August 19th, 2010

On open source and government: An accidental manifesto


On open source and government: An accidental manifesto

A number of us recently read the Willamette Week’s coverage of open source and the City of Portland’s engagement with the open source community. Seeing this type of coverage from a mainstream publication was a high watermark of sorts. A step forward. But how big of a step?

I asked Audrey Eschright, Open Source Bridge co-founder, the driving force behind Calagator, and local open source advocate, for her take on it—for more details on her position, more insight into her thinking. What she provided wound up being—by her own admission—an accidental manifesto on open source and municipal government.

And while she focused her response on Portland—”the city widely considered America’s open-source capital“—I believe her thoughts and insights have a much broader reach for the interaction of open source and government as a whole.

Her response is as follows:

It’s not about the work ethic.

Look at all of the side-projects going on, the things we accomplish beyond our regular work day. This isn’t a lazy community, but it’s important to understand that people may be motivated by different things, and have different ways of measuring success. There’s room for different approaches, as long as we recognize each others’ interests.

Change has to happen on multiple sides.

What happens when the complex processes of government meet the complex processes of open source? A whole lot of frustration and confusion on all sides. Bringing open source into government requires that we listen to each other, understand how each part works, and build new connections. At a recent OpenGovWest meetup, we discussed how most software developers don’t know how to get involved in government RFP processes, and how government technology decision-makers often don’t understand how open source works. We need to keep working on that gap.

It’s not (only) about the money.

This is good! We’ve shown we know how to build things of value to us, even with limited financial resources. We’re interested in how we can make our communities better. Look at Free Geek: they went from “how do we keep computer monitors out of the river?” to a being part of a state-wide electronic waste recycling program and putting computers and technical training into the hands of needy Portlanders, as a non-profit, collaborative enterprise.

It is about building something of value for all parties.

That’s really the key part. What succeeds does so because we share the benefit. Maybe what we’re after is better health care for all Oregonians, or maybe we’re just there to have fun, but we engage in these projects because we’re getting something out of it.

It is about recognizing our strengths and working with them.

Portland is Portland. Not San Francisco, not Seattle. This is our own city, with our own technology communities, and we need to build models for success in this environment.

It is about having a common goal.

How else are we going to work together? Let’s decide what we want to do and get moving on it.

That’s Audrey’s take on the open source community and its interactions with government and economic development in Portland. What’s your take? Agree? Disagree?

Let’s hear it.

(Image courtesy Selena Marie. Used under Creative Commons.)

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7 Responses to “On open source and government: An accidental manifesto”

  1. This is really excellent. Thank you to Audrey and Rick.

  2. [...] on around Portland’s technology sphere. The first was a guest post for Silicon Florist about bringing open source into government: A number of us recently read the Willamette Week’s coverage of open source and the City of [...]

  3. Amy Boynton says:

    All true, all issues/observations seem to signal good intent & offer opportunities to collaborate & innovate… but aside from the ?’s addressed, consider the following:
    When information = power, who gains power if your healthcare info is open-sourced? Info integral to one’s healthcare/medical records contains a singular & somewhat insidious risk to one’s personal and financial security… i.e. personal health info can influence and/or determine:
    • insurance rates
    • premium hikes for other ins. (auto, homeowners, life, etc)
    • eligibility issues
    • rescissions/denial of coverage
    • bankruptcies
    • consideration for job offers
    • credit ratings
    • loan approvals
    Since the current status of healthcare in the US = broken; I fear unintended consequences are sure to follow.

  4. Matt Nees says:

    The term ‘Open Source’ is related to the type of programming language used, NOT related to ‘Non – Secure.’ This is a common misunderstanding people and organizations have when it comes to development.

    If a development firm creates an application using an open source technology, it does not mean it is open to the rest of the world to see and change code. The company can productize their creation.

    Just a very short definition/explanation of Open Source. It is not synonymous with ‘Unsecure’.

  5. Wahoo! Thanks Audrey and Rick!

    Another conflation/source of confusion I frequently run into is “open government” vs. “open-source”. While used interchangeably, they are different things. Open-source, originally a modifier for “code” or “software”, has evolved into a noun (and verb) in its own right. Today, it signals: a method (of development), an approach to problem-solving, a business model (give away the content, make money on the services), and now sort of a culture – one that values transparency, openness, collaboration, shared knowledge, and the ability to innovate (or improve) in an iterative, cumulative kind of way.

    Why does this distinction matter?

    Any organization with any kind of culture can employ open-source software, but adopting the open-source ethos? That’s something altogether different. The distinction becomes fuzzier in a public-sector context because, well, it’s public: governments everywhere face thorny questions about what’s proprietary and what’s not. “Open-source” is an attractive tag because it makes people feel like their government favors nuance in data management, rather than a desire to turn it all over to a private sector firm that can then make proprietary claims over it (I’m exaggerating here to illustrate the point). Portland’s particular interest in anchoring an open-source technology community that does this sort of work (as an industry) makes the layers of distinction even more complex.

    I hope that:
    1. Portland is serious about open government, separate and apart from open-source software.
    2. Portland considers open-source software for all city applications, and employs it where it makes good sense to do so.
    3. Portland champions open source culture AND takes the open-source tech community seriously as an economic, social, and environmental asset – I trust the open-source tech community to prove its worth the effort 1,000 times over.

  6. Amy Boynton says:

    My concern is not that I equate “open source” with “non-secure”.

    I’m a longtime advocate of the open-source mindset… in my view, the “ethos” intrinsic to open-source has been instrumental in elevating the culture & values of both government and business.
    However, the PDX community has been at the forefront of this charge; not all business use of technology and information is either ethical or secure.

    As I understand the issue, the stimulus $$ has been designated to develop healthcare IT, which can streamline lots of things relative to healthcare. My concern is not about the work ethic, or the money, or change, or the community, or any misconceptions about open source.

    My fear is that “we-the-people” won’t have any control over who can access our information or recourse for how it can be used against us. The track record of the health insurance sector is a clarion call for caution in this regard.

    See the reports at justice.org for more info…
    http://www.justice.org/cps/rde/xchg/justice/hs.xsl/604.htm

  7. [...] some of the most interesting stories revolved around some of our more regular topics around here: open source and, well, [...]


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