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White House Shift to Open Source Draws Mostly Praise

The White House's recent deployment of the Drupal open source content management system for its Web site has created a stir among industry observers, who speculate that the move may portend a shift toward more government use of open source, social media and emerging semantic Web technologies.

Though a casual visitor to WhiteHouse.gov probably won't notice much difference (the site has the same look and feel as it did before), there's no shortage of opinions among bloggers about the switch to open source.

Tim O'Reilly, head of O'Reilly Media, praised the White House for its choice of open source, suggesting that the switch could save the government money.

He added that the move speaks well of the White House's intent to incorporate more social media in its communications, and noted that the Drupal community has developed a large number of modules devoted to supporting commenting and other interactive features.

Such functionality seems to be of value to the White House: "We now have a technology platform to get more and more voices on the site," White House New Media Director Macon Phillips told the Associated Press.

"General Dynamics Information Technology...the Virginia-based government contractor who had executed the Bush-era White House CMS contract, was tasked by the Obama administration with finding a more flexible alternative," wrote techPresident blog author Nancy Scola. "The ideal new platform would be one where dynamic features like question-and-answer forums, live video streaming and collaborative tools could work more fluidly together with the site's infrastructure." 

According to Scola, General Dynamics was supported by Drupal consultants Phase2, search engine optimization consulting firm Alledia, IT infrastructure firm Terremark and Internet distributed hosted firm Akamai.

David Lantner, editor of the ClearType Press blog, noted that Drupal will give the White House a good start in annotating its data in a machine-readable way, if the site's managers choose to do so. Drupal's use of a Resource Description Framework (RDF) "enables authors to add semantic metadata...to their markup using attributes that are both machine-readable and human-friendly," Lantner wrote. When formatted by RDF, data can then be parsed by other computer programs in a predictable fashion.

A quick look at WhiteHouse.gov's source code finds that the pages are formatted to the XHTML-RDFA-1 document type, though no data appears to be formatted in the RDF format yet. (XHTML is an HTML Web page markup language that complies to the Extensible Markup Language standard; RDFA is a version of RDF formatted for HTML.)

It should be noted that not everyone sees the move to Drupal as a good one. Slate.com contributor Chris Wilson highlighted some of Drupal's more challenging attributes, among them its disorganized code base and its difficulty to deploy and upgrade.

"I can't help but think the new software represents the triumph of hope over experience," Wilson wrote. "Drupal looks great in theory: It's a powerful way to govern a Web site that is born out of the collective efforts of the community. In practice, it tends to be a bit of a mess."

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the chief technology editor of Government Computing News (GCN.com).

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