Connect also had many private sector contributors. All worked collaboratively under the Federal Health Architecture initiative overseen by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology at HHS.
Connect's open-source software is available to users for free and could foster the development of interoperable electronic health records among hospitals and systems. “A first project will be to expand the work of Connect to create a truly open community that uses open-source technology for health information exchange,” said David Riley, Alembic's co-founder, president and CEO.
But Alembic also has broader ambitions. “Agencies have projects that they want to make open source and don't know how to do that,” said Riley, a technology consultant who most recently served as overseer of Connect under contract with the Federal Health Architecture initiative. “The foundation will be tackling projects that will benefit from using open technologies to solve real-life challenges.”
Alembic was incorporated in February in Virginia and is based in Falls Church, but its formation and intentions weren't formally announced until last week. It has applied for IRS recognition as a public charity, according to Riley. Vanessa Manchester, program manager of Connect, is Alembic's chief operating officer.
Alembic will provide what Riley describes as a “nurturing” environment for Connect and these other projects. Its tasks will include taking care of important project functions such as handling software licensure; organizing and keeping track of participating open-source community members and their code contributions; and maintaining quality and software release control.
The total cost to the taxpayers of developing the Connect project thus far has been $26.7 million, according to Dr. Doug Fridsma, director of the Office of Standards and Interoperability at the ONC. Defense and national intelligence contractor Harris Corp. was the prime contactor on the Connect project.
In February, the VA published an official “request for information” on how it could continue development of its venerable VistA EHR system as an open-source project. Much of the VA's software is in the “public domain,” that is, it's free for downloading under the Freedom of Information Act; but the VA is not set up to accept software contributions from outsiders, which could be a key benefit of a switch to open-source development. Alembic responded to the VA's request-for-information request, Riley said, and if the VA follows up with a formal request for proposals, Alembic will provide one, he said.
Riley said he and Manchester are serving as unpaid “volunteers.” But, he added, “We have several people who have approached us about making donations early on.”
Thus far, Alembic and its founders have received praise and well wishes from veteran members of the open-source healthcare IT community.
Riley and fellow Alembic board members Brian Behlendorf and Jon Teichrow have “excellent street creds for open source,” according to Dr. Nancy Anthracite, president and chief medical officer of WorldVistA, a not-for-profit organization formed in 2002 to promote the use of a fully open-source version of the VA's VistA EHR system outside the VA.
Behlendorf was an adviser to the Connect project, co-founded and contributed to the Apache Software Foundation's Web-server project and currently serves on the Mozilla Foundation, developer of the popular, open-source Firefox Web browser. Teichrow is president of Mirth Corp., developers of an open-source “interoperability suite” used by Harris in its recent winning bid for the Florida statewide health information exchange project.
The increase in government interest in open-source projects “is a good sign,” said Dr. Robert Kolodner, chief health informatics officer for Open Health Tools, a not-for-profit business association also overseeing open-source health IT projects. Kolodner served as ONC head from mid-2006 to early 2009, and before that, worked 28 years at the VA, many of those in IT leadership.