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About the Alternate Route™ Project


Richard Brice, P.E.
Software Applications Engineering
Washington State Department of Transportation, Bridge and Structures Office
October 1, 1999

When I began my bridge design career at WSDOT in 1990, I quickly realized that bridge engineering software wasn't nearly as good as it could be. The bridge engineering software that was available to me was based on the state-of-the-art in 1970. Every day, new computing technologies where being creating and bridge engineering software fell another step behind. I was convinced that something had to be done about the current state of bridge engineering software tools. 

At the 1991 Western Bridge Engineer's Seminar I saw a presentation where an old engineering program was updated for a modern windowing environment with a graphical user interface. The application was very elegant in comparison to the text-based software I was accustomed to. It was billed as the "state-of-the-art". Dialog boxes were accessed from drop down menus. Data was entered into the fields of the dialog. Options were selected with check boxes. Eventually, data was sent to the old engineering program for batch processing and you viewed the results with your favorite text editor. In some ways this was a dramatic improvement over text panel input and batch files, in other ways this was not an improvement at all. The "new and improved" program was nothing more than a fancy editor for a cryptic data file. The capabilities of the graphical environment were barely touched. The program did little to help the engineer focus on the engineering problem at hand.

I knew that modern engineering software should be much more than a pretty wrapper on an old tool. Ever since, it has been my personal goal to advance that state of practice of bridge engineering by striving to create truly great bridge engineering software tools.

What are we doing?

The WSDOT Bridge and Structures Office is developing bridge engineering software tools. We plan to create small OLE Automation compatible objects that perform discrete engineering calculations that can be called from spreadsheets, scripts, and full-scale applications. We plan to create stand-alone desktop applications that perform design and specification checking for a variety of bridge types. We plan to create integrated suites of bridge engineering software tools for "top of deck" to "tip of pile" analysis. The list goes on and on. We will do all of this work using Open Source Software concepts and all of the resulting software products will be Open Source.

Why are we doing this?

Things have changed; computers are more powerful than ever before, graphical user interfaces have improved, expectations have risen, and we have new bridge design specifications. Few bridge software applications are keeping up. Most of the bridge engineering software in existence today fails to meet our expectations. To make matters worse, many types bridge software tools simply do not exist yet. We are doing this because we need bridge engineering tools, and we want great bridge engineering tools.

Why Open Source?

There are several reasons why we are creating Open Source software. Most importantly, we want to make our contribution of software to the bridge engineering community in such a way that it is of maximum benefit to everyone. Even though WSDOT has been very generous with its software in the past by allowing anyone to use it free of charge, this isn't enough. If our software doesn't completely satisfy your needs, it is of limited use and, in the past, there has been little you could do about it. If you want to create new software you are unable to take advantage of any of our previous work. By sharing only the binary code, we have prevented the bridge engineering community from obtaining the maximum benefit. Our source code needs to be shared, but simply putting the source code into the public domain doesn't generate maximum benefit.

Public domain is a legal term meaning, "not copyrighted". Anyone can take public domain source code, change it, copyright it, and make it proprietary. From that point on the community does not derive a maximum benefit from that source code. Once the software becomes proprietary it cannot be freely distributed, used, or modified. Once the software becomes proprietary your freedom has been taken away.

Open Source Software is all about freedom. You have the freedom to run a program. You have the freedom to study how it works and adapt it to your needs. You have the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor. You have the freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public so that the whole community benefits. By copyrighting our software and distributing it with an open source license (a.k.a. Copylefting), these freedoms are preserved.

The Alternate Route Open Source License gives you the right to use, distribute, modify, and distribute modified versions of Alternate Route software provided you pass these rights along. Through the creation and use of Open Source Software, the bridge engineering community can build on its successes and work cooperatively to create the quality software that we all want to have. We can get a lot more done working together than working separately.

Why the Alternate Route Project?

In June 1999, I submitted a proposal to the management of the WSDOT Bridge and Structures Office to adopt a policy endorsing open source bridge engineering software. The proposal contained three elements, licensing our software as open source, preferring the use of open source software, and promoting open source software through the Alternate Route Project. (Click here to find out why I've chosen the name "Alternate Route")

We have made it our policy to create and use Open Source Bridge Engineering Software. All future software developed by the WSDOT Bridge and Structures Office will be licensed with the Alternate Route Open Source License. This policy extends to both software developed by our staff and software developed for us by our consultants.

Creating open source software is only one side of the coin. To encourage others to join us in our efforts, we have made it a policy to prefer open source software when selecting bridge engineering software products. Put simply, when selecting software packages for the design or analysis of bridges and structures, we will prefer open source products over closed source products.

The purpose of the Alternate Route Project is to serve as a focal point for the creation of Open Source Bridge Engineering Software. We will use this web site to promote open source software, provide information to end users, developers, and managers, and provide links to open source bridge engineering software and development projects. Even though the Alternate Route Project is created and managed by WSDOT, we view this project as an activity of the entire bridge engineering community (so please get involved and make a contribution).

Copyright 1999-2000, Washington State Department of Transportation