White House's Open Source Plans Previewed at Drupal Meet-Up

The White House New Media gives a talk on their switch to Druapl

The White House New Media team broke its silence to the Drupal community at the DC Drupal Meet-Up on Monday evening by giving a brief talk providing some context on their switch to the Drupal content management system and broader efforts for having the US government openly participate in and help foster open source projects.

After the initial announcement of WhiteHouse.gov going Drupal, aside from a post from Dries, and a round of commentary and reactions summarized here, there hasn't been a lot of new public information about the White House's switch to Drupal and their future open source plans.

But that changed after Monday night when three members of the White House New Media team spoke at the Drupal meet-up in Washington, D.C.

What are the White House's future plans with open source?

The biggest news from the night was a few announcements about the White House's plans for engaging with open source development communities. Dave Cole, the White House Deputy Director for Technology, said that the White House New Media team has been working with the White House legal council to figure out how to participate and contribute code back into the Drupal community. They can't promise a timeline for when that'll happen since it's pretty unprecedented for the Executive Branch to be participating in an open source project and to be directly engaging the Drupal community.

They also want to start holding "Development Challenges" for the international Drupal community in order to help figure out some ways to take the best ideas that are already out there, and see how they can be used for the public good.

The White House New Media team is also looking to solidify all of this into an event coming up early next year. The specific details and timing is still uncertain, but they're looking to hold a "camp here in DC for open source developers to both collaborate on what public sector development should look like in open source as well as ways that people can engage with the White House" and specifically the Executive office of the President.

Sounds something like a "White House Open Source Drupal Camp" to me.

More details in video uploaded by Development Seed/> and other Drupal-specific highlights down below.

White House New Media Team on Using Drupal from Development Seed on Vimeo.


White House New Media Team Excited to be Leveraging Open Source

Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media, started off by expressing their excitement to moving to a content management system that will give them a lot more flexibility. They're interested in ways of using technology to help amplify the President's message, but also to open up the White House and work on pushing forward other transparency and open data efforts from the government perspective. They also want to help create opportunities for people to participate in government, and leverage the open source community and development towards that goal.

Then Dave Cole talked about why the White House changed their CMS platform, what they actually built, and where they're going next.

What was the White House's motivation to switch to open source?

Obama came into office using the previous CMS technology from an existing contract from the Bush era, but the White House New Media team was able to change the design and information architecture of that proprietary CMS. They continued to work on new projects and built out tools to expand functionality, but their moment of insight came after integrating the Google Moderator for their Open for Questions event.

They successfully integrated Google Moderator, but they saw a lot of opportunities to do a lot more if they were to collaborate with open source communities. They also realized that "it didn't make sense to reinvent the wheel every time" that they wanted to integrate collaborative crowdsourcing tools. And they seriously started to investigate open source alternatives to better leverage their time and resources.

Maintaining the Existing User Experience

Cole then gave the floor to Nick Lo Bue, the Creative Director, and he had the opportunity to say a few words about the goals of matching up the user experience of the original re-design within Drupal.

From a creative perspective, Lo Bue was pretty frank in expressing some of the challenges he faced by saying, "The best thing designer wants to hear is that there's no content management system. The second best thing that they want to hear is that it's a closed source content management system. And the worst thing you want to hear is that it's open source."

Apparently, the plug and play nature of open source created a lot of inconsistencies in the user experience, and Lo Bue said that they had to push their development partners hard to not abandon their commitment to the brand experience, findability and accessibility that they had already created. They clearly wanted to expand that initial experience from what was available from the proprietary CMS, but they had a good foundation and start that they wanted to properly translate to Drupal with enough diligence and attention to detail.

It'd be interesting to hear more from Lo Bue as far as whether Drupal was able to be flexible enough to be able to match all of their biggest user experience priorities, but that's about all he said on that front.

He moved on to talking about that there are many different Drupal modules that are available, but just because something is available doesn't mean it's the best option. They have a clear desire to call upon the community to get more feedback on different modules. They've been learning as they've been going on, and they intend to rely upon the community even more as time goes on.

Cole reiterated the importance of the creative vision for the success of the project and encouraged developers to collaborate with designers whenever possible.

Some Drupal Functionality on WhiteHouse.gov

The biggest functionality that the New Media team was looking for was dynamic and linked content and data. So both in terms of flexible ways of presenting and finding information, but a clear commitment towards being an early adopter and provider of semantically linked data.

One of the biggest improvements to the site was using Apache Solr as the search engine because it allows for content to be found in so many new ways. Their search used to just be a keyword search, but now they are getting a much more dynamic experience with faceted search. They're also looking for ways to expand that with customized search alerts that can be e-mailed out like Google Alerts.

They also have a lightweight implementation of RDFa in order to provide linked data with a lot of their primary source content, and have it exposed in that way. They're trying to reverse the trend of sending out data in the more locked-down format of PDF.

They also spent a lot of energy on figuring out how to have a collaborative development platform in order to incorporate a lot of different groups in the development of the project. According to the Tech President post, they had a lot of different partners involved with the development process including General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) as the prime contractor, and the subcontractors of Acquia, Phase2, Terremark Federal Group and Akamai as the CDN.

It sounds like the White House New Media team had to create a new collaborative infrastructure for all of these subcontractors in addition to their own in-house development team. And as with anything at this level of government, security was probably a primary concern and probably a reason why many of the involved development shops have been relatively quiet about their involvement.

The New Media team hopes to be talking more about their collaborative development platform in the coming weeks and months to come. But Cole said that there's a lot of rigidity when you have a site that needs to scale as much as whitehouse.gov, but they still really wanted to maintain an agile development cycle.

They're also really concerned about open collaboration tools, and they had already implemented comments, ranking, Facebook live chat, and were happy to see that a lot of these are already built within Drupal. So they're leveraging a lot of code that the community has already developed.

Where are they going next?

As mentioned in more detail above, Cole talked about how they're discussing with their legal council the logistics of contributing code back to the Drupal community. They're looking to start engaging open source developers more both with Development Challenges and plan on having an White House Open Source "camp" early next year focusing on how to best leverage open source software for the public good.


How much customization was done on the project?

Most of the functionality was already available from Drupal, and most of their custom development work was around scalability. They did a lot integration work with the Content Delivery Network that they're using (Akamai) in order to host national events, to provide an additional layer of security, and to be able to refresh pages automatically as users input new content.

How much time spent on project?

They didn't have a total number available, but Mason did say that Dave Cole spent a lot of time researching CMS options. He also said that most of the time was spent trying to figure out procurement logistics, security issues and the cultural issues of working with open source. What was really exciting was that the time spent was more about educating the right people and walking through the implications, rather than dealing with obstruction or obstinence.

What is your hosting strategy?

They have to be careful for how much they can reveal for security reasons, but Cole did say that "there are multiple instances of the site that are running in redundancy and synced with each other in different geographic locations." And in addition they have a CDN wrapper around that for global distribution.

What are the biggest features that you want to add next?

They have about a list of at least 60 feature requests for the project, but the number one issue is user account management and figuring out a user authentication system. This issue happens to have a lot of privacy implications, and it's not just matter of the technological implementation of user account management, but they're also considering the social media best practices of single sign-on and OpenID. They have to thinking about dealing with the range of users from skeptical to technologically immersive users.

Another feature is a way to save a search, and then send out e-mail alerts whenever new information appears containing that keyword search.

Overall, they have a lot of considerations to think about in order to things done, and they're hoping that this is showing people their commitment to where they want to go in terms of collaborating with the Drupal community and engaging other open source projects for the public good.

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