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Programmers Volunteer to Help Fix Government’s Healthcare Website

Programmers Volunteer to Help Fix Government’s Healthcare Website

If there’s one thing programmers hate, it’s a broken website paired with a terrible user experience. It runs contrary to everything geeks, nerds and their ilk believe in, and often, their first instinct is to probe into the code, see what’s wrong and propose a suggestion.

Whether it’s white hatters exposing security flaws in software or web developers recommending fixes for a problem on a website, programmers can be awfully altruistic when it comes to making technology safer, easier to use and more friendly for everyone. Especially when it comes to technology intended as a public resource.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that the disastrous rollout of Healthcare.gov has attracted the vigorous attention of the open source community. The site was quickly overloaded by consumers when it opened earlier this month, leading to vocal complaints and assertions from the Obama administration that the issues would be resolved as quickly as possible.

In their defense, problems with rollout are a common problem with new websites, especially sites built on this scale. It was almost inevitable that the site would have some bugs, but the problems seem to run even deeper than expected, even with the notorious history of government sites. (While some branches of the government have embraced the internet with zest — the EPA, for example, provides copious consumer and public information online — others seem to struggle with the concept, and have unnavigable, unhelpful and frustrating websites.)

That’s why the open source community stepped up to offer their help. Programmer Matthew McCall issued an open call asking the government to publish the code behind the website to open it up to public scrutiny. He argues that with the use of open source tactics and systems, an army of programmers could descend on the backend code — for free — to identify and repair the root of the problems with Healthcare.gov. It’s a generous offer considering how much programmers can earn an hour for their skills, but it’s in keeping with open source philosophies and beliefs.

He and his comrades want to lend a helping hand, in the best way they can. Open source collaboration is well-established in the software community, and it makes sense to apply it here, on a site where lots of eyes could make quick work of the quirks that are causing problems for website users. Working with the open source community could help the government get the site up, stable and reliable more quickly, which would reduce consumer complaints and revive enthusiasm about the actual point of the site: helping uninsured and underinsured people get signed up for insurance programs by the end of the year.

The Obama Administration has pushed for openness in many areas of government, and this is a prime case for opening up government websites. Healthcare.gov cost millions to build and will require more in repairs and maintenance, but programmers are excited about working on the site for its own sake, and turning it into a community project. Their work could benefit the government and the nation as a whole, but will the government accept it?

There may be some concerns about the risks involved in publishing code, including the ability for people to discover (or embed) exploits, or reveal sensitive information to members of the public. Since Healthcare.gov collects key demographic information to help people enroll in health care plans, there is a risk of mass disclosure of Social Security Numbers and other data.

Health and Human Services claims to be on the case with a “technology surge” to address the problems, which will undoubtedly include the expenditure of more funds, along with the application of some very bright minds. It’s a start, but the open source community could do better by partnering with Healthcare.gov, thanks to the sheer number of people, their broad depth of knowledge, and their enthusiasm.

Is it time to rethink the way we run government websites?

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Photo credit: Juhan Sonin.

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87 comments

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4:07PM PST on Nov 27, 2013

I would also like to compare helhcare.gov with other web site like Blue Cross Blue Shield, Microsoft and plenty others I deal with and where I can recount absolute horror stories, much more in line with what the news is carrying about the government’s’ web site. Blue cross searches for specialists is an absolutely horrid ordeal and caused me personally a year of extra pain and expenses finding the fight specialist – and they could not even help on the phone when their web site consistently failed to deliver. Microsoft’ web sites for help searches are also horrid and have been for decades, yes decades. If these two corporate monoliths are so bad after decades available to fix their web sites and software, and I watch news stories that totally contradict every experience I had with the government web site, is something wrong with our news? Is the story buried underneath pandering to taking points and drumming up controversy and leaving the positive news out of the news? Al my personal experience says yes. There is also so obviously real hope here, yet 45% of people think there are problems with the Affordable Care Act that can never be resolved? True 55% believer otherwise apparently, but the reality is that our corporate monopolies and oligopolies are much more poorly equipped at solving these issues than the government, and there is truly a ray of hope finally. However, we need balanced and objective reporting long the way as we work towards solutions. Co

