Federal Open Source Is Messy - And That's OK

David F. Carr | Information Week | August 8, 2014

Open source projects like the National Library of Medicine's Pillbox show potential of open innovation -- including competition with projects started elsewhere.

On the scale of the federal government, it should come as no surprise that open source innovation would be a messy affair. Open source doesn't lend itself to central planning. If the consumers of code have complete freedom, including the freedom to fork -- or to abandon an open source project and try to create something better on their own -- then they will tend to do so.

Consider the case of Pillbox, an initiative of the National Libraries of Medicine, which is part of the National Institutes of Health and ultimately part of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Pillbox is a search engine for medicines, a tool for identifying loose pills by shape, size, color, and the text imprinted on the outside of the capsule. Working with the Veterans Administration's huge pharmacy system, the Pillbox team captures pill images and matches them with products from the drug label database maintained by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The first version of the tool came out in 2010, and since then it has been opened up further with API and source code releases on API documentation and code releases on GitHub.

At some point, the Pillbox project was probably doing more to make FDA data organized and publicly accessible than the FDA itself. The FDA announced its OpenFDA initiative in June, after catching up on a paperwork backlog...