A new software designed for the defense and intelligence community has an unlikely name in Clavin. It’s partly named for the know-it-all postal worker on the long-running TV sitcom “Cheers.”
But what makes Clavin — an acronym for Cartographic Location and Vicinity Indexer — more unusual, its founders and others say, is that it is open-source software. Its source code is available for free so that users can change and customize it.
In the government market, technologies have frequently been custom built and kept as proprietary software, so that the developer can ensure a long line of work upgrading and maintaining the system.
But Berico Technologies, the Reston-based contractor that designed Clavin, says it’s following a trend by producing open-source software, hoping to bring in revenue by customizing it and analyzing it for different customers.
For Steven Cubarney, Berico’s vice president for strategy, the idea that a company could make money from free software was a tough one to grasp.
But he came around.
“Customers [are] eager to get away from proprietary, shrink-wrapped products,” he said. “It’s a philosophy about technology.”
Clavin takes almost any kind of text — from articles, e-mails and even tweets — and analyzes it, seeking place names like London, New Delhi or Washington. It can then plot them on a map, creating geographic visualizations of the information.
To detect places, it primarily relies on syntax or grammatical structure like “I’m from Kansas,” “I just got back from Minneapolis” or “I visited Paris.”
Identifying places with similar names creates challenges. Charlie Greenbacker, who designed the program for Berico, described it as the “Springfield problem.” Is it Springfield, Mass.; Springfield, Va.; Springfield, Ill.; or Springfield, Ore.?
To determine which place is being referenced, Clavin uses context as one clue, as well as population size, assuming that Paris, France, for instance, is more discussed than Paris, Tex.
Clavin links the place name in the text with latitude and longitude coordinates, as well as population figures, country codes and more. The coordinates can then be mapped using Google Maps or another program, allowing users to quickly visualize the locations mentioned in a series of documents.
Although the program was designed for intelligence customers, Berico executives say they’re seeing interest from others. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Civic Media are using Clavin for a study on the geography of news coverage, according to Berico.
The timing may be right for more open-source technology as government leaders increasingly embrace the idea. Steven VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, said in an interview last month that open source is “both a mentality and a licensing model.”
The government is giving preference to nonproprietary formats because they fit better with its shift to more modular projects that are improved incrementally, he said.
Even more stalwart contractors are participating. Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, is in the process of upgrading a software infrastructure meant to allow government and military agencies as well as foreign allies to share information.
Jim Quinn, an executive in Lockheed’s information systems business, said the shift has required a mind-set change.
“A complete pendulum swing over to that full commercial model would be very difficult,” he said. But the open-source work Lockheed is doing for intelligence sharing “has been a thought leader for both us and the customer.”
Andy Goodson, Lockheed’s program manager for the software infrastructure, said the company has had to adapt the way it thinks about collecting money for its efforts since the open-source code generally offers free licenses.
According to Quinn, Lockheed is using a “sponsored development approach,” which allows customers to pay for product enhancements, and is also providing services such as integration and training.
“You have to have some faith” in the model, Goodson said. Lockheed hopes that making itself the expert behind the infrastructure will help it win associated work and improve its branding.
Open-source advocates say government adoption of the format is inevitable as younger generations, which have grown up using this type of technology, move into the workforce.
Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for the U.S. public sector at open-source software company Red Hat, said most of the past security and acquisition concerns have been overcome.
“Open source is really going to be where the most interesting technology problems are going to get solved,” he said. “I think we’ve gone past the tipping point.”