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The contributor's guide to 18F: code for the common good


Transparency in coding makes code more secure. Open source development is development in the light, sometimes a harsh light, that shows every blemish. At 18F we strongly believe this improves the rapidity of our coding and the quality and security of the code.

We keep the code open to each other, which allows us to quickly scrub in on projects and to dexterously apply the most talented resources to a problem without too much concern for who is formally working on or in charge of a given project. The code is also open to Federal employees from outside 18F and from other agencies. This means that they may both review the code, offers suggestions, and, in some cases, learn from and reuse the code. Just as we reuse open source code developed outside the government to save money for the US taxpayer, so too do we offer our code to be reused by our teammates, other agencies, other governmental bodies, or citizens and businesses.

The purpose of this guide is to provide some advice on that reuse and sharing, in hopes of fostering it.

Basic reuse

All our our code is published and released at under the organization 18F. There you can see all our public repositories (or “repos”). Using only a browser, you can look at any of the code in these repositories, or simply read about the projects. If you wish, you can “follow” a project from beginning to end. Since source code revision systems let you look back in time, you can see the complete history of changes leading up to the current state. Imagine being able to see every draft and edit of Shakespeare’s plays leading up to the publication of the First Folio.

One of the projects we are most proud of and which is highly reusable is FBOpen. FBOpen is a set of open source tools to help small businesses search for opportunities to work with the U.S. government. FBOpen presents an Application Programming Interface (API) to published Federal contracting opportunities, as well as implementing a beautiful graphical user interface to the same opportunities.

Anyone who wishes to may reuse this code to create their own website, free of charge and unencumbered by obligations. For example, a State could promote economic development within its borders by taking this code, making a slight modification to limit searches to their own State (you would have to be a software engineer to do this, but it is very easy) and then host “Federal Business Opportunities for the Lone Star State.” A business could also build a website using the FBOpen software and API, perhaps even making money by selling advertisements related to the content. The basic idea is that since the software is open source, anyone can use it to build a tool that suits their needs.

Sharing enhancements

Let us imagine that a business has installed FBOpen, changed the name and branding, and is making some money from ad revenue by target marketing to businesses interested in a particular kind of Federal contract, for example cement and concrete masonry. They’ve made some “masonry specific” changes to the code. In doing so, they realize that they have made the code more modular in some way, an improvement that can be shared back to the Federal Government.

Why would they take the time to share this back to the government, when they won’t get paid for it, and it costs them a small amount of time to do so? Beyond altruism, by doing so they keep their codebase as similar to the official Federal codebase as possible. In this way, when improvements to FBOpen are made by 18F, their software engineers can accept these changes with minimal effort. They may decide that they want to stay up-to-date with the FBOpen codebase, and manage only masonry-specific code extensions.

The mechanism for sharing this code back has been worked out and it is relatively simple, as software engineering goes. It is called a pull request, because it is a request or suggestion to the owner of the codebase to accept or “pull” the code change. It is a formal mechanism which makes crystal clear how the code is changing, which is of course critical. 18F will perform strict code review of all such pull requests, and may simply not accept them at all—not every idea is aligned with the codebase owner’s intentions. In general, however, we welcome such pull requests and enhancements. Just as we hope to create opportunities for American business, we can benefit from the creative output of the entrepreneurs and non-commercial software developers. The taxpayers deserve the least expensive, highest-quality software that we can deliver for their tax dollars.

18F is committed to making our code permissively reusable wherever possible. Work performed by Federal employees, such as the staff of 18F, is not subject to copyright and is in the public domain within the US. However, we use a copyright waiver for other jurisdictions to clarify matters and ensure unrestricted public use outside of the US.

Even though it is our intention to release all code permissively, you may find a derived work of someone else’s code in our repositories. In order to save the taxpayer money, we reuse work that others have created when possible. An example of such a file is which is part of the PriceHistory project which was begun by Presidential Innovation Fellows and is now maintained by 18F. This individual file is Copyright Jon Rifkin, 2011, and it was reused and modified as allowed by the Apache License 2.0 under which Mr. Rifkin released it. This file remains copyrighted by Jon Rifkin and covered by the Apache License 2.0.

Since similar situations may arise in any repository, check the individual README and LICENSE files for each project on GitHub for details specific to that project in order to reuse our code legally—which we strongly encourage!

Making contributions

GSA is not permitted to accept voluntary services or ask people to perform work on open source projects free of charge. However, since our open source software projects are available in public repositories for anyone to learn from or reuse, individuals may decide to improve the software for the benefit of others or offer suggestions to improve the code.

In general, individuals who choose to contribute to an open source project do so without the expectation of payment. There are a variety of reasons why software developers elect to contribute to any open source software project. The reasons include:

  • Desire to make an improvement to software that a programmer is using
  • Demonstrating one’s commitment, talent, and experience
  • Altruism

In the case of our repositories, there are several kinds of contributions:

  • Report bugs, ideas, requests for features by creating “Issues” at GitHub in our project repositories. An issue that begins “Have you thought of…” could save a project months of labor
  • Fork our code and play with it, whether you later choose to make a pull request or not
  • Create pull requests of changes that you think are laudatory. From typos to major design flaws, you will find a target-rich environment for improvements

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