Every week newspapers and websites report that another city, country, or state has begun embracing open-source technologies in order to cut down on costs. The city of Los Angeles, California recently announced they would be moving to open-source applications in order to use the saved money to put more police officers on the street. Many small governments have chosen open-source applications to enhance their operations at a fraction of the cost of proprietary software.
However, what is often overlooked is the fact that while open-source is free to use, it was not free to develop. Each line of code took some person's time, ability, and money (utilities, computer, education) to write. Furthermore, support via bulletin boards, email, and websites requires a human being to read, understand, and respond. This again is free to recieve but was not free to give.
Many open-source developers, including myself, develope and support such applications for the personal joy and fullfillment (technical, communal, or otherwise) such work offers. There is, however, a cost to me for spending this time developing software. Depending on the license and terms, this software can even be incorporated into commercial applications. Other people will be making money on the work of open-source developers. And, at the least, the work will benefit citizens of many communities and nations.
For these reasons, I believe open-source development should be supported by the governments of these citizens and communities. Most nations have public institutions such as libraries, beaurocratic offices, justice systems, and transportation departments, all of which receive monetary and other support by the government for providing such services. Furthermore, incentive is often offered for volunteers of charitable organizations, fire departments, police stations, and community groups. There are already initiatives in progress to provide such support. Oregon is creating an Open Technology Center.
By supporting or incentivizing open-source development, governments would encourage more people to contribute and help out with work that will benefit the government both directly, and indirectly by helping other businesses and citizens. Furthermore, companies could also be offered incentives for open-sourcing and distributing applications back to the community. When companies do community service, sometimes it's good for employees to help weed the local park, but other times it may be more beneficial to the community to provide that crucial security patch to the world's most used, open-source, web-server.
Example benefits could include tax deductions similar to those given when citizens donate to a charitable organization. Others may include prefential pricing on hardware and software similar to that offered by government offices and military families.
There are many issues with governments supporting open-source applications. The first and foremost would be how to regulate who is eligible for receiving these benefits. Simple metrics like "lines of code written" or "emails sent" would not be useful or accurate. Perhaps the incentive would be pro-rated against some ranking of the developer within projects. There may need to be a larger organization that would maintain and distribute a developer's/supporter's contribution to viable open-source projects.
Open-source projects have provided immeasurable assistance and usefulness to citizens of all nations around the globe. Many members of these projects work hard to support the users and groups either for personal reasons, or because it is their paid-position. However, as more and more governments reap the benefits of open-source and free projects, they gain responsibility for supporting and encouraging these projects are started, continue to grow and to offer support to the citizens of their community.