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ARL Promotes Collaboration and Innovation Through Open-Source Policy


To increase collaboration and spur the best innovative ideas among federal and nonfederal research organizations, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) has developed an open-source policy for the sharing of software developed by ARL.

ARL's policy is a concrete implementation of the goals of the Federal Source Code Policy, which ensures that new custom-developed federal source code be made broadly available for reuse across the federal government.

In addition, the Federal Code Source Policy establishes a pilot program that requires agencies, when commissioning new custom software, to release at least 20 percent of new custom-developed code as open-source software for 3 years, and collect additional data concerning new custom software to inform metrics to gauge the performance of this pilot.

ARL's policy seeks to allow external researchers to analyze and verify software generated by the lab, reducing the barriers for others to join in on potentially groundbreaking research.

Examples of ARL software include intelligence and autonomy code for robots, simulation code, automation code for laser systems, and network analysis code.

The sharing of information occurs on GitHub, a social networking site focused on sharing code.

"Open source as a concept is useful to the government and the Army because it reduces costs, increases the speed of innovation, and improves security," said Cem Karan, an ARL computer engineer who, together with the lab's Office of Chief Counsel, has worked to bring this policy to fruition since October 2015.

According to Karan, ARL's open-source policy reduces costs because the burden of development is shared with many others, which in turn increases the speed of innovation as many people share, develop, and build upon each other's ideas rather than create duplicate code and improves security as numerous people are looking for and fixing bugs in parallel.

The policy also supports ARL's Open Campus initiative, a collaborative endeavor with the goal of building a science and technology ecosystem that will encourage groundbreaking advances in basic and applied research areas of relevance to the Army.

Through Open Campus, the global academic community, industry, small businesses and other government laboratories can collaborate with ARL's specialized research staff and unique technical facilities and capabilities. 

"It is increasingly important for ARL to work together with the wider research community to leverage their insights given the increasing pace of technological developments of importance to the Army," said ARL Deputy Chief Scientist Dr. Mary Harper. "By sharing the code we develop with the research community, ARL researchers will not only interest them in our Army-relevant research, but will also enable the outside community to more effectively engage with ARL in working collaboratively on problems of mutual interest."

To ensure that all legal and regulatory requirements were followed, ARL has addressed difficult questions concerning intellectual property—such as patents, copyright and trade secrets; questions concerning the Anti-Deficiency Act; and Army regulations regarding what types of material may be released.

The ARL policy was signed by ARL Acting Director Dr. Philip Perconti, and is available for viewing at https://github.com/USArmyResearchLab/ARL-Open-Source-Guidance-and-Instructions.

"This new policy will be significant for the laboratory in terms of collaboration as it pertains to code and software development," Perconti said. "The policy allows for collaboration between ARL and anyone in the world. Everyone can contribute, and is encouraged to do so."

Perconti added that ARL is committed to supporting the improvement of the way in which federal organizations buy, build and deliver information technology.

"If other agencies find that they can build upon and reuse our software while helping us maintain cost effectiveness and mission efficacy, we can consider this policy a true success," Perconti said.

ARL has high hopes for the policy and the potential that it fosters, and other organizations are taking notice.

As an example of its successful use, personnel from the U.S. Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) are evaluating ARL's policy to transition it to their organization.

TARDEC has already discovered, and is working to correct, flaws in ARL's Contributor License Agreement form. These fixes benefit ARL at no cost to ARL, and TARDEC has the ability to transition ARL's policy to TARDEC, bypassing the startup costs associated with developing a policy from scratch.

In all, ARL's open-source policy has created a community for researchers to not only work together to save time and money when it comes to developing software, it has created a platform for innovation through collaboration that can lead to custom software that has the potential to streamline how business and research are conducted inside and outside of the federal government.

To view this press release in its original format on the ARL website, visit http://www.arl.army.mil/www/default.cfm?article=2987.

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