, but actually it should be very familiar. Drupal is the same software that powers Crooks and Liars. The software is extremely robust and can be extended beyond you imagination through contributed modules. In the coming months you will see more examples of this as we start rolling out our latest updated that includes countless new features to better engage you – the C&L community.

So what does this change at whitehouse.gov mean for all of us? Well its the first big step towards a more robust whitehouse.gov website. A perfect explanation comes from the founder of Drupal, Dries Buytaert:

First of all, I think Drupal is a perfect match for President Barack Obama's push for an open and transparent government -- Drupal provides a great mix of traditional web content management features and social features that enable open communication and participation. This combination is what we refer to as social publishing and is why so many people use Drupal. Furthermore, I think Drupal is a great fit in terms of President Barack Obama's desire to reduce cost and to act quickly. Drupal's flexibility and modularity enables organizations to build sites quickly at lower cost than most other systems. In other words, Drupal is a great match for the U.S. government.

Imagine a new way to communicate with the White House that is as simple as sending a message on Facebook? That possibility will be very simple with the power of Drupal behind them.

This change also signifies what happens when we have a tech-savvy President sitting in the Oval Office. As matter of fact President Obama was the one who personally directed the powers to be to make the change:

The move from the old proprietary CMS which has been used by WhiteHouse.gov since the Bush Administration was a result of several months of planning as instructed by none other than Pres. Obama himself.  It was a much needed switch as the Obama administration gears up for a more socially relevant and interactive government through the use of online social media tools.

Instead of paying a single company major dollars to develop software, the White House has made a move towards major savings and being able to use that money to give its citizens better tools to find out exactly what is happening.

The government is a prefect consumer for the open source model. Instead of every member of Congress, government agency or court house having to pay programmers to build private software, they can save money and make more robust sites by using open source software. In turn they can also give back to that software by releasing any custom code they might use.

I don’t expect all our readers to fully know or understand the open source model, but over 1/2 of you are using it right this moment. It comes nicely disguised in the form of your browser - Firefox.

Open source software works very much like those simple “take a penny, leave a penny” bowls at the local convenient store. If you got an extra penny or two, throw it in the bowl because you might be back in over the next couple of days and end up needing one yourself. Open source software thrives off of this idea by replacing the pennies with code. The big difference is that multiple people can take that same penny over and over again.

For an example of this, say President Obama decides he wants a new feature on the White House website, but there isn’t any module available for it. He can pay a developer to create that new feature and then it can be released back to the world as an open source module (giving that penny), so others who may want the feature can simle download and install it (taking that penny).

So while you may not notice any real change just looking at whitehouse.gov, you can be sure that there is very significant changes happening. These changes are not only going to save the tax payers money, but also shows an embrace of a different economic model that is taking the computer world by storm.

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