4:05PM PST on Nov 27, 2013

These are the reason I was eager and shopped so hard. At the same time we also re-shopped our group policies, and as usually got very nebulous and vague information from carriers though agents. Nonetheless the new government information made us much better shoppers than ever before for both types of policies. And what a wonderful outcome for a change, unbelievable: a better policy finally and for less a good deal less money. Really? The individual policies won out, and we could not be happier and more excited and hopeful for more change in the future. I do understand that there are still potential issues, such as young people signing up in enough numbers and so forth, but there is no reason to think we cannot work these issues out like many countries have, in fact all modern democracies except the United States started implementing options way before this country. Moreover the market based approach here holds out so much hope, along with the other regulations on insurance companies, never easy to deal and especially in a place like Texas with no regulators effectively on your side.
Now I see new stories of a potential problem on the back side. But our confirmation for our chosen policy came in with 24 hours. So far nothing even similar to what has been portrayed in the news. I understand few people signed up early, but this took us weeks of analysis, because the information was so good.
I would also like to compare helhcare.gov with other web site like Blue Cross B

4:03PM PST on Nov 27, 2013

My experience with healthcare.gov have so contradicted the news coverage that I feel obligated to share my story and ask are the news stories describing a problem that is not really so serious as described?
I am from Texas, a state not providing a marketplace, and I own a small company and I have had for years had group coverage and like most have watched my health insurance premiums spiral out of control for years while the benefits declined. I have implanted higher and higher deductibles to counter , but cost have only increased. I should emphasize that it may be that my failure to qualify for subsidies may have had some positive impact on my expense with the government web site, but my experience so contradicts the press accounts and talking points I hear that I feel I must share my story.
I eagerly logged onto the Federal website as soon as it opened and began comparing individual policies with group renewal policy options. I then shopped options carefully, and have logged onto the website literally dozens of times, and I do mean dozens. I have never once had a problem logging in or shopping for insurance, not even once, ever over many weeks. The information available from different insurance carriers has been extraordinary and totally organized to compare coverage and prices like never available to us before from the insurance companies or agents more concerned with hard-to read and compare summaries and hidden strings. These are the reason I was eager and sho

10:31AM PST on Nov 7, 2013

Can't wait to hear what all the Obamacare haters will have to say when all their exagerated blathering has been proved to be wrong, their rediculous scare tactics exposed for what they are, and things are working even better than we could have imagined as the system is tweaked and fully brought up to speed. And then we can start shifting this over to a single payer, government system run by the younger people who are not scared of the idea of Socialized Medicine.
And, from one Mary B, to another Mary B. ,You GO GIRL! Onward, Canada!

3:05PM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Robert H.... Thank you for the support.....David F just doesn't seem to understand that even charitable organizations and especially a hospital have major expenses too.....I didn't even get into the physical cost of keeping the building itself going ..electricity, phone and computer lines, cleaners, laundry, food, etc.....The money comes from somewhere.... Why he thinks I am a "Drunken Canadian" is a puzzle too....I don't think he likes women arguing with him and maybe anyone with a brain !!

2:05PM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Alright David, thats about enough with your Canada hate. Calling Mary a dunk is childish and counterproductive. MOST hospitals ARE raising prices on TONS of things to recover the cost of emergency rooms. You list a few hospitals in YOUR area and act like the entire nation is doing this. You are, of course, wrong. I champion any hospital that is dojng what you say…..but they are NOT the majority so stop pretending they are. Canada is a great nation and our ally.

People who do things different than our role model are not always wrong David. WE are not always right, no matter how puffed up your ego is.

6:50AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

This whole flapdoodle is NOT about a website which wasn't designed for the inundation it received....it's just more attempts by angry Republicans, trying to stop the idea of affordable health care for everyone.

8:08PM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

David, David, David....... don't you really get that no matter how many clinics, hospitals, services you provide for your Texans..... someone has to pay for supplies, equipment, staff, diagnostics......it ultimately comes from those who ARE insured and the costs at triple anywhere else in the world are handed down to you and I'm sure Medicare and medicaid are gouged too......why have a 30 cent bandage when you can have a $5 one.....

8:02PM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

David F... I really hope it's not me you're calling a "Drunken Canadian"........Are you getting a bit ruffled because what I say makes sense?.....watch the temper and your blood pressure... you MAY need health care.

7:44PM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

Here we go again for the Morons and the socialist that choose not to read the post on care 2-- Here in San Antonio and many places across the US the Hospitals have created urgent care centers just to remove the load and expense of treating non-emergency patients in the emergency room. As much as 800% cheaper, “Baptist Emergency Hospitals accept patients from all walks of life whether they are uninsured or have Tri-Care and Medicare as well as other coverage.” See: http://blog.mysanantonio.com/suzannehildebrand/2013/03/new-emergency-care-options/

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