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?
Photo credit: Juhan Sonin.