Meet the chap open-sourcing US govt code – Paul, an ex-Microsoft anti-piracy engineer

Starting with literally piles of crap (no, not the code)


Interview In the months ahead, Idaho National Laboratory aims to open-source software for analyzing the quality of cow manure.

"It runs a whole bunch of scenarios and numbers and determines what is the most profitable use of the manure that comes out of cows," explained Paul Berg, senior research and development software licensing manager at Idaho National Laboratory (INL).

Dairy farmers often sell their manure to fertilizer companies, but that may not be the most profitable arrangement. "From a carbon emissions standpoint, that's not the most optimal scenario, because cow manure as fertilizer is going to release that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere," Berg said.

"We can entrap that carbon dioxide if, for example, we use the manure for building materials, and there are certain types of manure with certain classifications ... that can be used for construction."

Berg intends to release a specific set of scripts that can determine whether a farmer's manure has the right stuff to be sold for a premium. It's one government-funded application among many that Berg, who spoke with The Register at the Open Source Leadership Summit, plans to return to US taxpayers.

Berg previously served as senior software engineer on Microsoft's Genuine Advantage anti-piracy project, where he learned the ins and outs of software licensing. He subsequently worked at Amazon, where he helped formulate the company's strategy for dealing with open-source software and for ensuring compliance with open-source licensing requirements – a significant legal risk when deep-pocketed Amazon makes an acquisition.

INL, part of the US Department of Energy, hired Berg in June last year to help it develop an open-source program similar to Amazon's – one that Berg hopes will be replicated across the federal government.

In 2014, INL had what Berg describes as an accidental success when it open sourced a physics simulation framework called MOOSE (multiphysics object oriented simulation environment). The software became a wildly successful project among scientists and engineers who need to run very realistic physics simulations, Berg said. He believes that MOOSE thrived because it was code of exceptional quality, offered at no cost.

"It was developed to be used for the design of nuclear reactors, which have very, very high legal standards set by the government," Berg explained. "...MOOSE meets those standards, but it's not just for nuclear reactors. It's used for gasoline engines and earthquake safety."

The manager of the project, Berg said, really wanted to release MOOSE as open source, but didn't know how to do so. As a result it took 18 months to traverse government bureaucracy and to obtain the necessary permissions. It's now available under the LGPL 2.1 license.

Looking ahead, INL wants to replicate that success, Berg said, because the lab is "in the business of maximizing the taxpayers' money for the most useful research and development that goes out."

Berg was brought in to develop a process for releasing the software the government creates, though not all of it can be released, owing to national security considerations, among other concerns.

Government labs also partner with companies that may want to partially fund research in exchange for exclusive rights to the research for a limited period of time. So software developed in support of that research may not be immediately available to the public.

For Berg, the challenge involves figuring out what to release and how to release it, because just dumping code online may not be the best strategy.

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