GitHub: The Future of Collaboration in the Public Sector

GitHub is a digital project hosting web service primarily used for software development and built on the distributed version control system Git. GitHub augments the Git system by offering a web interface that includes social networking and project management features that enhance the capacity of users to work together, automates some functions normally controlled through command line entries, and provides a user experience designed to lower the technical barriers to entry for new users.

As of late 2014, there are approximately 8 million registered users working on over 17 million projects, making it the largest hosting platform of its type. As the number of users has grown, people have found innovative uses for the GitHub platform. In the future people will use the GitHub collaborative work environment for numerous types of projects beyond software development.

The Center for Policy Informatics at Arizona State University has experimented with and conducted research on the use of GitHub for other purposes beyond collaboration around software development, looking to cases where GitHub is being used to facilitate collaboration amongst a number of co-contributors to non-code outputs — documents written in text, rather than software written in code.

Novel Uses for GitHub

There are several interesting examples of novel GitHub uses. One case saw dozens of mathematicians rapidly complete a major book-length project. Another math project has attracted over 150 contributors. A Congressional candidate made his platform available on GitHub and invited constituents to comment and suggest edits to the documents. Some have used GitHub to collaboratively write legislation. An academic effort to co-create a literature review article presented an abstract and structure for the article, along with guidelines for contributing and a framework for evaluating contributions. A magazine article that profiled the GitHub corporate culture was posted to GitHub itself where readers were invited to improve the article and add translations.

The number of noncode projects is currently limited in number, but the successful projects that do exist should provide people with optimism about future efforts. GitHub is not the only platform currently available for organizational collaboration on text documents. Prominent examples include wikis, Google Docs, Dropbox, and SharePoint. GitHub has a steep technical learning curve and interface limitations. In addition, its original purpose as a software collaboration site makes it difficult to edit text documents.

Why GitHub is the Future

What distinguishes GitHub are its built-in social networking functions, back-end data capture and on-board reporting, and the principles of distributed version control and openness owing to the underlying Git architecture. It’s easy to tag a username in an issue or comment, and profile pages provide details on a user’s activity, allowing users to evaluate each other’s reputations and build a community of collaborators. Beyond the idea of social coding, the data capture and reporting features along with the open nature of distributed version control are the most exciting features of GitHub.

It is these features that provide the foundation for investigating what we think is an emerging new approach to collaboration in our governing institutions and governance settings. Attempts to integrate these new approaches will face barriers from prevailing cultural norms within institutions while at the same time disrupting those cultures. There are important similarities between GitHub and the introduction of the World Wide Web in government twenty years ago that ought to focus less attention on GitHub’s current deficiencies and more towards what its underlying features might mean for the future of governance and governing.

In future posts, we will describe how GitHub introduces a new structure and model to facilitate collaboration, one that if successful will disrupt prevailing cultures and hierarchies in government. We will also propose how lessons from the e-government past can help us understand where tools like GitHub may go in future.