http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/4050328699/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/4050328699/

Last week I ran across a story (and here, here, here, and here) via Slashdot about the fact that the WhiteHouse.gov has moved its online content management system (CMS) entirely to Drupal — an open-source CMS.   On the surface, the site appears very much the same as it did, but a peak under the hood reveals that this is a drastic departure from the proprietary, Bush-era CMS.

The open source community is hailing this as a big win and indeed it is.  The fact that the flagship web interface for the US Government is now built upon a “free”, open, transparent, and publicly peer-reviewed solution is truly a big deal.  It certainly speaks volumes about the security of this platform and the flexibility inherent in its modular design.  It also should embolden the wider community devoted to creating free, open content.  This is a win for the many learning communities (eg., MIT OCW, CMU OLI, OLPC, CNX) that are working to free the world’s information and learning materials from the bounds of copyright, socioeconomic status, capitalistic greed, and national border.  In no small way, the move of WH.gov to Drupal proves that open learning communities can produce content that rivals and bests that produced by closed, proprietary, and for-profit systems (did you hear that Bb/ANGEL?).

Beyond this, I have a quick personal political note* if you will indulge me (gotta use that B.S. in Poly Sci any chance I can get).  Call me a bad citizen, but before I tripped across this article on Slashdot, I had never been on WhiteHouse.gov.  To get a page-hit from me, the White House had to make a move so far-reaching that it slithered way, way down into my tech-geek world.  Not only did it get my page hit, but I subscribed to the WH blog RSS, watched the President’s weekly address, checked out the White House Live Facebook page, and downloaded a brief on the President’s health care reform plan.  What I didn’t find was a way to contribute my thoughts or ideas, vote on any polls, or interact with a community of other tech-savvy, mildly introverted citizens.  Certainly the Obama administration picked such a customizable, open source solution so that it could better promote open discourse and collaboration, right?  Not so much, not right now.  One blog notes that Drupal is the, “ideal platform where dynamic features like question-and-answer forums, live video streaming, and collaborative tools could work more fluidly together with the site’s infrastructure.”  I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.

So my first impressions aren’t great, but the potential is there and it’s significant.  Ever since the advent of the Whistle Stop tours (and probably before), certain US presidents (“Ticky Dick” not being one of them) have been finding creative ways to reach out to their constituents and make the office of president more transparent.  Sure, there is a lot to be cynical about in American politics, but once in a while I stand back and am truly awed by our government.  I am awed by the ways in which the people with arguably the most power in the world share that power and relinquish it peacefully when the time comes.   I truly hope that the Obama Administration takes its cues from the open community and makes WhiteHouse.gov a shining example of what open, collaborative communities can do when built on the right framework.

*Please don’t mistake these comments as some sort or partisan jabber.  I have voted on either side of the aisle in Presidential elections so there’s nothing to be gleaned between the lines; at least not here.

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  • http://punya.educ.msu.edu Punya Mishra

    For a somewhat different take on Drupal and the whitehouse website check out this article on slate.com titled -

    Message Error: Why running the White House Web site on Drupal is a political disaster waiting to happen.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2233719

    • Andy Saltarelli

      Thanks, that’s a pretty bombastic article… sure, we can debate whether Drupal is the best open-source CMS, and I don’t know enough to weigh in on that. This certainly isn’t the first time that the government has used Drupal (as noted in the Slate article) so I would hope that they know some of what they’re getting themselves into. As well, this isn’t about cost-saving or trying to use the most efficient product. There is a veritable army of tech firms and high-priced programmers overseeing the project. As such, I’ll defer to this “army” and assume that they can work through the shortcomings of Drupal (and hopefully make it better).

  • http://mkoehler.educ.msu.edu Matthew Koehler

    I wonder if the white house drupal site will suffer the same problems mine have: constant attacks. Attempts to upload documents, account creation, comments with scripts, etc.

    Fun times!

    • Andy Saltarelli

      Unlike you, these people are getting paid handsomely (with our tax dollars) to deal with these headaches. :)

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