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Help a US gov't agency switch to open source, win $3 million

Veterans Affairs holding contest to upgrade systems

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The US Department of Veterans Affairs is looking to upgrade the 25-year-old software that powers its nationwide health care system, and it's betting real money that open source is the way to do it.

To that end, the agency is sponsoring a contest in which three entrants will be awarded prizes of up to $3m each, provided they can demonstrate software based on open source code and open APIs (application programming interfaces) that can successfully replace components of the VA's current systems.

"This contest marks a major change in direction by VA, away from software that is so customized that only VA can use it, toward open standards and commercial systems that build on proven practices," Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.

The VA's current software, known as VistA, dates back to the 1970s, when it was first cobbled together by a group of programmers at VA hospitals over the agency's own objections. Only after its developers could show that VistA was demonstrably better than earlier systems was it formally adopted by the VA.

Today, VistA is still considered one of the health care industry's best electronic health record (EHR) systems. The fact that it powers the VA's 152 hospitals and 971 outpatient clinics – the largest health care network in the US – is testament to its quality.

But VistA is long in the tooth, and years of government bureaucracy have caused its development to stagnate. By reinventing VistA as community-maintained open source software, the VA hopes to gain the benefits of faster updates and higher-quality code, without all the red tape.

To facilitate its open source facelift, in August 2011 the VA joined with the Department of Defense to form the Open Source Electronic Health Record Agent (OSEHRA), a nonprofit organization with the goal of overseeing community-based development of VistA and its related components.

Work on VistA is still proceeding slowly, however, so the VA has launched a variety of initiatives aimed at drumming up more interest in the project – this $9m contest being the latest.

Specifically, the goal of the contest is to replace the VA's Medical Scheduling Package (MSP), which Veterans use to set appointments to receive outpatient and ambulatory care from the VA.

Replacing the component will be no simple matter. It is tightly integrated with other VistA components and shares data with as many as 160 applications, but as the contest rules state, "Any replacement product must not negatively impact any current applications that interface with the MSP or its data."

Under the terms of the contest, any open source code must be contributed to OSEHRA under the Apache 2.0 open source license.

Proprietary solutions are eligible for prizes in the contest, but the entrant must provide the VA with all licenses needed to test the software. If the software runs on Windows, the contest entrant must provide a valid, licensed copy of Windows to run it on. And as with open source solutions, all APIs must be fully open – no exceptions.

The contest is open only to citizens and permanent residents of the US and to organizations that are incorporated and maintain a primary place of business in the US. Entrants have until May 13 to register for the contest and they must submit their entries by June 13. The VA says it plans to announce the winners and award prizes on or around September 30.

While a $3m prize might be a lucky payday for an enterprising open source developer, however, it's chump change for an organization as large as the VA. As it happens, the VA scrapped an earlier attempt to replace the MSP on its own, but not before it had sunk $167m into the enterprise. If it can accomplish the task by doling out a mere $9m in prizes, it will be getting one hell of a bargain. ®

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